Keeping butter fresh and good.
February 5, 2010 5:23 AM   Subscribe

How do you keep your butter from getting rancid?

We don't eat much butter in my house, but I really like to have it around for occasionally sauteing things and for mounting sauces. Unfortunately it quickly oxidizes and starts to taste horrible.

Are butter bells the way to go?
Do you use other solutions to keep your butter tasting fresh?
posted by OmieWise to Food & Drink (33 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
My way is probably the wrong way, but I put it in the freezer and only take a single stick out at a time. Especially nice when the local dairy store puts it on sale and I can pick up a couple pounds cheap.
posted by pupdog at 5:28 AM on February 5, 2010 [5 favorites]

Depending on what you want it for, would replacing butter with Ghee (purified butter) do the trick? Keep it dry and it doesn't go rancid. I don't think you need to keep it in the fridge either, although we tend to.

I'm not sure about in the US, but in the UK you can get it in the foreign foods section of most supermarkets (non-chilled) in a tin can.
posted by twine42 at 5:28 AM on February 5, 2010

One of the best things about butter (and there are many) is that it freezes and thaws so well. Seconding freezing up until you use.

How can you not eat more buttar?!
posted by InsanePenguin at 5:32 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

I put out as much as I'll use in a couple of days, just in a ceramic ramekin, and keep the rest in the fridge. If you're talking a really long time, you can freeze butter. I have a work apartment in another city where I might only visit every other month, and I just cut sticks down into quarters and put them in a freezer bag so I can take out a piece and leave it on the counter to thaw for my stay. You could slice it in tablespoons, even, and just pop a frozen one in a pan as needed.

I have been considering a butter bell, just because they are pretty cool, but my system works well enough.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:32 AM on February 5, 2010

I just keep it in the fridge. I just used up some butter I got six months ago, and it was perfectly fine. But a friend of mine gets like twenty pounds at once when it goes on sale--which happens about once in a blue moon--and just freezes it until needed.
posted by valkyryn at 5:34 AM on February 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: I do freeze butter, but find that even if I only take out a stick it goes off before I'm done using it. I guess I could cut the sticks into smaller portions, but I was hoping for a more elegant solution.
posted by OmieWise at 5:35 AM on February 5, 2010

Don't leave the butter out of the refrigerator. Butter bells are no good for a warm climate, like the one I live in. Rancidity proceeds more quickly, the warmer the fat is. Freezing the additional sticks of butter, like pupdog suggests, is the way to go if your butter is going rancid even in the fridge (which takes a very long time). Freezing does not stop the rancidity process, but it slows it down.

Be sure to put the wrapped sticks inside a freezer bag so they don't pick up odors from other things in the freezer. Come to think of it, do the same thing with the stick in your fridge, in case some of the off-flavors you're detecting are transferred from other foods, instead of being caused by rancidity.

See whether you can buy smaller packages of butter more frequently.

By the way, some people call margarine butter. Margarine goes rancid more quickly than real butter.
posted by Ery at 5:37 AM on February 5, 2010

I also freeze my excess butter and keep just a bit in the fridge (and sometimes a bit out of the fridge - depending on how much I plan on using that week). I find that keeping it wrapped tightly (in its own wrapper or in waxed paper) keeps it fresh longer than a butter bell or other dish which allows more air to circulate. Also, if you are keeping it out of the fridge, make sure it is sitting out of the sun - sound obvious, but if we are out of the house all day, we sometimes don't realize the reach of the sun.

Salted butter keeps fresh longer than unsalted - the salt acts as a preservative - but I prefer to buy unsalted anyway.
posted by beyond_pink at 5:38 AM on February 5, 2010

How much are you putting out? And is it covered? Butter should keep for a week or so at RT, assuming it's in a covered dish (doesn't need to be a bell, just a standard stainless or ceramic butter dish -- don't use plastic!), and it doesn't get really hot. Don't put an entire pound out at once -- divvy it up into smaller pieces. (The butter I buy comes in a box of four individually wrapped sticks, and I put half a stick out at a time.) Keep the rest of the pound in the fridge. Don't unwrap it until you put it out (just cut the stick right through the wrapper), and put the partial stick back into the box or into the butter compartment of your fridge.

