Food

Do you really need to refrigerate butter?

Butter storage: Who knew it was such a slippery subject?

The topic blew up on Twitter this week, after a food debate began over whether butter should be kept permanently in the fridge or out on the counter.

It's no wonder: If you have a stick of butter in your kitchen — and most of us do — you've obviously made a choice about where to store it. Sure, leaving it on the counter is convenient for buttering bread without tearing it to shards, but is it safe? We turned to food experts for their verdict.

(Drum roll, please.) Food-safety experts told TODAY that yes, you can leave butter out on the counter — as long as you follow a few guidelines (see below). Of course, they had some caveats, too. First: Storing butter in the fridge is obviously going to be the most foolproof way of staying safe.

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How to soften butter better

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How to soften butter better

Play Video - 1:24

"Let's equate it to going out in a thunderstorm. If you take a walk a around the block, are you going to get struck? Probably not. But to make absolutely sure, stay in doors until storm passes. It's the same thing with food safety," Joe Kivett, co-author of The Food Safety Book: What You Don't Know Can Kill You, told TODAY.

Butter's super-high fatty acid content is what makes it less susceptible to bacteria, as opposed to foods with high-water content, Kivett explained.

RELATED: 8 food-safety basics everyone should know

He and co-author Dr. Mark Tamplin, as well as another set of food-safety experts — Don Schaffner, food microbiology professor at Rutgers University, and Ben Chapman, professor at North Carolina State University, who are co-hosts of the Food Safety Talk podcast — all assured us that leaving butter on the counter is safe, as long as you follow the rules below.

How to store butter on counter safely

1. Use pasteurized butter. Unless it says "raw," most butter is pasteurized, meaning it's free of pathogens (bacteria that can cause foodborne illness).

2. Make sure it's salted. Salt keeps that evil bacteria at bay.

3. Store in an air-tight container. Keeping the butter container covered prevents food, liquids, cleaning products or other foreign items from contaminating the butter, Kivett and Tamplin said.

4. Keep it out for a week or two, max. Depending on the temperature of your kitchen, butter may develop a rancid taste after a week or two; the cooler your kitchen, the longer it will last, Kivett and Tamplin added. Remove from the fridge only the amount of butter you will use in one week.

5. Don't cross-contaminate. Because it's pasteurized, butter can only be contaminated by outside sources like someone’s hands (while opening the package) or a dirty utensil, Kivett and Tamplin noted. They recommend cutting/scooping the portion of butter you plan to use, and placing it on a small plate to minimize the risk of contaminating the butter in the storage dish.

Food poisoning outbreaks due to butter are exceedingly rare nowadays (due to all that pasteurization). There is one example of a one in Finland in the 1990s linked to Listeria monocytogenes in butter, but this was based on butter made from contaminated raw materials, and the people who were affected were already sick and in the hospital, Schaffner added.

Safety issues aside, taste also goes downhill eventually when butter is left on the counter. Due to the high-fat content, butter is prone to oxidation and rancidity, which is why it will become "unpalatable," after that week or two mark, Schaffner explained.

RPJ / Courtesy Butter Bell
If you want to store butter on the counter, an airtight container is a must.

Air-tightness and coolness are key to keeping up the fresh taste.

Lisa Tremain, spokesperson for Butter Bell, a company that makes insulated ceramic containers for butter based on 19th-century French "beurrier" crocs, said, "When we first launched our product line, back in 1996, we had many customers telling us how they had relatives (usually grandmothers) that would leave a stick of butter on a plate in the cupboard with a cheesecloth covering the butter. Unfortunately, that method doesn't preserve the butter for very long — especially if you are not using the butter too often."

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