Around the world, people have been using butter and olive oil to prepare and serve their meals for ages. Yet they aren’t always as interchangeable as you may think.
Ever since humankind stepped from the wild grasslands of hunting and gathering into kitchens with pots and pans, we’ve been left with the question — which is better for cooking, butter or olive oil?
For centuries, people have used both butter and olive oil for cooking, baking, and even, in the case of olive oil, in health and beauty applications like moisturizing skin. Devotees on both sides of the debate are split — some prefer the health benefits of olive oil over butter, while others, especially fans of the ketogenic diet, swear by butter’s calcium-rich, creamy taste.
Which you choose — olive oil or butter — depends on what you’re doing in the kitchen! Butter is commonly used in baking, while olive oil offers more culinary versatility and does come with more nutritional benefits.
This article will share some tips for when it’s best to use these two storied rivals in the kitchen, in addition to answering some frequently asked questions. Is olive oil healthier than butter? What is the smoke point of butter vs. olive oil?
We’ll start things off by looking at what each of these foods is made of, respectively, and covering primary uses.
What’s in Butter?
Butter is made by churning milk (or cream) until the butterfat separates from the liquids into the creamy, semi-solid substance we’re so familiar with. It’s traditionally made from cow’s milk, though it can also be produced from other animal milks, and non-dairy ingredients like coconut oil or other plant-derived oils in the case of vegan butter.
Manufacturers may add salt or flavorings depending on the specific product once the butter has been churned and spun into its iconic form as a block or in sticks. In most cases, butter is made, simply enough, of milk fat (about 80%) and then water and milk solids.
Types of Butter
While you can get all types of butter spreads (and no, margarine isn’t butter) at the store, we’ll stick to the basics here. Plus, most of the fancy kinds of butter with added flavors or those sold as a whip are, essentially, just variations on your classic unsalted butter.
- Unsalted Butter – Butter at its simplest. There’s no added salt or flavor, only the butter made from a type of cream. Sometimes a natural color or preservative is added to extend freshness and guarantee consistency, though not always.
- Salted Butter – The added salt in salted butter makes for a great all-around butter when preparing savory meals like roasted vegetables, broiled salmon, or pasta. It’s also great on toast and pancakes as a flavorful spread.
- Clarified Butter – Also known as ghee, clarified butter is made by melting cow’s milk butter to remove the milk solids and water, and then straining it through a cheesecloth. It has a darker gold color, a longer shelf-life, and a higher smoke point. The taste is richer and a little nutty.
- Grass-Fed Butter – It’s just like salted or unsalted butter, except it comes from cows grazing primarily on grasses in a pasture, rather than those eating grains. Grass-fed butter is generally higher in omega-3s and contains more nutrients. The taste is also richer and makes for a great cup of ketogenic coffee.
In general, butter is a good choice for cooking, baking, or as a spread for muffins, bagels; you name it. It’s also more cost-effective compared to olive oil, though it won’t be as nutritious.
What’s in Olive Oil?
Olive oil is a centuries-old culinary and wellness product made from the oil extracted from the fruit of olive trees. It’s generally made by grinding then crushing up harvested olives, pressing them to extract the oil, decanting (or separating) the oil, and then bottling it.
Refined olive oil will be heated to remove any impurities or defects in flavor, while unrefined olive oil is left untreated or heated. The color of olive oil is usually somewhere between a light gold and a rich green, depending on the olives’ level of processing and ripeness.
Types of Olive Oil
We’ve all been there. Standing in the grocery aisle, trying to choose between shelves full of different types of olive oil.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the different types of olive oil:
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO) – The highest grade olive oil. It’s made from cold-pressed olives, the oil of which is then separated, filtered, and bottled. EVOO is never in contact with heat or chemicals, making for a pure and aromatic oil perfect dressing salads or dishes designed to delight the taste buds.
- Virgin Olive Oil – It’s very similar to EVOO in how it’s made. The primary difference is the free acidity levels are allowed to be up to 1.5%, compared to only 0.8% for EVOO, as defined by the International Olive Council.
- Regular Olive Oil – Also called pure olive oil, this type of olive oil undergoes more processing than the virgin or extra virgin counterparts. It’s a blend of refined (heat-processed) olive oil and virgin olive oil. It’s lighter in color and has a less robust taste, making it a good middle-of-the-road choice for cooking when the olive taste isn’t as important.
- Light or Extra Light Olive Oil – Similar to regular olive oil, it’s made with a blend of unrefined and refined olive oil treated with heat and chemicals to remove any flavor defects. The color is light honey-gold. It’s usually the cheapest option amongst olive oils, as it’s undergone the most processing and hasn’t been as rigorously tested for its flavor profiles as compared to EVOO.
Olive oil is an excellent choice for stir-frying on low to medium heat, in recipes for dressings or glazes, and in foods that can benefit from the hearty and subtle taste. Which you choose depends on your specific culinary demands. People also enjoy using olive oil spray for quickly coating the bottom of a pan before adding in the rest of their ingredients.