If you need to bake, or something which uses a lot of room temperature butter, take what you need out of the fridge. (And, as others have said, butter freezes well -- I currently have six pounds of butter in the freezer, and a half pound in the fridge.)
posted by jlkr at 5:54 AM on February 5, 2010

Response by poster: I just keep it in the fridge. I just used up some butter I got six months ago, and it was perfectly fine.

I actually hate it when askers police their questions, but you're just flat our incorrect. Unless you live in a world with different biology than the rest of us, your butter was pretty oxidized by the time you were done with it. You could have told this, if you could not taste it, by cutting into it. You would have seen an oxidized layer of a deeper richer color surrounding the inner layer of butter untouched by rancidity. You might not be able to taste this, or care if you do, but the premise of my question is grounded in biology, not opinion.

I buy unsalted (real) butter. Margarine is a different beast.
posted by OmieWise at 5:59 AM on February 5, 2010

I've never had it go off in the fridge -- only when kept out of the fridge. So I freeze most of it, and put one stick in the fridge, which I take out when I need to use it. If you are hardline about keeping it at room temperature, just subdivide it -- cut up the stick, and only thaw an amount that you will be able to use before it goes off.
posted by Forktine at 6:15 AM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: Actually salted butter is indeed real butter. It's there to prevent the exact problem you're having.


To quote the best cooking show out there:

USDA AGENT: The dairy division of the United States Department of Agriculture inspects dairy and butter production facilities to ensure wholesome product and sanitary conditions. Grades of double A, A or B are awarded based on flavor, body color, spread-ability and salt content. Double A butters are milk and smooth spreading. 'A' grade butters have a slightly rougher texture while B grades crack rather than spread and tend towards a slight acidity, which some bakers seem to like. To be certain that a brand has passed government scrutiny always look for the USDA shield and grade on the package.JUDGE: And what about margarine?

USDA AGENT: Margarine is a manufactured product, sir, and therefore outside my jurisdiction.

JUDGE: If butter is so carefully graded, then how come I pulled a stick out of my fridge a few weeks ago that tasted like Yak back?

USDA AGENT: Sir, I wouldn't try to pin that one on the federal government.

JUDGE: Who's fault is it?

ALTON BROWN: The distributors, the markets, maybe even yours, your honor. You see, nothing maters more to my client than freshness. If mishandled on the road, or in the store, or in the home, even top grade butter will oxidize.

JUDGE: Oxidize?

ALTON BROWN: Exactly. The butterfat reacts with the oxygen either from the air or in the water inside the butter itself to create butyric acid. That leads to rancidity and rancidity and tastes like ...

JUDGE: Yak back.

ALTON BROWN: Old, wet yak back to be exact. This is why, your honor, so many manufactures choose to wrap their unsalted butter in foil to keep the air out.

JUDGE: What about the salted?

ALTON BROWN: Ah. As long as you've got a little salt in the mixture, the reaction can't happen. You don't have to wrap it in foil. Of course, if your honor is really interested in butter freshness, well, allow me to introduce defense Exhibit G: a one pound box of butter. You'll notice, your honor, that there is a date embossed on the bottom of this box. Do you see that, your honor?


ALTON BROWN: Thank you. You'll notice that date is almost always four months from the actual date the butter was made. Now this is how you can tell if you're getting really fresh butter. Just look at the date, subtract four months and you'll know the date that it was made. Of course, I wouldn't push it much beyond this date even if I were to freeze it.

( - around the 9-min mark)


Although he said in the episode that unsalted butter comes wrapped in foil, I've not seen this in a long time. So you could consider wrapping your butter in foil and/or with a layer of plastic wrap. If you keep butter in the freezer, cut the stick in half, wrap in foil and store one half in fridge and one in freezer.
posted by royalsong at 6:19 AM on February 5, 2010 [6 favorites]

A) Buy salted.
B) Refrigerate it.
C) Both.
posted by Thorzdad at 6:34 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

royalsong writes "Although he said in the episode that unsalted butter comes wrapped in foil, I've not seen this in a long time. "

In Canada all butter, unsalted and salted, comes wrapped in foil. Or at least I've never seen it packed otherwise. I wonder if it's a regulation thing as similarly packaged margarine and lard come wrapped in paper.

