Leaving the Butter Out

Several months ago, Watson the cat came to my rescue when a mouse squeezed through a nickel-sized hole at the bottom of my front door and streaked into the house. Not only did Watson locate, stalk and kill the mouse, he also ate it. I was so thrilled with his heroics that I wrote a column about what he’d done. I ended the column by saying that, once Watson had finished his job, he jumped onto the kitchen counter before I could stop him and began licking the stick of butter I keep beside my coffee pot.

Readers seemed less impressed with Watson’s hunting skills than curious about the butter. “Why do you keep it beside your coffee pot?” several asked. I explained that I enjoy a modified version of “bulletproof” coffee, which involves stirring a little pat of butter into my brew every morning. Yeah…but what they really wanted to know is how come I don’t store my butter in the refrigerator.

As it turns out, it’s a hotly debated topic. Until recently, I kept butter in a perfectly sized niche on the fridge door. It had never occurred to me to do otherwise. But one cold winter’s day, I was invited to a friend’s house for a tomato-soup-and-grilled-cheese-sandwich lunch. I helped her spread the slices of bread with perfectly softened butter and then turned to put what remained into the refrigerator. “Just leave it there by the stove,” she told me. “That’s where it stays.”

“You leave your butter out?” I asked incredulously.

She nodded. “It’s easier to deal with that way.”

Naturally, I started googling the minute I got home. I learned that many folks, especially those who really love to cook, leave a stick or two of butter softening outside the refrigerator all the time. Some pack it into a “butter bell,” designed so that softened butter can be submerged and sealed in cool water. Others use a traditional butter dish, a small plate or even a glass jar.

The United States Department of Agriculture recommends that butter be stored at room temperature for no more than two days. Those in the know believe that recommendation is overly cautious. Most butter sold at grocery stores is pasteurized, meaning that its pathogens have been removed by heat. Salted butter, not surprisingly, is even more protected against bacterial growth. As long as unrefrigerated butter is kept covered and away from direct heat, it’s probably fine for several days. Butter will grow rancid before it actually becomes dangerous, experts say. If it seems “off” in appearance or taste, throw it away.

I soon discovered that my three children—all of whom are much better cooks that I’ve ever aspired to be—also store their butter on the kitchen counter. Who knew? And they all like bulletproof coffee, too.

But back to Watson. It was déjà vu all over again when I visited my Kentucky kids and grandkids last weekend. They recently adopted a white kitten with a black tail and one black ear named Bumble Bee. Though it looks as though he’s going to be a real good cat, he hasn’t yet dispatched a rodent. And despite repeated stern scoldings, he hasn’t yet learned that cats don’t belong on kitchen counters. His favorite spot? Right next to the coffee pot, which happens to be where daughter Leigh, who isn’t a cat person but who’s being a good sport about Bumble Bee, keeps the butter.

“He goes straight for it, every time,” she told me. “Isn’t that amazing?”

Not when you consider that butter is just cream in a different form, I told her. And then I told her about Watson and the mouse in the house and the butter-licking, a story she’d heard several times before but that was now a good deal more personal.

(February 19, 2022)