Should butter be refrigerated?

I like eating bread and butter. The problem is that butter from the fridge is hard and cannot be spread easily without tearing into the bread. So I usually have to plan in advance and keep the butter out a few hours before I eat so that it softens up. And then I put it back after eating because of the belief that if kept out too long, it will go bad.

But Adam Clark Estes says that my fears are unfounded and that butter should actually be kept out all the time because it does not go bad as quickly as I thought, and that in fact most of the world does not refrigerate its butter.

The cream that’s used to make your standard market variety butter is almost always pasteurized, and it takes quite some time for pasteurized dairy products to go bad. Foreign bacteria is still attracted to pasteurized dairy products. Butter can indeed go bad. But as long as you keep it covered, it’s very unlikely that anything bad will happen to the butter before you’ve had a chance to eat it all.

Hmm. I wonder how long it can be kept outside? This article says that you can keep it outside for just a couple of days while this one says a week.

So I think I will stay with my original plan.


  1. Anne Fenwick says

    My parents keep their butter out for 6 weeks – 2 months, covered, in a dark cupboard, house at about 20 C (sorry I don’t know fahrenheit). But here’s what you do. Take a small piece of butter, leave it out and check what happens, day after day. Then you’ll see.

    By the way, you know people only had fridges recently? You can also leave eggs out for at least two weeks, most jams and preserves indefinitely, some fruits and vegetables indefinitely, others for days to weeks. But if your fridge is big enough, you probably don’t need to. I only resort to the pantry method at Christmas.

  2. Rob Grigjanis says

    Why not just always keep a couple of thin slices ready to be softened as needed? They’ll soften faster as well.

  3. moarscienceplz says

    I’ve never heard of anyone getting sick from spoiled butter, and I have read articles that say moldy cheese is perfectly fine to eat, just cut off the excessively moldy bits.
    Most spoilage is due to the presence of oxygen, water, and/or bacteria, and butter being so fatty is a natural barrier to all three. A common French method of preventing meat dishes spoiling was to put it in a casserole dish and cover it with a thick layer of melted lard, which would harden and seal out spoilage.
    I would say, keep a small amount of butter out of the fridge in a sealed container to keep out odors, as recommended, and just experiment how long it still tastes good. I don’t think you are risking your health.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    Clearly, you need to eat more butter, so that it never has the chance to go bad. Get that good grass-fed stuff, as high a fat content as you can find, and use twice as much on your bread. On your rice. Hell, in your coffee. Yummmmmmmm…

  5. 5Up Mushroom says

    We’ve left a stick of butter in a covered butter dish out in my family for generations and have never had a problem. It often goes a week or two, possibly three. It will eventually spoil, but when it does, it just gets moldy and its very obvious. It also takes a very long time.

  6. vereverum says

    Anecdotal evidence only, but I kept it in a round green glass antique butter dish on the table. One stick at a time, usually, the other sticks I kept in the fridge. In the summer, room temp was usually in mid to upper 80’s so it sagged but I can only remember once that it actually puddled. But even then it was just an inconvenience. There were times when it would be a couple o’ weeks but I didn’t notice any ill affects either on the butter or on me for eating it. Actually, the increasing tightness of my clothing was probably an indication of an ill affect from eating it, but that doesn’t seem to be what you’re concerned about.

  7. badgersdaughter says

    Here in Ireland, we keep the butter out in a covered butter dish. We use 500g blocks. Not only does it not spoil, it often doesn’t get soft enough to spread on soft bread, When my husband and I lived in Texas, we’d take the butter out at bedtime to use it for breakfast toast, and then put it back in the fridge.

  8. Rob says

    I’m sure butter will undergo bacterial spoilage eventually – I’ve never seen it though. that’s not to say that any secondary contamination from other foods (spreads, mayo, meat etc) transferred back to the butter surface will not spoil and develop mould.

    However, butter will undergo chemical breakdown quite rapidly. The enemies of good flavour are oxygen, light, heat and water. Initially this form of spoilage will be apparent as a slight, and not necessarily unpleasant, coconut type flavour. Eventually it ends up as a rancid flavour. To avoid this, keep butter covered in a cool, dark and dry place. Obviously a fridge is pretty good, but if you live in a cool climate a food safe or pantry using a covered butter dish would work perfectly well.

    A couple of options for ready to use butter. My grandparents had a pottery butter dish where the lid could be filled with hot water. This ‘conditioned’ the butter inside the dish making it soft to spread. Now days I buy a fractionated butter. It is still pure butter, but contains a higher content of low melting point fats, and is spreadable at just-out-of-fridge temperature. Because the fractionation process is purely physical there is no concern about any chemicals or additives. The higher melting point butter fraction is used for pastry making incidentally.

    In my youth our refridgerators used to have a small butter conditioner compartment – which was great. Now those are gone as having a small heated compartment inside a fridge screwed up the energy efficiency…

  9. rcs says

    You can put the stick of butter in the microwave for about 10 seconds to make it soft enough to spread. This also works if ice cream gets too hard in your freezer (about 30 seconds to get the ice cream soft enough to scoop).

  10. Jerry B says

    There’s currently a Kickstarter for a butter knife with a grater edge to create thin curls of butter that can be spread easily even when cold. At least that’s the claim.

