Should you store butter at room temperature?

Should you store butter at room temperature?

Butter is a staple of the western diet. It’s an standard addition to toast, great for sauteing onions and garlic, as well as essential ingredient in cakes, pates, pastries, and myriad other dishes . But butter storage is a contentious issue in the US, and there is a ongoing debate as to whether it is better to keep butter in the cold of a refrigerator or whether you can store butter at in the open at room temperature.

The answer depends on a number of factors including what you count as room temperature, the type of butter you use (spreadable butter, block butter, or freshly churned butter), whether you plan on using your butter mostly for cooking or for spreading, and the cultural norms where you live.

What is the ideal temperature for butter?

If you use butter to spread on bread, you probably want your butter to be as soft as possible without actually being liquid. If the butter is too hard, your bread slice will rip and your breakfast will be ruined. The same is true for anything on which butter is to be applied at room temperature – waffles, scones, and so on.. In these cases a temperature range of 55F to 80F is perfect.

If you prefer your bread goodness warmed, then it’s slightly different. Toast when it’s pulled from the toaster or from under the grill, is hot, and the butter will heat up as it comes into contact with the surface of the toast (or waffle). As it heats up, it will soften – making the butter easier to spread. A temperature of down as far as 35F  will be fine. Don’t allow your butter to be too cold though. As the butter heats up, it’s absorbing warmth from the toast. Your hot bread can quickly become cold.

If you’re cooking with butter – maybe frying up some mushrooms with a liberal helping of black pepper and a dash of salt, the starting temperature doesn’t matter so much. The butter is going to be liquid within a minute or so of it coming into contact with your frying pan. Obviously, warm butter will melt in a shorter time than cold butter, so the ideal temperature depends on how anxious you are to get your meal underway.

Will butter melt at room temperature?

This depends on the temperature of your room. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language defines room temperature as between 68F and 72F. At this temperature, butter will not melt. The consistency will remain stiff -as in, the butter will keep its form and it will be easy to cut into and easy to spread.

In reality, the dictionary definition aside, room temperature differs according to the room. The temperature of an unheated kitchen in Maine in January will see a butter block as solid as the rocks outside, while leaving butter out on a surface in a Pensacola kitchen in August for any length of time means that you’re more than likely to find your butter as a yellow puddle on the floor (if you don’t have air conditioning).

If the room temperature in your kitchen is below 80F, then your butter should stay solid.

Why do we keep butter refrigerated?

Refrigerators have been a standard feature in US homes since the 1940s with the mass production for home use really taking off after World War II. when it was marketed as an easy way of keeping your fresh produce fresher for longer. And it’s true. Fresh produce such as meat, vegetables, butter, and cheese develop mold, and deteriorate over time. They spoil, lose their color, and attract unwanted visitors such as ants and flies.

Storing butter in your refrigerator certainly keeps the uninvited wildlife away and slows down deterioration, but it can make butter unusably hard, and strictly speaking, it probably isn’t necessary.

Is it dangerous to store butter out of the fridge?

If your room temperature is at a sensible point – no higher than 72F, then it should remain solid at room temperature, making it lovely and spreadable, even on cold food such as raw bread. But it will spoil more quickly than if you kept it in refrigerated. Plus there’s the added danger of depredation by ants and by flies who often lay their eggs in uncovered food.

While storing butter outside a refrigerator is not dangerous, it is vital to keep your butter covered up and out of reach of critters. In France and other European countries, butter is traditionally kept in drawers and pantries where it is unlikely to spoiled by insects and other animals and where it is easily on hand and spreadable when it the resident chef needs to use it.

French butter is different to what we get here in the US | Credit: Neil Conway | CC BY 2.0

Is butter a natural preservative?

Butter does spoil,and if you leave it out for months on end in a room temperature environment, you will begin to notice mold spores after only a few weeks. Unlike cheese, which can stay ‘fresh’ for a long time.

However, because of its very high fat content, it is usually only the surface of butter which is spoiled. This can be scraped off and the remaining butter can be used safely.

Because of the fat content, butter used to be used as a medium in which to keep other foods airtight and safe from spoilage. It won’t last forever though!

What about spreadable butter?

Butter marketed as ‘spreadable butter’ usually contains a high percentage of oil such as olive oil, to make it easier to spread – as suggested by the name, Spreadable butter usually comes in plastic packaging and is designed to be kept refrigerated. At room temperature, it tends to be overly runny and difficult to spread as it is not stiff enough. You should keep spreadable butter refrigerated and return it to the fridge between uses.

Conclusion

There are no hard and fast rules at to whether you should store butter in the refrigerator or at room temperature. My take on it is that if you use butter infrequently – as in a single block will last more than two months, you should probably keep it cool. But from a usability standpoint, butter is best kept at room temperature, but sealed in a drawer, cupboard, butter dish, or in Tupperware to keep it safe from insects and other animals.

Personally, I keep my butter in a rather nice butter dish next to the oven, but far enough away so it won’t be affected by the heat.

 

Header image Credit: Thomas Hawk | CC BY-NC 2.0

August Jones

Hi. My name's August Jones - I'm a fantastic amateur chef and a self-proclaimed food expert. I spend most of my life in kitchens cooking and preparing wholesome meals for anywhere between two and 20 people. If you need a banquet or an intimate meal, I can help you out! I plan on using the pages at obeyyourhunger.com to share my decades of culinary expertise, and excellence