You know better than to leave your milk out of the refrigerator; just a few hours is all it takes to spoil. But what about butter—does leaving it out of the fridge make it go rancid? It’s made from milk, after all, and it’s technically a dairy product. Problem is, chilled butter is essentially useless in the kitchen—unless you’re baking scones or pie crust—and leaving butter out at room temperature is an age-old way to keep butter soft and on-hand when you need it. How safe is it to leave your butter on the countertop?
Butter is indeed a dairy product, but it contains a low water content (as it’s mostly fat) and also has a relatively high amount of salt added—these two factors are both on the side of preventing butter from spoiling rapidly. In addition, most butter is made from pasteurized milk, a process that limits the chances of rapid bacterial growth and rancidity taking over.
Normally, a stick of refrigerated butter will last several weeks in the fridge, and even longer in the freezer. But, a solid stick of cold, unyielding fat doesn’t really do any good in the kitchen, so many cooks—especially those of European upbringing—prefer to keep their butter on the countertop so that it’s always soft and ready to use.
And keeping your butter on the countertop is indeed the trick to keeping it soft. Butter softens around 60°F, much higher than the 35-38°F range inside refrigerators. Even supposed “butter compartments” of fridges leave your butter so cold that it’s rock-hard when you need it.
In order to soften chilled butter, you need to remove it from the fridge and leave it at room temperature anywhere from 30-45 minutes. To speed up the process, you can slice the portion you want away from the entire butter stick, and leave out only that portion on the countertop to soften.
But how safe is it to leave your butter out of the fridge all the time? Depends on who you ask. Most commercial butter companies advise consumers to keep their butter refrigerated at all times to avoid safety concerns or the potential of spoiling, but they’ll also tell you that unopened pads of butter may remain unrefrigerated for a short period of time. What exactly constitutes a “short period of time” is a difficult thing to pin down from these consumer sites.
Of course, the biggest culprit in making your butter go rancid (or at least “unfresh”) is air. To combat this, a number of butter keepers are on the market, made specifically to keep your butter in a tiny, airtight container on the countertop. Butter keepers range from the cheaper glass containers found at grocery stores to the fancy ceramic crocks found in specialty markets.
If you’re really concerned about your butter going rancid on the countertop—and, while food safety organizations like the USDA will tell you that you should be, there’s little chance of your countertop butter actually spoiling in a short period of time—then the butter keeper for you should be one of the more expensive European-style butter crocks.
These genius little containers use an airtight seal of water inside them to protect both the freshness and the flavor/aroma of your butter. Just a small layer of water at the bottom of the crock works to keep the container airtight, and it also maintains a moderately cool temperature for the butter—just cool enough to stay fresh, and not warm enough to melt or spoil.
Food safety expert Carol Schlitt tells consumers that it’s fine to keep your butter at room temperature in one of these European-style secure butter crocks. They’ll work to keep most butter safe for up to around two weeks. And if you’re not sure how to tell when your butter is actually past its prime, always default to the sense test: Does it smell bad? Does it taste rancid or pungent? A small taste of bad butter isn’t going to hurt you, so taste test it, and decide from there if it’s still fresh. Your senses rarely let you down. Schlitt recommends that regardless of how good a butter crock you are using, when the temps in your house rise above the mid-70s, it’s time to refrigerate your butter, crock or no.
Image: Steve A. Johnson