When it comes to storing food, many of us simply follow what our parents and grandparents did. Who cares about reading the package instructions when grandma left her butter in the butter bell all day, every day, right?
So, maybe your butter’s home is on the counter in a dish. Or if not on the counter at all times, perhaps you leave your butter sitting out overnight to soften before baking.
But, should you really leave butter sitting out, unrefrigerated? And, if so, how long can it be on the counter before it becomes unsafe to eat? We asked the experts at Land O’Lakes to put the debate to rest once and for all—and, some of you might not like the answer.
Can I Leave Butter On The Counter?
It turns out that this concept is a little bit more complicated than a simple yes or no response because it’s more than just a question of safety.
Even though, according to Land O’Lakes, “the USDA and FDA require that most dairy products be stored in the refrigerator,” butter doesn’t always fall into that dairy category. Because, according to the USDA, butter is safe to consume at room temperature—however, that isn’t the only concern.
While butter is “safe” to consume at room temperature, you don’t always want to. Leaving butter out can cause it to go bad and become rancid, which can significantly impact the flavor. So, Land O’Lakes has some recommendations to ensure your butter is the best it can be.
“[For storage], Land O’Lakes recommends following the ‘Keep Refrigerated’ directions printed on the labels,” according to Land O’Lakes culinary team.
But, don’t worry, when you need to soften butter, you can still leave it on the counter without it going rancid. Land O’Lakes says taking your butter out of the fridge for about 30 to 60 minutes before use will perfectly soften it for spreading and baking.
So, How Long Can I Leave Butter Out?
Even though room-temperature butter likely won’t make you sick, Land O’Lakes recommends storing butter in the fridge when you’re not using it. But, if you’re in the heat of baking and forget to put the last little knob back in the fridge right away, that’s ok—just so long as you don’t let it sit out for a few extra hours.
“Do not leave butter at room temperature for more than 4 hours,” says Land O’Lakes culinary team. “Always return any unused butter to the refrigerator and be aware that butter left outside refrigeration may become darker in color and have the flavor affected.”
Keeping butter in the fridge is a good rule of thumb as it ensures the tasty fat won’t take on any undesirable odors or flavors from your kitchen. Plus, the cool fridge temps make butter last much longer because room-temperature butter can go rancid within a day or two, according to the USDA, while refrigerated or frozen butter can last months.
How To Soften Butter Safely (and Quickly)
If you shouldn’t leave your butter on the counter to soften for hours and hours, what should you do? Land O’Lakes says the safest way to soften butter is to leave it at room temperature for 30 to 45 minutes.
Of course, however, sometimes we forget to take the butter out of the fridge before baking altogether—so, what about the fastest way to soften it?
“To soften butter more quickly, you can cut the butter into small chunks and let stand at room temperature for about 15 minutes,” according to Land O’Lakes.
Additionally, Land O’Lakes must subscribe to one of our favorite celebrity home cooks’ Pretend Cooking Show because they’ve put their stamp of approval on Jennifer Garner’s trick for softening butter. If you’re in a real pinch, you can use your cheese grater to grate the butter into small pieces that will soften extra quickly. It’s also the best way to soften frozen butter directly from the freezer, according to the culinary team.
“Grate frozen butter using the large holes of a box grater or a strainer. Grating the butter onto a piece of waxed paper makes for easy transferring to a mixing bowl for use. Let it sit at room temperature for just a few minutes and the shreds will warm up and soften quickly,” according to Land O’Lakes.
The Bottom Line
While no one is saying you need to throw your butter dish away, it might be time to rethink how you store your butter. Especially if you’re not experiencing the full joy of what fresh, quality butter tastes like in baked goods because you’ve accidentally let your butter get a bit rancid. Maybe start keeping it in the fridge and see just what chilled butter can do for you!