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Is it safe to leave butter sitting out on the counter?

Many people prefer butter at room temperature — but is it safe to leave it out of the fridge? Here's what the experts say.

It’s time to start your day. You pop a piece of bread in the toaster and reach for some butter. Is it chilling in the refrigerator, needing to be brought to room temp, or is it sitting on your countertop, ready for spreading?

How you answer that question might say more about outdated food safety practices than personal preference. An April article in the Wall Street Journal highlighted “Change Your Life for the Butter” author Joelle Mertzel and her mission (let’s call it a smear campaign) to liberate butter from U.S. refrigerators. The FDA recommends butter only go unrefrigerated for a day or two — a major sticking point for the L.A.-based “butter evangelist" whose own lab tests found no signs of spoilage after 30 days at temperatures up to 77 F.

And Mertzel is not alone: Many experts believe current guidelines are unnecessarily harsh. “In all honesty, I have left butter out and eaten it,” Jeanine Flaherty, Vice President of Food Safety & Quality Assurance at Vital Farms, tells “Butter is high in fat and low in moisture, making it a less-than-perfect environment for certain bacterial growth, particularly if it’s salted.” Salt, of course, has been used to help preserve food since ancient Egypt. However, Flaherty is only comfortable recommending “a couple of days at most” for the butter-on-the-counter enthusiasts. “My biggest concern with salted butter would be the quality declining, such as flavor. Yeasts and molds, which are spoilage organisms, are likely to grow more rapidly when left out.”

Flaherty errs on the conservative side. Jill Allen, the Director of Product Excellence for the Tillamook County Creamery Association, says it's fine to leave butter out, in a non-transparent covered dish to prevent oxidation, for two weeks. Make that four if it’s in a butter bell.

All the better for the purposes of a butter board, the polarizing entertaining trend that took off last fall when Justine Doiron (aka @justine_snacks), posed a fateful question to the internet. “Have you heard of a butter board?” she asked, swooshing two sticks of softened butter onto a wood cutting board. She dragged a piece of bread through it the way you might scoop up some hummus with a piece of pita. Social media was instantly full of hot takes: On TikTok alone, #butterboard now has over 472 million views and counting.  

Whether it’s for a platter or a stack of pancakes, not everyone thinks puddles of butter are the platonic ideal. The legendary chef Jacques Pepin prefers to eat it cold, like the Danes, who even have a word for a layer that’s thick enough to show teeth marks when you bite into it: tandsmør, or “tooth butter.” (For comparison, #tandsmør has 283,000 views on TikTok.) But how to spread it without ripping up the surface of your carby treat? Pepin told WSJ he uses a vegetable peeler to shower his toast with shavings of cold butter like freshly grated Parmesan on pasta.

What about those who prefer to stick their butter in the fridge for flavor reasons but need a quick way to get a perfectly smooth consistency in case of a breakfast emergency? Allen shared an expert trick: First, set some water to boil and then cut butter up into chunks, placing them on a plate. Pour the boiling water into a glass measuring cup, empty it out and quickly place the now-warm cup over the butter on the plate. In about 10 minutes, Allen says, you’ll have “a much softer, pliable butter.”

This could come in handy as we head into summer and our houses heat up. Even those who prefer butter stay on the table at all times might want to reconsider their routine in the coming months. “If your butter gets too warm in your house, you might experience some fat and water separation that can lead to a butter that is gritty, mealy, grainy and leaky if re-cooled,” says Allen. She recommends shopping for the highest fat content you can find, which helps preserve the butter longer and minimize separation when left out on the counter. By law, U.S. butter must contain at least 80% butterfat (Tillamook touts 81%, while Vital Farms clocks even higher, at 85%). Less water content also improves the flavor when used in baking and cooking, and helps it soften faster when removed from the refrigerator.

The last word has to go to the chef who is credited with inspiring the butter board trend years before it went viral on TikTok. Joshua McFadden, the James Beard award-winning author of “Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables,” tells there’s no need for either side to get salty. “Why is this something that is still debated?” he asks. “Butter should be both, room temp and cold.”

Ghee wiz! A dual-dairy household could be the key to smooth sailing on all your butter adventures from here on out.