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Butter: In the Fridge or Safe to Leave Out?

Butter: In the Fridge or Safe to Leave Out?

A few years ago, while visiting friends in Vermont, I was the source of helpful annoyance. It seems my host was left constantly searching for the butter dish, as she was prone to leaving it out on the counter and I was prone to putting it on the butter shelf in the fridge. While this didn’t cause anything more than some unnecessary confusion (no blood was spilled over chilled butter) it did set off a friendly debate over whether a stick of butter (securely covered in a butter dish) should find its home on the easily accessible counter, or in the chilly fridge with all of the other dairy and perishables.

What the issue boils down to for many is, not preference, as much as safety. Sure, nice room temperature butter is far easier to spread on warm toast than a frigid gold brick of butter might be, but if that warm golden sheen of fat sabotages your guts – well then you may want to rethink what goes where. However there remains a bit of controversy over what is the best and safest way of storing butter.

The USDA guidelines state that butter should be stored in its original protective wrapping or a “container until ready for use,” and to remove from the refrigerator 10 to 15 minutes before use. The USDA even goes one step further and suggest freezing butter not intended for use within two or three days. So if you choose to follow the USDA guidelines, you are looking at a life of cold, unspreadable butter. However, butter is made with pasteurized milk, which limit the chances of serious bacterial growth or spoilage (as long as it is sufficiently covered, like in a clean glass butter dish). In addition, there is fairly low water content in butter, and often there is added salt as well, which also inhibits bacteria.

Nevertheless, if you don’t want to take chances with dairy, you might just want to simplify matters and store butter covered in the refrigerator between meals. It will significantly increase the shelf-live and virtually assure safety. But the odds are, either way, you will be fine – it is the saturated fat and dietary cholesterol you really need to be concerned about.

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Eric Steinman

Eric Steinman is a freelance writer based in Rhinebeck, NY. He regularly writes about food, music, art, architecture, and culture and is a regular contributor to Bon Appétit among other publications.

156 comments

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4:58PM PST on Jan 24, 2014

I had this conversation with my friend only a few days back. He said it was weird that me and my family put the butter back in to the fridge when we were finished using it, and I think that he is wrong to leave the butter out on the worktop when he is done with it. We don't own a proper butter dish and it starts to slightly melt if we leave it out for a few hours, so I take it out just before I use it so it isn't too hard. Thank you for sharing this article, I am going to show this to my friend along with the comments.

2:58PM PDT on Jun 20, 2013

I keepit in the refrigerator.

8:21AM PDT on Jul 31, 2012

Always leave around half a cup out mixed with parsley, chives and dill-have not died from my left out unsalted butter yet.

3:09AM PDT on Apr 26, 2012

Io lo tengo in frigorifero.

6:51PM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

yes.

2:35PM PDT on Apr 22, 2012

Butter doesn't seem to get rancid anymore. Is that due to all the antibiotics used in animal agriculture?

4:53PM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Um, how long are we talking about? Overnight, the butter would spoil, yes, You can smell spoiled butter (I made a piecrust once but didn't use it, yet it spoiled even though it was in the fridge), and from morning to night, sure it would spoil. But are you talking like an hour? From starting to make a meal till the end of the meal, or while she was baking or cooking? "Leaving it out" doesn't mean anything without some sort of range of time. If it was from morning till night, sure, it would spoil. If it was for an hour, you sound more than a bit paranoid.

4:52PM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

Um, how long are we talking about? Overnight, the butter would spoil, yes, You can smell spoiled butter (I made a piecrust once but didn't use it, yet it spoiled even though it was in the fridge), and from morning to night, sure it would spoil. But are you talking like an hour? From starting to make a meal till the end of the meal, or while she was baking or cooking? "Leaving it out" doesn't mean anything without some sort of range of time. If it was from morning till night, sure, it would spoil. If it was for an hour, you sound more than a bit paranoid.

6:58AM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

i keep mine in the freezer and take out what we need. usually a stick a day if I am not baking something...we leave the stick of butter out all day, in a butter dish..it rarely lasts very long. butter is better for you than margarine. it also tastes better.

2:28AM PDT on Apr 21, 2012

thanks

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