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August 9th, 2009:

Contrarian Wisdom: Butter

Still on my several-day antihistamine high, but this short entry might be useful:

One of the odder things I uncovered during my ongoing research on the Carb Wars was the divide in American thought on whether butter needs to be refrigerated. You’d think something that simple and that wide, er, spread would have a simple yes/no answer that everybody accepted.

Not so: See the Yahoo Answers forum on the question, “Does Real Butter Spoil?” Almost as many people thought that butter left out even overnight would spoil as thought it could be left out at room temperature for some time.

The first answer on Yahoo Answers is correct: You can leave butter out for weeks and it won’t spoil. I don’t know precisely how long butter will last at room temperature, but it’s at least six weeks. I know that because on one of our trips to Chicago, Carol and I forgot to put the butter in the fridge before we left. When we got back a month and a half later it was fine, and we finished it.

In truth, we weren’t worried. 35 years ago, Carol’s grad school roommate was an Iowa farm girl, and Connie simply left the butter out in a covered dish in the middle of the kitchen table. It never went bad. Seeing (and tasting) is believing, and ever since then our butter has lived on the kitchen counter unless we knew we’d be away for a week or more.

I could never quite understand the confusion (nor the product category of “spreadable butter”) until I read Barry Groves’ uneven but worthwhile jeremiad Trick and Treat, which describes how margarine mostly replaced butter in American households after WWII, at first because it was cheap, and later because it was supposedly healthier. Margarine does go rancid if left at room temperature for more than a day or two, and in time margarine’s conventional wisdom replaced butter’s.

Butter is always spreadable unless you stick it in the fridge. And it makes almost anything taste better. Best of all, it isn’t shot full of chemistry-set goodies, like (of all things) nickel. (See this shrill but scary description of how margarine is made, and from what. They’re not exaggerating; I’ve seen similar descriptions elsewhere.)

Make peace with butter. The science that condemned it was weak, and little by little it’s being exonerated by more recent (and more honest) research.