Reader Mike writes:
Growing up, we never kept butter in the fridge, we kept it in a cupboard, in a cool dark dry place. I mentioned this fact aloud when I lived in CA or NY or one of the places in between, and my roommates looked at me like I had said I wanted to be skinned alive and dipped in the great salt lake. I’m curious about how the “other parts” of the world (i.e. not Iowa) do it.
My impression is that in the US we mostly refrigerate ours, at least these days. However I remember as a child, many of my friends’ families used tabletop crocks or butter dishes. I suspect that most of the rest of the butter-eating world keeps theirs at room temperature, but that’s just a guess
The issue for keeping butter isn’t so much contamination, since microbes have a hard time thriving anywhere where there isn’t much water. The bigger problem is that butter picks up “off” flavors so easily. I think the presumption in the States has been that refrigerators do a better job of protecting butter from cooking odors. However refrigerators trap and hold quite a lot of odors too, as anyone who’s ever tried to keep Thai leftovers for very long surely knows.
Maybe the Scots and Irish of old had the right idea. They kept theirs in wood buckets immersed in peat bogs. The cool, wet, anaerobic environment kept this “bog butter” preserved for years, centuries even. People cutting peat for fuel still find the stuff from time to time, some of it thousands of years old.