Name something worse than trying to spread cold butter over a delicate slice of challah and tearing it apart as you go. We'll wait.

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how-to-store-butter: sticks of butter
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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

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Salted butter will last longer

If you plan on keeping your butter out, your best bet is to start with salted butter. As mentioned, the salt crystals embedded into the butter will help seal it against contaminants in addition to making it slather-ready flavor-wise, too.

Avoid cross-contamination

A key rule of thumb is to keep your butter in isolation. Remember, just because butter is pasteurized and has that protective fat content, doesn't mean that anything that gets on it or touches it won't be susceptible to pathogens like mold and bacteria. And once butter comes into contact with TCS food items, it then also becomes one by association. Start by avoiding cross-contamination with your knife or similar spreader at all costs. Next, for best results, you'll want to use a dedicated butter dish, preferably one that's airtight.

Enlist a proper butter dish for ultimate longevity

The most common shape of a butter keeper is a domed cover over a rectangular tray, slightly bigger than the dimensions of a stick or two of butter. An even better option, however, is the French butter dish. To use one, you have to tightly pack the bell compartment with softened butter, then invert it into the water-filled base, which creates an airtight seal around the edges without penetrating your butter. This water needs to be changed out every four days, so they require a bit more maintenance than a basic butter dish. However, the pay-off is upwards of a month of butter preservation.

French butter dishes (aka butter bells), like traditional ones, come in ceramic and earthenware/stoneware. These materials are greatly preferred for butter-keeping; they're best at staying a stable temperature, locking out other flavors or odors even without a seal, and staying neutral so as not to affect the taste of the butter.

Keep butter away from light

Glass, plastic, and acrylic butter keepers are acceptable, but it's best to choose a storage model that isn't see-through if you're planning on keeping it countertop. Not only does an opaque dish hide the smears and smushes your butter may be subject to in a busy family, but butter as a whole does better in a cool, dark environment. Contact with light exacerbates the activity of water to fat molecules and lead to fat decomposition, speeding up oxidation, which causes alterations in colors and flavors. Which is all to say that even though your butter may not go technically "bad," it won't stay "good" as long.

This light factor also applies to clarified butter and ghee—liquified butters where the milk solids have been skimmed out. Glass is best for these types, but you still want to keep them in a cool, dark corner of your pantry in a leak-proof airtight jar. You can get a little more life out of your ghee in the fridge, but like its solid counterparts, it's fine at room temperature.

Avoid storing butter in metal

Aside from the lid for your ghee jar, metal is a definitive no. This material will hasten oxidation even if it is airtight, and salted butter actually performs worse when kept in metal, especially as it may develop a metallic taste due to leaching and turn rancid.

Keep out what you'll use in the next few days—and no more

The most important rule is to only put out what you expect to use in a week or so. For best freshness, cut your butter into half sticks and freeze your surplus butter, replenishing your countertop dish when you get close to finishing what's in it. This way, you won't have as big of a commitment upon defrosting, and you'll be able to preserve the quality of the butter much longer.

Avoid the area around the stove

Finally, if you leave your butter out, don't leave it next to the stove. It might be tempting, but as with spices, the radiant heat from your cooktop will absolutely affect this ingredient to its detriment.

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.

Bottom line

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.