Butter battle: Does it really need to be in the fridge?

One woman is making the case for room temperature butter

About 15 years ago, my younger son came home after spending the night at a friend’s house to announce that we needed to change our ways.

That family kept butter out at room temperature, and it was way better for spreading on toast than our refrigerated butter, he firmly declared.

For a while, we waged a bit of a butter fight, until my husband and I finally conceded that room temperature butter deserved a place on our kitchen counter.

We’re not the only household that has endured butter battles. Just the other day, I was talking with my neighbor Brian about it. He is a room-temp butter guy. His wife thinks he’s gross — and wrong.

No one preaches the possibilities of soft butter more than Joelle Mertzel, owner of housewares manufacturing company Kitchen Concepts and the inventor of the Butterie, a patented butter dish with an attached flip-top lid.

Joelle Mertzel is the founder of Kitchen Concepts founder and inventor of the Butterie butter dish. Ligaya Figueras / ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

icon to expand image

Credit: Ligaya Figueras

Los Angeles-based Mertzel was in town earlier this month, peddling her line of Butterie products at the Atlanta International Gift & Home Furnishings Market trade show. I caught up with her to learn about her butter epiphany and her campaign to improve our butter experience, which she chronicles in her 32-page, illustrated children’s book-cum-marketing tool, “Change Your Life for the Butter: A True Story About the Invention of a Butter Dish and Life With Soft Butter.”

Mertzel’s light-bulb moment concerning butter came about 14 years ago when she noticed butter sitting out on the counter at a friend’s house. It wasn’t something Mertzel grew up with, so she peppered the friend with questions, the most important being: Doesn’t butter have to be refrigerated?

Her friend didn’t know. Leaving a stick of butter out on the counter to stay soft was just how she was raised.

“That was a day Joelle will never forget. That day Joelle stopped refrigerating her butter. It was life-changing.”

Mertzel’s book is a riveting bedtime read — if you want your kids to go to sleep dreaming of soft butter.

Soft butter made toast and grilled cheese sandwiches better, but Mertzel found that traditional butter dishes had a downside.

“Every butter dish out there is two pieces,” she said. “The problem is with the lid. It either drops and breaks, or you have to set a messy lid down, or it drags through the butter when you cover and uncover it.”

It took Mertzel two years to come up with her design, which keeps room-temperature butter protected and countertops clean.

Wearing her special butter-yellow dress for our meetup, Mertzel gave me the spiel for her spiffy kitchen gadget, which fits up to two sticks of butter or a half-pound brick.

She ticked off other selling points. It is shatterproof, dishwasher-safe and easy to clean, because the lid snaps off. Handles on both sides make it easy to pass around the table. And there’s a built-in cradle to hold the accompanying butter spreader, so you only have to dirty one knife.

Joelle Mertzel is on a mission to spread the word about room-temperature butter. Courtesy of Kitchen Concepts

Credit: Courtesy of Kitchen C

icon to expand image

Credit: Courtesy of Kitchen C

Bed Bath & Beyond signed on as the first Butterie buyer when the product debuted in 2016. Available on the Butterie website for $15.99, it is carried at 500 kitchen and gift stores across the country and comes in 10 colors.

Mertzel’s next task was to prove to naysayers that butter could be left on the counter safely. She commissioned Michelson Laboratories in Commerce, California, to conduct a study on butter stored at room temperature (68-78 degrees). Butter samples varying in fat and salt content were tested for four spoilage indicators: yeast, mold, bacteria and rancidity. The results: Butter stored at ambient temperature retained good microbial quality for 21 days.

But Mertzel’s findings differ from those recommended by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is responsible for inspecting butter. Its recommendations, posted on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website, state: “Butter and margarine are safe at room temperature. However, if butter is left out at room temperature for several days, the flavor can turn rancid, so it’s best to leave out whatever you can use within a day or two.”

“What really was driving me nuts,” Mertzel recalled, “is I would see articles that would appear in major lifestyle magazines, like, is it really safe to keep butter on the counter? And how long can you keep it out for? And does butter really need to be refrigerated? Every time, these articles would cite what the USDA/FDA recommends. And I’m like, that’s not true. So, I contacted the FDA.”

She was told that she would have to file a petition requesting that the agency amend its butter storage guidelines. She submitted paperwork in February and expects an answer in September.

“I feel extremely confident,” Mertzel said.

If she is successful, her next goal is to push the FDA to amend the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance, which regulates the production and processing of all milk products in the U.S. Her main gripe is that butter currently is required to be sold with a label that says, “keep refrigerated.” Mertzel says that language is interpreted by consumers as “an absolute mandate.”

“I don’t know exactly what the best language would be,” she admitted. “Refrigeration not required” or “may be refrigerated” are a couple of her suggestions.

As Mertzel continues her one-woman butter crusade, she’s also looking to improve the user experience with other cooking staples. Later this year, she will launch an oil dispenser.

“I’m covering all the cooking fats,” she said.

Sign up for the AJC Food and Dining Newsletter

Read more stories like this by liking Atlanta Restaurant Scene on Facebook, following @ATLDiningNews on Twitter and @ajcdining on Instagram.