Is It Safe to Leave Butter on the Counter?

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

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August 05, 2022


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. As such, Chad Galer, VP of Product Science and Food Safety at Dairy Management Inc. says, “It is best to only store the amount of butter that will be used in 1 to 2 days to enjoy at its optimum flavor.”

What About Butter Bells?

Also called butter crocks and butter keepers, butter bells are used to store butter on the counter in a softened state, ideal for spreading on toast and biscuits. The butter bell was created in the 16th century in France where a bell-shaped storage container filled with water prevented the butter from spoiling while keeping it creamy and fresh. The butter bell has two parts, the bottom crock and the lid with an upside-down bowl attached to it. You place the water in the crock and spread the stick of butter into the upside down bowl in the lid. The water cuts out the oxygen (which spoils the butter) and keeps the butter safe at room-temperature and spreadable.

It’s important to use your butter bell as directed. Here are a few guidelines:

  • Use real butter: The butter bell is not made for margarine or faux butter which end up being an oily mess.
  • Pack the butter properly: Fill the lid until it’s packed with butter to eliminate any air pockets.
  • Use a little water: You want to use just enough water (tap is fine) in the bottom to make sure you’ll get a seal at the top of the bowl. Overfilling the water can result in wet butter.
  • Refresh the water regularly: The recommendations to refresh the water vary with who you ask from daily to every three days to weekly. “If butter is stored in a butter bell or keeper it is best to change the water every or every other day to ensure the water doesn’t become contaminated,” says Galer.
  • Store your butter bell properly: Don’t leave your butter bell in direct light or heat (or next to your stove). The temperature in your kitchen should be below 80 degrees F for storing your butter bell.
  • Wash regularly: Galer says, “It is also important to regularly wash and dry the butter bell or keeper.”

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% 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.

Toby Amidor, MS, RD, CDN, is a registered dietitian and consultant who specializes in food safety and culinary nutrition. She is the author of The Greek Yogurt Kitchen: More Than 130 Delicious, Healthy Recipes for Every Meal of the Day.

*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.

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