Nutritional Differences Between Butter & Olive Oil
Both butter and olive oil are made primarily of fats, a type of lipid, which are organic compounds providing essential macronutrients that give us energy upon consumption. Lipids are important because, in addition to providing concentrated energy (especially beneficial for endurance athletes), they help your body absorb vitamins, form cell membranes, and also maintain hair and skin health.
As you may know, within fats, there are the “good” fats (unsaturated) and then the “bad” fats (saturated and trans fats). Unsaturated fats can lower your risk of disease and help stabilize your cholesterol, while saturated and trans fats raise your bad cholesterol levels and may increase your risk of heart disease.
In a nutshell, butter is much higher in saturated fats than olive oil, made of 63% saturated fat as compared to approximately 14% for olive oil. As olive oil is also high in vitamins E and K, beneficial fatty acids, and antioxidants that help reduce inflammation, olive oil is considered to be healthier than butter.
But it’s not all about the fats! While people should limit their intake of saturated fats, butter does contain significant amounts of calcium and vitamin D, both of which are essential for the strength and development of bones.
Butter Nutrition Facts
While butter might not be the healthiest thing in the world to consume, in moderation there’s no need to worry, provided you aren’t facing any health issues or complications. If you choose grass-fed butter, you’ll also get a decent amount of vitamin A, beta carotene, omega-3s, and vitamin K2.
Here’s a quick breakdown of the nutritional facts for one tablespoon of unsalted butter, with information coming from the USDA:
- Calories: 100
- Total fat: 11g
- Saturated Fat: 7g
- Trans Fat: 0.5g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 0g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 0g
- Cholesterol: 30mg
- Sodium: 0mg
- Total Carbohydrates: 0g
- Sugars: 0g
- Fiber: 0g
- Protein: 0g
Olive Oil Nutrition Facts
As mentioned, olive oil has more health benefits than butter. Different types of olive oil will vary slightly in their macronutrients, as with different types of butter, though the variation won’t be huge. Extra virgin olive oil, for example, retains more of its antioxidants and nutrients compared to light olive oil that is more thoroughly processed.
Here’s a breakdown of nutritional facts for Public Goods’ organic extra virgin olive oil:
- Calories: 123
- Total Fat: 14g
- Saturated Fat: 2g
- Trans Fat: 0g
- Polyunsaturated Fat: 2g
- Monounsaturated Fat: 10g
- Cholesterol: 0mg
- Sodium: 0mg
- Total Carbohydrates: 0g
- Sugars: 0g
- Fiber: 0g
- Protein: 0g
Cooking with Butter vs. Cooking with Olive Oil
There are two primary things to consider in cooking with olive oil vs. butter — flavor and smoke point. You’ll also want to ensure that whichever you’re using fits with the recipe. You may love the taste of salted butter, but that doesn’t mean it will be a good choice for making a balsamic vinaigrette!
The Taste of Butter
While butter and olive oil are interchangeable in some instances, as in flavoring cooked pasta, there are times when you’ll want to go for the butter instead. (After all, no one calls it oiling their toast, right?)
Butter’s rich and creamy flavor, slightly nutty when browned, makes butter a good choice over olive oil for cooking eggs, caramelizing onions, and when finishing a cut of meat such as steak or on top of seafood. It’s also great to spread on top of toast, bagels, warm pastries, and pancakes with a little fresh fruit.
The Taste of Olive Oil
The nuances of olive oil’s flavor will vary depending on how it was processed, the ripeness of the olives, and its geographic source. Lighter olive oils will have a more neutral or dull flavor, akin to vegetable oil but with a hint of that characteristic olive flavor; while extra virgin olive oil has a vibrant, almost peppery and grassy, slightly sweet flavor.
Olive oil is good for sautés, in salad dressings, and in rare baking occasions when the recipe calls for it. Aficionados of Italian food may also enjoy dipping their bread in a little olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Consider the Smoke Point
Smoke point refers to the temperature at which an oil begins to smoke and break down. It’s not a good idea to heat oils past their smoke point as they’ll release unpleasant, harmful substances such as acrolein which give food a burnt, acrid flavor.
In terms of the smoke point of butter vs. olive oil, butter’s smoke point is around 350°F, meaning it’s not the best choice for cooking that requires high heat. Clarified butter, however, is stabler at high heat and has a smoke point of 450°F.
Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of 350°F, compared to light or extra light olive oil which has a smoke point of around 470°F. Note that these numbers are estimates and will vary depending on the particular oil or butter you’re using.
For higher heat cooking, you can also go with something like avocado oil, which has a smoke point of 520°F, or a less healthy but still viable oil such as peanut or sunflower.
Looking for some recipe ideas now that you’re armed with the ins and outs of when to use butter vs. olive oil?
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