How Long Can Butter Sit Out?

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Your grandma insists on leaving her butter on the counter because that's the way her grandma did it. But is it actually safe to let butter sit out?

Is anything more frustrating than trying to smear cold butter on a slice of fresh bread and tearing it to pieces? There’s an easy way to prevent this problem: leave your butter on the counter. But is it safe? And how long can butter sit out?

Can Butter Be Left Out on the Counter?

It is safe to leave your favorite butter at room temperature, as long as you follow a few guidelines for storage (more on that below). Countertop butter is soft and easy to spread, but it will also spoil much more quickly than cold butter from the fridge.

True butter fiends should bookmark these butter hacks.

Why It’s Safe

Butter is most often made with pasteurized milk, which means that it’s free of food-borne bacteria. In addition, butter’s makeup is naturally unattractive to bacteria: All of that glorious fat (80 percent of its composition!) means butter doesn’t have much water where germs can thrive. While milk is being churned into butter, the water molecules are separated and surrounded by fat, which is almost impenetrable to bacteria. So in this case, fat is our friend!

Plus, salted butter has even more points in its favor when it comes to hanging out at room temperature. Salt and bacteria do not get along.

Still, the butter will spoil eventually. Those water molecules will mingle with the fat molecules and cause them to decompose. Light and heat will speed up this process.

How Long Does Butter Last on the Counter?

The USDA recommends leaving salted, pasteurized butter out for one to two days. Their main caution is that the butter will eventually go rancid, which you should be able to smell (and taste!). Butter will keep longer in a cool house and spoil quickly in a warm house.

The type of butter matters, too. Unsalted butter may not keep as long, and unpasteurized or homemade butter should stay in the fridge.

If you love room-temperature butter, it’s best to portion out as much as you need for a few days—perhaps set a butter dish out on Friday night to enjoy all weekend.

Can You Store Margarine on the Counter?

The USDA gives the nod to keeping margarine on the counter, but it’s not usually necessary. Margarine is generally quite spreadable straight out of the fridge. Plus, margarine left on the counter can separate into oil, water and solids which, while safe to eat, is pretty unappealing.

If you do keep your spreads on the counter, you might need to free up some counter space!

What’s the Best Way to Store Butter?

Don’t just leave butter sitting out on a plate! That leaves it exposed to contaminants and plain old dust. Store butter in a covered butter dish or crock to protect it. Some butter keepers, like the popular Butter Bell, are specially designed to keep butter safe at room temperature by using a combination of water reservoir and domed lid. (Here are more favorite butter gadgets.)

In addition to keeping butter covered, store it out of direct sunlight and away from heat sources like your oven.

How to Bring Cold Butter to Room Temperature Quickly

If it sounds like too much work to keep butter out, don’t stress! It’s easy to soften butter quickly. (Plus, baked goods prefer cold butter anyway.)

The quickest method to soften butter comes courtesy of the editors at Lifehacker: Place the butter you want to soften on a plate. Fill a glass with hot water, let it stand for a minute, then empty and dry the glass. Invert it over the butter. In about a minute, remove the glass. Ta-da! Perfectly spreadable butter in minutes.

Signs Your Butter Has Gone Bad

Have you heard the old saying, ‘the nose knows’? The clearest sign that butter is bad is a nasty, rancid smell. Mold is another obvious non-starter: toss that butter immediately, and thoroughly clean the storage dish before re-use. Other signs of spoilage are discoloration or an off texture.

Food safety is important: When in doubt, it’s safest to throw it out.

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Kelsey Rae Dimberg
A former in-house editor at Taste of Home, Kelsey now writes articles and novels from her home in Milwaukee. She's an avid cook, reader, flâneur, and noir fanatic. Her debut novel, Girl in the Rearview Mirror, will be published in June 2019 by William Morrow.