In 1869, French military and political leader Napoleon Bonaparte ordered a research chemist to come up with a replacement for butter that would be less expensive to produce. The result, called margarine, came as close to butter as any product could by accurately replicating its fat-to-water content using animal and vegetable fats. To qualify as margarine today, the product must be composed of 80 percent fat and 20 percent water. In that form, it can be used as a substitute in recipes for dumplings without significantly altering their flavor or texture.
Dumpling generally refers to the soft biscuitlike dough made from flour and milk that is dropped onto boiling stew or soup during the last stages of cooking. Another version involves rolling out the dough thinly and cutting it into squares that are dropped on top of the hot liquid. In either case, the basic dumpling mixture calls for some type of fat to bind the dry ingredients together and make them expand during cooking. Many recipes call for butter, which can easily be replaced with an equal amount of stick margarine.
Making dumplings is a lot like making biscuits. The cold butter or margarine is cut or blended into a mixture of flour and salt then moistened with a liquid, usually milk. The resulting soft dough can then be easily dropped by the spoonful onto a pot of simmering chicken stew or soup that is covered to trap the hot steam inside. This action cooks the dumplings from the top while the hot stock cooks them from the bottom. They take about 20 minutes to cook, during which they double in size and absorb the flavors of the meat, vegetables and broth.
When replacing the butter in dumpling dough with margarine, use a 1-to-1 ratio, meaning you should replace the amount of butter called for in the recipe with the exact same amount of margarine. Use real margarine, as many of today's blends fall far below the 80-to-20 percent fat-to-water ratio of solid margarine, and this extra liquid may throw the dumpling recipe off. You may be able to find a dumpling recipe that calls for tub margarine.
All About Fats
Beyond using butter or margarine to make dumplings, some recipes call for other types of fats. This can be a small amount of the broth used to make the soup or stew that the dumplings will cook in, vegetable oil, drippings leftover from cooked meat, lard, shortening, eggs or cream. In all cases, the fat binds the dry ingredients together and creates heat from within the dough to help it expand.
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Rachel Lovejoy has been writing professionally since 1990 and currently writes a weekly column entitled "From the Urban Wilderness" for the Journal Tribune in Biddeford, Maine, as well as short novellas for Amazon Kindle. Lovejoy graduated from the University of Southern Maine in 1996 with a Bachelor of Arts in English.