If you've ever dabbled in a vegan diet or needed a dairy-free butter substitute, you know the wonders of vegan butter. It looks like butter, smells like butter, and even behaves like butter in most recipes, but vegan butter is definitely not butter. So what is vegan butter? And how does something that's totally dairy-free taste like it's straight from a cow? It turns out that vegan butter is actually a type of margarine, the imitation butter spread that your grandmother might've used. (Mine certainly did.) While butter is made from churning cream from a cow, margarine is made by mixing vegetable oils with water, salt, and emulsifiers until it's got the consistency of butter.
Not all margarine is vegan, though. According to the US Department of Agriculture, in the United States, margarine must be at least 80 percent fat—but it can also include some milk and still be called margarine. Vegan butter therefore is a type of dairy-free margarine that's got all of the fat with none of the milk. One of the most popular brands of vegan butter is Earth Balance, which says it's vegan right on the packaging. But there are some brands of margarine that are dairy-free and therefore vegan without explicitly labeling themselves as such; Smart Balance Original Buttery Spread, for instance, is dairy-free albeit not marked vegan.
The best way to tell what if the margarine you're buying is dairy-free or not is to read the label, and because each type of vegan butter has a slightly different blend of vegetable oils, some are better for baking than others. That'll be noted on the label, too.
If you're feeling daring, or have some extra time on your hands, you can also try to make vegan butter at home by mixing your own proprietary blend of vegetable oils. However, it probably won't have the same buttery flavor as some of these commercially available vegan butters. That's because the store-bought options tend to have the addition of a some kind of natural flavoring or, as Nutiva, a vegan food company, calls it, a "vegan buttery flavor." This so-called buttery flavor can be either a blend of plant ingredients or a chemical that smells like butter; you should read the label to figure that out, too.