By Andreas Viestad
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; 12:34 PM
There is something about the word "margarine" that does not go down so well in polite society. The last time I served margarine, at an otherwise ambitious dinner with grilled langoustine and expensive wine, I found myself having to explain the presence of such a modest and much-mocked ingredient at such an immodest occasion.
The short explanation is this: I made the margarine myself, flavoring it with coconut, lime, turmeric, ginger and a little bit of chili pepper. The margarine was no less worthy than the wine and the shellfish.
Margarine is perhaps the first "scientific" food, devised by a chemist in a laboratory, not by a chef in a kitchen. Today, a great number of the things we eat are manipulated so that they bear little or no resemblance to their "natural" self.
In 1869, when the emperor Napoleon III called for researchers to use their skills to "discover a product suitable to replace butter for the navy and the less prosperous classes of society," there were no such products on the market. The call was answered and a prize awarded to the wonderfully named French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, who had developed a way to mix beef tallow and skim milk so that the result bore more than a vague resemblance to butter.
It kept well and could be used both as a spread and for frying. A simple emulsion of fat, water and solids; a giant leap for mankind.
Since then, margarine has become a staple in kitchens all over the world. Today, Americans use about twice as much margarine as butter. (In margarine's best years, after World War II, it was about four times as much.)
Margarine is an everyday ingredient, so modest and unassuming that it is sometimes accused of being bland. But it has been controversial. Margarine wars have been fought quietly, using smart tricks and legislation. Chefs tend to frown upon it. Dairy farmers dislike the competition it offers. Consumers like how it spreads more willingly than butter when taken straight out of the refrigerator. Nutritionists appreciate its unsaturated fatty acids.
A number of changes have been made to the formula since 1869. Most important has been the substitution of vegetable fats for beef tallow, first by using palm and coconut fats; later, methods were developed to harden vegetable oils. (The process created trans fatty acids, still present in some brands of margarine but not an issue for homemade versions.) A number of other innovations have been introduced to improve taste, durability or profitability.
Even its color has been a matter of contention. In its most natural form, margarine is pale yellow - almost white - and that is something consumers dislike. To make the product look more appealing, more like butter, manufacturers have added colorants such as beta carotene: first from carrots, later synthetic. Some jurisdictions, particularly those with a significant dairy industry to protect, passed laws against that practice. Wisconsin banned yellow margarine until 1967. The Canadian province of Quebec didn't repeal its law regulating the color of margarine until 2008.
Regardless of the twists and turns of production, the basic process and the science behind it are the same as in 1869. The only formal requirement of margarine is that it, like butter, should consist of 80 to 85 percent fat, the rest being water and solids, and that it should be solid or semi-solid at room temperature.
Apart from that, it is a blank canvas. Or, if you see it another way: It is open to interpretation.
You would think that such a universal idea would invite experimentation, with the use of different fats, flavors and colors. But no. Nearly a century and a half after its invention, margarine is still the exclusive domain of the food industry. Not even chefs make margarine. Although more and more of them spend time investigating the confluence of science and cooking, I have never seen a restaurant menu with "homemade margarine" listed.
When I make my own margarine, I try to ensure that it makes a strong statement. It doesn't have to taste or look like butter.
The first challenge is texture. I have no intent, desire or capacity to harden fat, so I use a combination of solidified coconut fat (which is considered hard because it consists mainly of saturated fat) and sunflower oil (or any other neutrally flavored oil). Instead of mixing this with water or nonfat milk - the latter traditionally is used to give margarine a buttery flavor - I use coconut milk, which lends a hint of sweetness. To emulsify this mixture I add Dijon mustard, which is not as efficient as pure lecithin but good enough to help form a stable emulsion. The mixture must be heated and stirred, then cooled and stirred. The process takes a little time, but it is by no means as nerve-racking as making hollandaise sauce; a few degrees off will not ruin everything. I flavor this silky, soft margarine with spices and a bit of lime for a touch of acidity.
Flavor possibilities are limitless. Why not use beet juice to create a shockingly red or pink mixture, or use duck fat, stock and cooking juices for a delicious, albeit not very healthful, spread that will make even the palest piece of cardboard chicken taste rich and interesting? By mixing the fat with lots of fresh herbs and using a generous amount of lemon juice and zest, I get a greenish, fresh-tasting, herby margarine that is great as a sandwich spread and also works well with fish and chicken.
Because the formal requirements are so few, homemade margarine, more than any other such spread I know, is the perfect medium for other flavors.Recipes
Viestad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.