It is safe to leave butter on the counter for several days.
Chefs agree there are pros and cons to storing butter in the fridge or on the counter.
Counter butter is best for making cookies and cakes, whereas chilled butter is better for pies and biscuits.
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To refrigerate or not to refrigerate? When it comes to butter, that is the age-old question. A room temperature pat of butter that’s been sitting on the counter for a few hours can taste great and be easier to spread, but is it safe to eat?
INSIDER spoke to several food scientists, chefs, and pastry chefs and found that most of them simultaneously store sticks of butter on the counter, in the fridge, and even in the freezer. So if you’re wondering whether you should put you butter in the fridge or on the counter, the answer is a resounding: It depends.
Still, there are a few caveats. We asked them for their best advice.
Pasteurised butter does not grow dangerous bacteria like other dairy products
“The confusion about whether it’s safe to store butter on the counter likely stems from the fact that dairy products are normally considered time-temperature control for safety (TCS) foods,” Janilyn Hutchings, CP-FS, a food scientist at StateFoodSafety told INSIDER. “Bacteria can multiply quickly on TCS foods, and normally when such foods are left at room temperature longer than four hours, they become unsafe to eat even after cooking.”
However, butter – more specifically, pasteurised butter (i.e. most butters you’d find at the grocery store, unpasteurized butter is usually referred to as “raw butter.”) – is a different story. A 2003 study by the FDA found that pasteurised butter, both salted and unsalted, does not grow bacteria like other common dairy items.
“The pasteurization process butter goes through reduces any pathogens initially found in the cream, and the churning process immediately afterward changes butter into a solid state. Along the way, the water molecules in butter become separated by fat, which is almost impenetrable to bacteria. This protects butter from microbial growth. Salted butter is even better protected because the salt contributes to its stability. For this reason, butter can be stored safely on the counter.” Hutchings added.
But butter can only last on the counter for a few days
Hutchings added that if butter is left on the counter for too long, it will go rancid before pathogens in the butter reach dangerous levels. Dangerous bacterial growth and rancid are two different things. Rancid basically refers to a food that’s “gone bad” – it won’t kill you, but you shouldn’t consume it. When butter is exposed to heat, light, or air, the fat oxidizes and the butter turns. It’s easy to know when a stick of butter has “gone bad.”
“If you’re unsure if your butter has turned, simply give it a whiff,” James Beard award-winning cookbook author Virginia Willis explained. “If it’s spoiled it will smell stale or off. It will also develop a shiny oily outer layer that looks a bit different than the inside. Then it’s time to chuck it and start with a fresh stick.”
Counter butter should always be stored in an airtight container, rather than left uncovered on a butter dish. Generally speaking, the butter will last on the counter for a few days.
If you don’t use butter for anything other than toast, Willis suggests using the four tablespoon half-stick butter pieces and keeping those on the counter instead.
Another option is a French butter dish (also known as a ceramic butter crock or French butter keeper), which is a special dish that allows you to keep room counter butter fresh for about a month. The dish essentially submerges the butter in a vat of water which acts as a seal, protecting the butter from the elements.
Butter stays fresh for a month in the fridge
As for the refrigerator, Chef Dan Souza, editor-in-chief of Cook’s Illustrated Magazine said that butter will stay fresh in the refrigerator for one month. “If you need to store butter longer than that, you are better off putting it in a zipper-lock bag and transferring it to the freezer. There it will stay fresh for up to four months,” he added.
Another reason to keep butter in an airtight container is to prevent it from absorbing other flavours.
Butter becomes rancid after exposure to the elements, but Souza explained that before it goes bad, it can also pick up “flavours from the environment,” and you don’t want that either. Butter can also absorb errant flavours in the refrigerator, so Souza emphasises that you should always keep butter in its wrapper and inside an airtight container regardless of where it’s stored.
Neither storing method actually affects the butter’s taste
Souza explains that there is no difference in flavour between butter that has been left on the counter and butter that stays in the fridge, assuming both are still fresh and haven’t picked up flavours from the surrounding environment. However, Souza explains that room temperature butter is perceived as having more flavour.
“We are able to taste food better when its temperature is closest to the temperature inside our mouths,” Souza added. “Butter straight from the refrigerator, at around 37 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit will be perceived as less flavorful than butter at room temperature, around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Brian Young from “Top Chef” put it another way, “The taste buds on your tongue react to temperature just like your pupils react to light (in reverse – sort of). Cold temperatures make your taste buds contract, warm opens them wider.” This means that cold butter will cause your taste buds to contract, therefore negatively affecting the other flavours in the rest of the meal.
However, be mindful that your room is actually room temperature
If you want to store butter on the counter for room temperature appeal, be aware that your room is probably hotter than room temperature. Room temperature is 67 degrees Fahrenheit, which is significantly cooler than most kitchens get, especially in the summer.
Chefs store butter on the counter namely for convenience and for some baking recipes
Almost every chef INSIDER spoke to listed convenience as the number one reason to keep butter on the counter. It’s easier to reach for butter on the counter than in the refrigerator. Other than for buttering toast, there are very few food recipes that specifically call for soft butter from the counter. Baking, however, is a different story.
“For some baking applications, such as creaming butter and sugar together when starting a cake, we are looking for softened butter that is around 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter at that temperature is able to trap lots of tiny air bubbles that help leaven the cake,” Souza told INSIDER.
Cookies are another popular baked good that almost always call for “softened butter.”
Refrigerated butter is better for sauces and certain baking recipes
Chefs don’t often need soft butter but pastry chefs need both, so they typically store their butter on both the counter and in the refrigerator.
“For many cooking and baking applications, refrigerator temperature butter is actually preferable to room temperature butter,” Souza added. “Baked goods like pie dough and most biscuits require butter to be cut into the dry ingredients in distinct pieces – something that is only possible with cold butter. And cold butter is key when making pan sauces. Whisking cubes of cold butter into the sauce allows a strong and stable emulsion to form.”