If you have a dedicated chest/upright freezer it will keep stuff like this better because they don't experience the temperature swings that frost free fridge freezer units do. They also are usually colder than refrigerator freezers.
posted by Mitheral at 6:37 AM on February 5, 2010

Surprisingly, in the US, unsalted butter is actually less "real" than salted butter. It has become a common practice in the US dairy industry to add something called "natural flavors" to unsalted butter, including refined diacetyl. Salted butter usually escapes this practice.

There turns out to be a lot less difference between artificial flavors and natural flavors than you might think. The diacetyl added to unsalted butter is the same exact chemical that is added to margarine or artificially-flavored popcorn and has been found to cause debilitating lung disease in workers exposed to high levels. The fact that it is manufactured from natural sources does not make it safer for the workers, once it is in concentrated form. It's not harmful for you as a consumer, once it's added to the butter, but it's not aesthetically pleasing, either. There is some diacetyl naturally present in butter, but the flavor profile of the butter is changed by adding more diacetyl in refined form.

If you look for expensive brands of butter, you can find some without added natural flavors, but your typical unsalted butter in the US has the added flavors.
posted by Ery at 6:39 AM on February 5, 2010

You might not be able to taste this, or care if you do, but the premise of my question is grounded in biology, not opinion.

Ouch! valkyryn was probably talking about salted butter. I also keep it in my fridge for a long time (sometimes months) and there is never any visible oxidation. Is salted butter a dealbreaker for you?
posted by amro at 6:39 AM on February 5, 2010

I put my butter in the freezer. I'm still on the stick I bought two years ago. Your problem is that you're taking out a whole stick (1/4 lb, right?) at a time. Stop that. Take off what you need that very moment and nothing more.

I've also been known to re-freeze if I thaw too much. I figure the total thawed time will probably be less than the shelf life of butter.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 6:41 AM on February 5, 2010

It's possible to be more or less sensitive to rancid fats. You may just notice an "off" taste earlier than others.

The times I've noticed a bad taste in butter have been when I didn't seal it up in a bag or container and then something else in my refrigerator went bad and the butter absorbed the odor. I generally keep several sticks of unsalted butter in a box in my fridge for a month or more without problems. I do not notice any color change in the butter unless it sits out, uncovered in the main part of the fridge. Sealed up, it doesn't seem to oxidize. Maybe my refrigerator is colder than yours, or maybe it's the type of butter I buy (non-fancy, non-organic grocery store brand).

Possible solution: slice sticks of butter into, say, 2T pieces before you freeze them and then freeze them in a tupperware-type container (layered with wax paper to keep the pieces from sticking to each other). You should be able to use those pieces straight from the freezer if all you're doing is melting the butter anyway.
posted by Meg_Murry at 6:51 AM on February 5, 2010

I keep unsalted butter in the fridge for long periods of time - weeks probably, not more than 2 months probably, and have no problem with discoloration or change in flavor. We keep it closely wrapped in the paper from the store.
For really long storage we freeze it as often as required.
posted by SLC Mom at 6:59 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seconding the "Ouch."

Seriously though, I sliced the butter before I used it, and no, there was neither anything wrong with the taste nor any visible discoloration. I've tasted rancid butter--Boy Scouts don't always have access to refrigeration equipment--so I know what it tastes like. It was salted butter, kept wrapped until I opened it.

I think the wrapping may actually be the trick here. When I open a stick of butter, I almost always use it within a week, so it may not have time to go rancid. I've never had it go bad in that time, nor have I ever had a stick in its original wrapping go bad on me, out to a couple of months.

