Is It Safe to Leave Butter on the Counter?

Here's what to know if you want to soften your butter on the counter.

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March 02, 2020


Photo by: Martin Schroeder / EyeEm / Getty Images

Martin Schroeder / EyeEm / Getty Images

Have you left your butter on the counter for hours and wondered how long it could actually be safe sitting there? You’re probably not alone. Many folks leave the butter on the counter to soften it for baking or spreading on bread. Here’s a look into the composition of butter and how that relates to how long it can sit out at room temperature.

What Is Butter?

Butter is a dairy product and is made when milk or cream is churned. The churning process separates the solids (butterfat) from the liquid (buttermilk). According to U.S. guidelines butter must be at least 80-percent fat. The color of butter can range from white to a darker yellow, depending on what the cow eats.

If your butter is labeled as “sweet cream butter” it is an indication that the cream used to make it was pasteurized. Pasteurization is a process where the cream is heat treated to destroy harmful microorganisms. Raw butter, made with raw milk or cream, is not allowed to be sold commercially in the U.S.

Butter has been associated with bacteria such as S. aureus, L. monocytogenes, and Y. enterocolitica. Bacteria can be introduced to the butter during handling at home or by a food handler at a restaurant.

Should You Leave Butter on the Counter?

According to the USDA, butter is safe at room temperature. But if it’s left out for several days at room temperature, it can turn rancid causing off flavors. The USDA does not recommend leaving it out more than one to two days.

According to the National Dairy Council’s Dairy Good website, it’s okay to leave butter out sometimes — depending on the type of butter. Salted butter has less of a chance of spoiling on the counter compared to unsalted butter. If you want to leave your butter out for a handful of hours, opt for the salted kind. Keep in mind that the amount of salt found in salted butter differs. Compare food labels and select the butter with the most salt if you plan on leaving it at room temperature — and be mindful not to leave it on the counter for more than a couple of days. You can store butter in a butter dish or a popular French butter keeper.

If you’re looking for an alternative, whipped butter has been created to be more spreadable, like on bread, and air is added into the butter to do so. Both unsalted butter and whipped butter should be refrigerated.

However, if the temperature in your kitchen goes above 70 degrees F in your kitchen, any butter (salted, unsalted and whipped) should go in the refrigerator to avoid spoilage. You can even store your butter in the freezer for up to a few months.

What About Margarine?

Margarine was created as a butter substitute and includes ingredients such as vegetable oil, water, salt, emulsifiers and some may include milk. It can be found in both stick form or in tubs. Like butter, margarine must have at least 80-perfect fat by law. If it has less than 80-percent fat, it is categorized as a “spread.” The lower the fat content of the “spread”, the higher the water content. Margarine, especially a soft tub margarine, can separate into water and oil or water and solids if not kept refrigerated. Although it may be safe to eat, it may not have the mouthfeel you’re looking for. Both margarine and buttery spreads shouldn’t be left out, and should always be refrigerated immediately after use.

Bottom Line

If you want butter to melt in your mouth, opt for a salted kind to leave on your counter for no more than one to two days. However, if you’re ever in doubt – never leave it out. You’re always safe keeping any butter refrigerated.

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