Is It Ever OK to Store Butter on the Counter? The Answer May Surprise You
We've all experienced those mornings where we're so hungry and bleary that the prospect of a humble piece of toast is positively thrilling. All you can think of is slathering that simple, crusty carb with creamy, golden butter when alas! Disaster strikes and hindsight kicks you in your sleepy face. You forgot to take out the butter. Fresh out of the refrigerator, it is cold, it is hard, and it is not at all the glorious, rich topping you crave.
But dry toast is an abomination, so you soldier on, cutting a thin pat and scraping it across bread you hope you won't pulverize into crumbs or crack into a collapsed mess of uneven pools of butter and half-melted gobs of disappointment.
...Which brings us to our titular question. Do you learn from this and vow never again!, and store butter on the counter? Is it even safe to store butter on the counter?
The answer to all of these is yes—so long as you follow the proper safety precautions. Here's how.
Is it safe to store butter on the counter?
Food safety comes first, so let's address that right away. Kept in a clean, closed container away from food that could contaminate it, it is absolutely safe to keep butter on the counter. In fact, it's the only dairy item that is excluded from classification as a TCS (time/temperature control for safety) food, as determined by this report by the FDA.
Why? Because except for raw butter, the one exception, butter has a few things going for it that make it resistant to harboring or growing bacteria at room temperature.
First, it's pasteurized, which reduces pathogens initially found in cream. Then the act of churning—or turning butter milk into solid form—helps to separate the fat from the water molecules in it. Butter must be at least 80 percent fat to be called such legally, and this fat creates a barrier against bacteria and microbial growth in the water that makes up the rest of it. On top of that, the salt added to salted varieties contributes to the stability of the fat, putting up yet another roadblock for pathogens that might have an interest in setting up house.
Why would you store butter on the counter?
The universal toast scenario is a big enough reason to keep butter out, honestly. Room temperature butter is easy to spread, and is perceived to have richer, more robust flavor since we taste food better when it's warm and opened up. The salt and flavor molecules have a chance to 'wake up' from their chilled states and dance on your taste buds with just a little more joy. And more obviously, it won't take on that stale 'refrigerator air' taste, or soak up aromas from other food that's kept in the fridge (looking at you, pickle jar).
When kept in proper conditions, like in a French butter dish, butter will last a week or so out on display. Any longer than a month and it will start to separate. If you're stocking up on the good golden stuff, it should really be frozen in an airtight bag to maintain flavor and integrity.
The Proper Conditions and Containers for Storing Butter
When shouldn't you store butter on the counter?
As safe and convenient as it is to always have spreadable, soft butter at the ready, there are instances in which it's not ideal. Although softened, creamed butter is better for cakes and cookies, chilled butter is best for biscuits, pie pastry, and other baked goods that you need to cut butter into in order to form steamy pockets of air and richness distinctive to those treats. Cold butter is also preferred for making pan sauces, as whisking cubes of it permits a stronger and more stable emulsion to form.
Along those lines, you also don't want to keep butter out if your kitchen is subject to hot summer heat. The standard for "room temperature" hovers around 67° F, so countertop storage isn't exactly ideal for, say, a New Orleans summer with the windows open. If the butter melts, some reconstitution may occur when it cools back down, creating a funky outline of visible separation as the molecules break away from one another and de-emulsify. This layer doesn't necessarily mean that your butter is shot, but if it's accompanied by a change in smell or you spot a dramatic shift in color, the chemistry has been affected and you should not consume it. Like most oils, butter can go rancid.
You also don't want to keep butter out if you're partial to whipped butter. The tiny air pockets in it can cause your butter to fall out of a French butter dish and will just become a soggy puddle in a regular butter dish as those pockets collapse.
Margarine and other butter substitutes are best kept chilled as well. Because these products aren't chemically butter, but rather semi-solid emulsifications of oil, water, solids, and additives, they're not stable enough to keep out. They're sensitive to heat, which makes them apt to separate into these different components, again leaving a mess when melted and disparate layering when re-chilled.
Having spread-ready butter on the counter is a no-brainer convenience, provided you have the right receptacle and honor the conditions it does best in. Toast troubles, gone.