Do You Actually Need to Refrigerate Butter? Here's What Experts Say

It turns out you can store butter in the fridge or at room temperature, but it depends on how quickly you'll use it.

Everyone knows you need to keep dairy products like milk and cheese stored in the refrigerator, or they'll spoil. Butter, on the other hand, is a little different. Some people keep it in the fridge, but others store it on the counter so it's always ready to spread across toast or a crusty piece of bread. So it's time to settle the debate once and for all: Does butter need to be refrigerated? If not, how long can you leave butter out? Read on for what the safety experts have to say on the issue, plus how to store butter.

Softened butter stick on wrapper wth knife
Jay Wilde

Is It OK to Leave Butter Out?

The short answer is yes, you can. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently said that you can store butter on the counter for a few days without it going bad (rejoice, room temperature butter fans!). A study from the FDA even notes that, unlike other dairy products, both butter and margarine have a long history of remaining safe to eat even when they're stored out of the refrigerator.

"When butter and margarine are made, the pasteurization process reduces any pathogens initially found in the cream, then the churning process changes their physical properties to become more solid," says Janilyn Hutchings, a food scientist and certified professional in food safety who works for StateFoodSafety. "Salted butter and margarine are even better protected from bacterial growth because salt increases their stability even more."

So while you can safely store a stick of butter or margarine outside the fridge, there are still a few caveats. The USDA recommends using butter or margarine that's stored at room temperature within a few days because it will still spoil eventually. On the other hand, butter will last for a couple of months in the fridge, so you might want to store your extra sticks in the refrigerator and leave just a small amount on your counter (you can still soften refrigerated butter quickly if you need to).

"The exact amount of time butter and margarine can be left out without becoming rancid has been debated," Hutchings says. "For best quality, keep butter and margarine in a covered dish and use them within a few days."

But this doesn't mean that you can leave any type of butter or margarine on your counter safely. Any butter that hasn't been pasteurized, like homemade, has to be refrigerated, along with butter spreads that you can usually buy in small tubs. So if you want to leave some of your butter out on the counter, only do it with the stick form, and only when it's been pasteurized.

Butter Storage

A butter dish is also your best bet for keeping the butter on your counter fresh longer. You don't necessarily need anything fancy, though a butter dish ($12, Amazon) that seals will probably keep your butter fresher longer than a dish with a non-sealing cover. Some counter-butter-keepers swear by French butter dishes ($29, Amazon), small crocks that use water to seal the dish's lid. Whatever container you use, just make sure you're carefully washing it out after each use before you load it up with your next round of butter.

So, wonder no more: You can store sticks of pasteurized butter and margarine at room temperature for a few days at a time without worrying about them going bad. For the best results, keep salted butter on your counter, and use a butter dish to help keep it fresh. Trust us, your morning toast will thank you if you do.

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