The elusive vegan brown butter - can it be done?
January 2, 2008 1:48 PM   Subscribe

Can you brown dairy-free margarine for recipes that call for brown butter? How do you do it?

I usually use Nucoa or Earth Balance margarine to veganize recipes. Has anyone had any luck browning this stuff? If so, how?

Here's an example of a recipe that I know I can veganize--except the pesky brown butter.

(Bonus question: Any hope of a vegan ghee or clarified butter? I've never thought so but maybe someone knows. For vegan cooks, do you just sub with margarine?)
posted by faunafrailty to Food & Drink (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
For ghee or clarified butter, substitute a neutral-flavored oil.
posted by redfoxtail at 1:55 PM on January 2, 2008

The browning of butter comes from cooking/browning the protein solids of milk/butter. To my knowledge magarine does not contain any protein only an oil-water combination. You could try some additions to mimic the flavor of browned butter, a small amount of soy sauce and a little balsamic vinegar could work well for savory dishes esp. if you are making a brown butter sauce for filled pasta.
posted by estronaut at 1:56 PM on January 2, 2008

I made "brown butter" out of some soy margarine to use for vegan-friendly spoon cookies last Christmas. I treated it the way I'd treat butter: small saucepan, moderate heat, let it hang out for a while. I don't know what browned (as estronaut points out, you'd think it wouldn't work very well because of the lack of dairy, but something happened.)

The taste was... okay. However, I wouldn't use it in a recipe such as the one you linked to, personally. In baked goods, with all the other stuff going on, it was acceptable. In a recipe where the brown butter is one of the main flavor notes, I think it would be... kind of not so great. I would probably just use good olive oil.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 1:57 PM on January 2, 2008

I would think that the addition of nutritional yeast to melted margarine would add the nutty/browned flavor you're looking for. No idea on the proportions, but you'd probably want to add little at a time to the melted margarine and increase until it tastes right.
posted by togdon at 2:22 PM on January 2, 2008

estronaut: The browning of butter comes from cooking/browning the protein solids of milk/butter. To my knowledge magarine does not contain any protein only an oil-water combination.

(For the record, Estronaut, most supermarket margarine contains whey. So it's more often than not, not vegan.)

posted by loiseau at 3:32 PM on January 2, 2008

Thank you all for your help. I think I'll try both the soy sauce/balsamic suggestion and the nutritional yeast suggestion.

And just to clarify the above, regarding whey in margarine, that's why I solely use Nucoa or Earth Balance, which are vegan.
posted by faunafrailty at 4:56 PM on January 2, 2008

Earth Balance does not have lactose(milk sugar) in it, but it does have sugar. This does carmelize and develop roasty notes via the oft-cited Maillard reaction. I used to fry blintzes in it all the time, and the copious amounts of melted spread certainly did darken and give a buttery fried salty taste to the blintzes, which is what you want it to do with your pasta.

I would depend more on common sense than traditional "butter browning." It sounds like the butter cooking stage in the fettuccine with brown butter is partly just to release the essential oils in the sage and to infuse the fat with sage flavor. Cook it until it is hot and bubbly and your sage seems fragrant, but don't wait for it it burn dark brown. It will still give a tasty buttery taste to your pasta.

Hint: bread crumbs fried in olive oil or earth balance make a great pasta sprinkle; even non-vegan Italians use them as an alternative to parmigiana.
posted by Juliet Banana at 5:04 PM on January 2, 2008

Bonus answer: Vegetable Ghee is available (at least in the UK) -- it's basically hydrogenated vegetable oil (palm) though, so its not the healthiest of substances. I always use olive oil in Indian cooking and it comes out just fine.
posted by tallus at 5:37 AM on January 3, 2008

There really isn't anything that you can substitute for browned butter and get a similar taste; browned butter has a very complex earthy flavor that you just can't get without those yummy milk solids.

However, most people make browned butter wrong anyway and basically just get melted butter. The fettuchine with brown butter recipe you cite? Yeah, that's one of those "wrong" situations again: 6 minutes simply isn't enough time to properly brown butter (in fact, looks like that recipe really is making clarified butter -- butter with the water boiled off and solids strained out). Proper browned butter takes on the order of half an hour over extremely low heat, so most recipe writers assume that home cooks won't want to bother.

So all that to say: in that particular recipe, you can replace the butter with any oil you like. Me, I'd use extra virgin olive oil and do the bread crumb trick that Juliet Banana suggests. You'll likely find that olive oil will similarly fit into any recipe calling for clarified butter.

Ghee, however, is much more difficult: ghee is butter that's been both browned and clarified, and tends to be browned even more than in western recipes. I'd veganize Indian dishes calling for ghee by using oil with a bit of Garam Masala thrown in for the complexity; it won't be quite the same, but you'll get something interesting, at least.
posted by jacobian at 8:38 AM on January 3, 2008

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