I distinctly remember the first time I made toast for myself. At three years old I found myself alone in the kitchen, so I climbed up on the counter, stuck some bread in the toaster, and buttered it up with an entire stick of butter. Biting into the inch-thick spread, I had a feeling I hadn’t quite prepared my snack correctly, but I proudly ate it anyway.
That early enthusiasm for butter waned over the years, and these days you can find me in the kitchen pouring copious amounts of olive oil onto my toast, or onto just about anything else I’m cooking up. Since starting out with Idyll, the more I learn about and taste extra virgin olive oil, the more I love it and the more uses I find for it. One particular use that we encourage is olive oil as a replacement for dairy-based butter, for a number of reasons.
On a personal level, I stopped eating dairy products a few years ago - but this personal choice was a result of more collective concerns. My switch to a plant-based diet was based on an understanding of the negative environmental impacts of animal agriculture. Large-scale animal agriculture is a major driver of water and land use, air and water pollution, and carbon and methane emissions, which directly contribute to climate change. The story is far more complex than just the carbon footprint, but this chart is helpful in understanding the basic impact:
Cutting back on or cutting out animal products is one of the simplest and most effective ways an individual can reduce his or her environmental footprint. Of course, it may not be feasible, necessary, or even advisable for everyone everywhere to make that switch, but being conscious of the impact of our foods and taking steps towards reducing that impact can make a huge difference.
Regardless of my reasons for ending my butter consumption, I had to find ways to replace it in my diet. For a while, on the occasions that I needed butter I would use the plant-based butter substitutes you can find in supermarket refrigerators, but I soon decided that not only did I not need an exact substitute, I also didn’t want to use processed products with long lists of ingredients. Enter olive oil.
Olive oil has proven to be a more than adequate replacement fat for butter - because we do need fat, despite its bad reputation. In recent years experts have come around on the question of fats and there has been a general decline in the popularity of “fat free” and “low fat” diets. Not all fats are created equal, and they are essential for energy, cell growth, and nutrient absorption, among other bodily functions.
When it comes to fats, besides being better for the environment than butter, olive oil also happens to be better for your health. Doctors recommend the Mediterranean diet as a healthy lifestyle choice in large part because of the nutritional characteristics of olive oil; throughout the millennia, medical experts from Hippocrates to Dr. Oz have extolled the health benefits of this golden liquid.
We’ll get more into all of these benefits in another post, but with regard to butter vs. olive oil, if you’ve walked through the supermarket you’ve probably seen some version of the label that “Eating 2 tablespoons of olive oil per day (when replacing an equal amount of saturated fats) may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.” The Food and Drug Administration permitted this claim on labeling in 2004, because olive oil contains a high percentage of monounsaturated fats, especially compared to butter, which has a saturated fat content that can raise cholesterol levels.
One of the longest-running and comprehensive studies on this subject was published this month; researchers from the TH Chan School of Public Health at Harvard followed 126,000 people in the United States for three decades and found the following:
Replacing 5% of calories from saturated fats like butter with polyunsaturated fats like olive oil was associated with a 27% lower risk of early death.
Substituting saturated fats with unsaturated fats was linked to a lower risk of death from cancer, respiratory disease, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
So it makes sense to substitute olive oil for butter when possible. Of course, olive oil won’t work in every situation; it might not be the perfect choice for a recipe that requires a neutral flavor, or one that needs butter to be aerated, like in a buttercream frosting. Some recipes are surprisingly adaptable to oil though, like this one for a delicious olive oil pie crust. And it’s an easy replacement for pairing with bread, greasing pans, and making baked goods like biscotti and muffins. It has been noted that extra virgin olive oil can even extend the shelf life of baked goods compared to butter because of its high antioxidant content.
Olive oil imparts a moistness and delicate depth of flavor that will add a layer of complexity to your foods. Another trick is freezing olive oil in an ice tray or other container for a firm spread that you can use in place of butter. I have a feeling my three-year-old self would have been a bit less heavy-handed with the spread if I were using a frozen block of olive oil instead of a stick of butter...
How do you like to use olive oil? Have you adapted any recipes to use it in place of butter? Let us know in the comments below, or show/tell us on social media @idyllfoods