Chances are, you use butter at least once or twice a day. You might start off with toast or a muffin in the morning, then use it again to fry an egg to go over your salad at lunch. You definitely use it whenever you bake (regardless of whether you use salted or unsalted butter), and of course, butter is a given for your evening popcorn and binge-watching fix. The question is, do you get the butter out of the refrigerator every time you use it or do you store butter on the kitchen counter in a covered dish?
Cold butter right out of the refrigerator is impossible to spread. Keeping butter at room temperature means that it's spreadable anytime you want it, but most of us still refrigerate butter because that's what we think we're supposed to do.
Can butter be left out on the counter?
We tend to think that because butter is a dairy product, made from cream, there's a food safety issue with leaving the butter out on the counter. But is that true? Let's walk through what makes butter different and why storing butter at room temperature is okay, within reason.
Yes, butter is a dairy product. But the butter you buy at the grocery store is a pasteurized dairy product with a high fat content and a low level of water, about 80/20 percent ratio. Pasteurization, plus the fat and water content, means that it's harder for bacteria to grow. Salted butter has an extra layer of protection against bacterial growth due to the salt.
So it's safe, but is it good?
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So, maybe pasteurized butter on the counter is safe to eat. But will room temperature butter go bad eventually? The answer to that question is absolutely, yes. Butter will go rancid if left out for too long.
The USDA says this about room temperature butter: "Butter and margarine are safe at room temperature. However, if butter is left out at room temperature for several days, the flavor can turn rancid so it's best to leave out whatever you can use within a day or two. Margarine, especially soft tub margarine, can separate into oil or water and solids when not kept refrigerated although it will be safe."
You'll know if your butter on the counter turns rancid; it will smell off and it will taste terrible. (Trust me, if you've ever tasted oil or butter that's turned, you'll never forget the taste.) It generally doesn't happen overnight but leave the butter out long enough and it will go bad.
Tips for leaving butter on the counter
Exposing butter to air and light are what help along rancidity, so if you'd rather leave your stick of butter on the counter, keep it in a butter dish, butter crock, butter bell or other airtight container. It's best to only leave out what you can use up in a day or two.
And if your kitchen is consistently on the warm side (over 70 degrees Fahrenheit), you might want to leave the butter in the fridge until an hour or so before you want to use it. That way you get soft butter with a longer shelf life.
This article was originally published on May 15, 2020.