  11. Silentbob says

    We live in a warm climate, ~ 20° C (68° F) in winter and ~ 35° C (95° F) in summer. Like you, we hate butter that’s too hard to spread. So we keep only our spare butter in the fridge. The butter we’re using we keep in a cupboard in a butter dish with a lid.

    I would say it takes at least a week to use all the butter in the dish, probably more like two weeks on average. (Our butter doesn’t come in “sticks”, it comes in 250g blocks, about 8 oz.) We’ve done this for years and the butter has never gone bad.

    One tip; if you’re going to do this use salted butter. I made the mistake of buying unsalted butter once in the summer and it melted in the dish! Regular salted butter will stay solid (though very soft) even in ambient temperatures of 35° C.

  12. Mano Singham says

    Ok, I’m convinced. From now the stick of butter that is being currently used stays out of the fridge and in a covered butter dish!

  13. geneking says

    Look for a butter bell. It’s a cup for the butter that inverts into a chamber of water to seal out the air. Through the summer I don’t use it because it too hot and the butter melts out. Once the temps get below 80 F. I leave it out all the time and fill it when it gets down low enough to put a whole stick into it. Mine holds 1- 1/2 sticks. GeneK

  14. Rike says

    I use unsalted butter sticks and have left the stick I’m using out of the fridge for years. It can take me as long as 3 weeks to use one up, and it has never gone bad. It gets quite soft sometimes, but never runny. When I grew up, we had one of those French butter dishes – I might order one of them, they look nicer than the glass one I have.

  15. says

    While I was in college in Eureka, California, I shared a 1910 Victorian home with several other tenants. The kitchen had a cold pantry, a smallish cabinet with a slat shelf built into the frame of the house. It had two screened and eaved vents to the outside: when it got warm, the hot air would vent out the top and draw cooler air in from the bottom.

    We used it to store butter, cheese, eggs and jam, and never had any food-borne illness, at least not in the 9 months I lived there.

  16. Ben Finney says

    It depends what you mean by “go bad”. Do you mean “go rancid”? Or something else?

    No, I don’t think butter will turn rancid if you leave it unrefrigerated and consume it within a week.

    Yes, I do think butter will spoil if left unrefrigerated. I live in a climate where the indoor temperature during several months can dip into the melting point for the oils in butter.

    So butter should be refrigerated if you want to avoid it melting.

  17. MadHatter says

    The only time I have ever refrigerated butter is in the middle of summer when temps were >90F and that is only because there was no way, even in the pantry, to keep the butter solid. My mother never did either. I keep it in a covered dish but that’s all. That stick of butter would be kept that way for weeks at a time because I don’t eat it quickly. I also prefer unsalted.

    Since moving to Europe I’ve noticed that neither milk or eggs are refrigerated in the grocery stores. People only put milk in the fridge when after they open it.

  18. grumpyoldfart says

    There is probably so much salt and other preservatives in butter that it will never go off.

  19. says

    @MadHatter #20 – I believe the difference is that Europe uses an ultraviolet process to pasteurize milk and eggs. The milk is processed after it has been put in the cartons, which means it remains sterile until opened and thus can be stored (for a short time, at least) without refrigeration. In the US, milk is pasteurized in quantity and then put into the containers: no mater how sterile the conditions are, there is inevitably some contamination.

    Using UV to pasteurize eggs is pretty new in the US and, somehow, controversial. Consumer tests have been run with eggs sold from shelves rather than refrigerated cases, and the unrefrigerated eggs just didn’t sell.

  20. says

    I always remember the account of how, when the Vasa was raised, the butter that sank on the ship in 1650 was still edible, having been in the cold salt water of the harbor, where air couldn’t get to it.

  21. says

    PS – I just checked and there are lots of cool butter bells for sale on amazon. Search for “butter bell” and get one! Seriously! You’ll be amazed!

  22. Mano Singham says

    Yes, the butter bell seems to be the way to go and I am ordering one. I am sorry that I was not aware of proper butter etiquette for so many years.

  23. Jon G says

    Why not turn your butter into Ghee? Doesn’t the removal of moisture in the clarification process improve the storage time considerably?

  24. lorn says

    I have my doubts, I’m living in Florida and I only very rarely use AC, my handy-dandy thermometer tells me it is 91F/ 33C at the desk (you wouldn’t believe the size of the heatsink/fan on my PC) and I only use butter a few times a week but I may try setting the butter out and see what happens. Worse case, I’m out some butter.

  25. says

    The Resident Felines would love it if we left the butter out, I’m sure

    You need a butter bell!!! Keeps the mousies out! 🙂

    Also – it increases the thermal mass of the butter considerably; where I live it doesn’t melt even on hot days because it’s cool at night. I suppose if I lived in Arizona I’d stick it in the fridge if it got too hot for an extended period. But here, where the days are warm and the nights are cool, it’s perfect.

    As I mentioned earlier, I often put vodka in the water, and sometimes salt.

  26. Lady Scientist says

    I haven’t read through all of the comments here, yet, but one way I get around this problem is to warm the bread for a little bit in the microwave or toast it. The cold butter will soften after contact with the warm bread, allowing it to spread more easily. I got this idea after observing that restaurants typically serve warm rolls and cold, hard butter patties, and yet the butter spreads well.

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