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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.


  1. Jeff: Totally and utterly agree. We always have a stick of butter out, and I think it actually matures out of the fridge to give it a better taste (my Dad’s pet theory since we grew up on Normandy butter). Mind you we go for the “European-style” butter over here, since I think it has a better flavor anyway.

    Cheers, Julian

    1. So does unsalted butter keep well at room temperature? I’ve read in many places (including Mark Kurlansky’s book Salt: A World History) that salt has been added to butter from ancient times as a preservative. We always use salted butter, mostly out of habit (it’s more common in the States) so I have no experience with unsalted butter in my own kitchen. I’ve had it dinnering with friends and like it, but food inertia can be powerful…

  2. Chuck Waggoner says:

    I have to salt butter if it is ‘unsalted’. My parents used unsalted butter when I was growing up, and everything they used it on needed salt added. But milk and butter should already be naturally salty–no? Comes out of the cow that way–no? Surely they do not add yet extra salt?

    In Germany, butter is not sold in sticks, but in a 250g rectangular slab (about the quantity of 2 sticks). It is refrigerated in the stores and we keep it cool until ready to use, then it lives on the counter above the fridge (refrigerators are tiny here, and mostly sit under the kitchen cabinet–no freezer section; if you have a freezer, it is a separate gizmo). Nobody we know here refrigerates butter (cannot afford the space in a small fridge). It is another thing that our American relatives are shocked by–most do not know that butter will not spoil quickly.

    Dairy products that are high in fat content do not spoil as quickly as skim stuff. That includes milk. Whole milk lasts a LOT longer than skim. Whole milk in Germany is 3.5%. The next step down is skim at 1.5%. Anything less than 2% is water to me, with no discernible food value, so we use the 3.5% stuff. Germans consider milk to be VERY bad for adults, and to be used in moderation by children (one glass a day). Where Americans criticize smoking as unhealthful, Germans smoke about as much as Americans did in the 1950’s, but they absolutely rail against adults who drink milk–like Americans do against smokers. Milk is only to be used in cooking.

    We do have a freezer in another room–again, it is small: think dorm-size fridge. Most people do not store things here (very little storage space for anything actually), but go to the grocery several times a week and buy only what they need for the next couple of days. With 70% of Berlin not owning a car, there are neighborhood groceries everywhere, and people walk home carrying what they eat; they do not drive home a month’s supply in a car.

    Most drink items (like milk and juices) come in UHT boxes/packaging. They do sell milk refrigerated, but it is about twice the price. I have done a taste comparison between refrigerated and UHT packaging, and the UHT stuff is noticeably sweeter–which tells me that more sour bacteria is being killed in the UHT processing than in the normal refrigeration route. Not sure why UHT packaging has not taken over in the US–it is obviously cheaper than refrigerating the whole chain from cow to home.

    Ketchup is another thing that does not need refrigeration, but most people do (we don’t). Chocolate syrup is another.

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