I never by margarine. Ick.
posted by valkyryn at 7:04 AM on February 5, 2010

I think the OP is keeping it in the fridge. but its still oxidizing. you now have me worried about this problem. (although i think i usually buy salted or lightly salted sticks)
posted by mary8nne at 7:13 AM on February 5, 2010

Yeah, salted is what you'll have to use to deal with this. FWIW, I have an annoyingly high threshold for rancid flavors, and I've never noticed it in salted butter. I keep it in a completely normal glass butter "cake dome" thing.

But since rancidity is oxidation, I suppose removing the oxygen is the way to solve the problem. The way to keep cheese from going funny is to keep it in wax paper, maybe the butter would benefit from same? Or some kind of contraption that stores it in a layer of not-oxygen like they invented for keeping wines from oxidizing?

Beyond that, I think the only solution would have to be to pre-cut the butter into 1/2 tbsp pats and freeze them.

(Is your refrigerator kept at the proper temperature? 34F-36F?)
posted by gjc at 7:14 AM on February 5, 2010

I live in a warm climate and my butter bell works beautifully.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:51 AM on February 5, 2010

i keep it in the fridge, in a covered butter dish and/or the semi-closed 'butter' compartment in my fridge, and haven't had a problem.

unused sticks usually live in the freezer, although this means i have to plan ahead when baking.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:17 AM on February 5, 2010

I actually hate it when askers police their questions, but you're just flat our incorrect.

Well this is just rude.

Buy salted butter, it's made to solve problems like this. It's no less "real" than unsalted, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean.
posted by InsanePenguin at 8:26 AM on February 5, 2010 [8 favorites]

Buying salted butter may just end up giving the OP a new problem:

Cook's Illustrated
Why shouldn’t I cook or bake with salted butter?

Butter was originally salted to preserve it, but its flavor keeps people coming back for more. While it's fine for your toast, we strongly advise against cooking with it for three reasons:

First, the relatively high amount of salt in the recipe can unbalance a recipe’s salt content. The exact amount of salt in butter varies from brand to brand, with a range of 1.25 to 1.75 percent by weight. Assuming an average of 1.5 percent, this works out to be about 1.7 grams of salt per 1/4-pound stick—1.7 grams measured by volume equals about 1/3 teaspoon—more than enough to tip the balance.

Secondly, salted butter tastes different than sweet cream butter—the salt masks some of the delicate nuance, especially once cooked.

And lastly, salted butter almost always contains more water. Water content in butter can range from 10 to 18 percent. (By law, fat content in butter must exceed 80 percent.) In baking, the butter with the lowest water content (i.e., sweet butter) is preferred, since excess water from butter can interfere with the development of gluten in the flour.

That said, we keep salted butter on the table, covered, to use with bread and unsalted butter in the freezer for cooking.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 9:08 AM on February 5, 2010

Best answer: I've found that there are widely varying abilities to detect the taste of rancid butter, so just because you don't notice that your butter is oxidized doesn't mean that OmieWise is looking for a solution to a problem that doesn't exist. Plus, there are reasons to prefer unsalted butter, so "buy salted" isn't the most helpful answer.

This is what Harold McGee says:
Because its scant water is dispersed in tiny droplets, properly made butter resists gross contamination by microbes, and keeps well for some days at room temperature. However, its delicate flavor is easily coarsened by simple exposure to the air and to bright light, which break fat molecules into smaller fragments that smell stale and rancid. Butter also readily absorbs strong odors from its surroundings. Keep reserves in the freezer, and daily butter in the cold and dark as much as possible. Rewrap remainders airtight, preferably with the original foiled paper and not with aluminum foil; direct contact with metal can hasten fat oxidation, particularly in salted butter. Translucent, dark yellow patches on the surface of a butter stick are areas where the butter has been exposed to the air and dried out; they taste rancid and should be scraped off.
> would replacing butter with Ghee (purified butter) do the trick?

Probably no, it's the breakdown of long fatty acid chains to shorter ones that cause the rancid taste. Removing the water and milk solids is unlikely to make a difference because oxygen is the primary culprit. Also, since OmieWise says he's mounting his butter for sauces, clarified butter does not lend itself to this as it is only fat and not a ready-made fat-water emulsion.

Regarding the butter bell: I lived in a house with one and it's perpetually on my wish list (unfortunately, I have always been a salted butter guy, so I can't tell you how unsalted behaves in the bell). It did keep salted butter fresh at room temperature, even through the summer weather in DC, despite my initial skepticism. Having it on hand at the stove did make me much more likely to use more butter while cooking and eating. Probably a bad thing overall (hurf-durf!), but constant use is one way to keep it fresh.

My butter protocol is to keep everything wrapped up tight in wax paper and freeze excess. I always keep unsalted butter frozen and have to plan ahead when baking. However, I have the best luck making beurre blanc with frozen butter and I've taken duck fat straight from the freezer to the sauté pan and don't see a problem treating butter the same way. You could reduce or eliminate the refrigerated portion of your butter stock and use it straight from the freezer for sauces and sauté. If you don't regularly spread butter on your toast, why keep it in the refrigerator or at room temperature?
posted by peeedro at 9:09 AM on February 5, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mods will delete this if it's a hijacking, but some of these comments read like their authors are used to keeping butter unrefrigerated. I mean, not just taken out for a while, but permanently sitting on the counter like a can of salt. I've never heard of this. How long does butter keep like this?
posted by d. z. wang at 10:09 AM on February 5, 2010

If you like unsalted butter, buy it in big chunks (like Plugra), cut off what you need for a week, and put in a well sealed butter dish. Re-wrap the rest in its wrapper and freeze in a second air tight container.

When we use butter fast, I keep it in a dark cupboard, but if it is not a daily thing, it goes in the fridge. I can't stand the taste of oxidized butter or butter that has absorbed fridge flavors, so this technique works the best of the ones I've tried.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:21 AM on February 5, 2010

You say you don't use much butter in your house. You simply need to buy smaller amounts of butter less often and store them in an airtight container, as all fats readily absorb odors. The requirement to buy smaller amounts of butter conveniently dovetails with the way really good butter is sold. I buy one 8-oz. package of Organic Valley European Style Cultured Butter or Vermont Butter & Cheese Company Cultured Butter at a time and, once opened, store it in an airtight Lock & Lock container. I'm exceedingly sensitive to the slightest hint of rancidity and was chucking butter out left and right before I started doing this. Now I never have to discard any.
posted by HotToddy at 10:41 AM on February 5, 2010

Response by poster: 1) When I used the adjective real, I was actually using it to mean milk-based butter, that is, not margarine. I didn't mean it to modify unsalted, so I never meant to imply that salted butter is not "real." I agree with the general sense that that would make no sense.

2) Thank you all for the advice about salted butter. I had no idea that salt was in butter for anything other than flavor, although I'm plenty familiar with salt's use as a preservative. I may literally never have purchased salted butter, since I so much prefer unsalted butter that I always buy that. However, I like salted butter far better than I like rancid butter.

3) valkyryn, I owe you an apology. Not knowing that salted butter resists oxidation so much better than unsalted, and not reading anything in your comment about why your butter lasts for six months unoxidized (I suspect you didn't know yourself), I read your comment as a dismissal of the premise of my question. Since I know very well that unsalted butter oxidizes readily and horribly, even if the taste may not be apparent to some people, I dismissed your comment. Now that I understand that you may actually use a different sort of butter, I'm sorry.

4) Well this is just rude. No it isn't. I was mistaken, just as you are to read my comment about salted butter as disparaging the reality of unsalted butter. But calling someone wrong is not rude. I was abrupt.
posted by OmieWise at 10:49 AM on February 5, 2010

My mother-in-law buys butter that's divided into eighth-of-a-pound sticks, rather than quarter-pound, each individually wrapped in paper. You might try those.

How long does butter keep like this?

It keeps for at least a few days, covered, unrefrigerated. I wouldn't know the outside figure, because, um, we use about a quarter-pound of butter a day. Family of four. Hurf durf, baby!
posted by palliser at 11:00 AM on February 5, 2010

Land o' Lakes sells half-stick packages of unsalted butter, if a smaller size would be useful.
posted by Sallyfur at 8:42 PM on February 6, 2010

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