Keeping butter without a refrigerator…

…has always been something of a problem for me.

For several years I grumped along on the cheapest margarin, on the assumption that most would be thrown away in summer when it melted into vegetable oil and promptly went rancid. A visit to the city in early 2017 reminded me of what I was missing, taste-wise, and an experiment demonstrated to my surprise that butter actually keeps in the summer heat better than margarine does. Still, it can go rancid and grow mold before you can use up your supply, which is a problem for a refrigeration-challenged desert hermit. I hate waste – I especially hate wasted luxuries.

Aware of the issue, Landlady gave me a gift a couple of months ago. I admit that at first it perplexed me…


It’s called a French butter dish, and its function is counterintuitive to say the least. Here’s how it holds the butter…


Yup – the actual butter cup is upside-down, sealed by about an inch of water.

According to my vast, exhaustive research the French butter dish is an idea that’s been around for over a century, in rural France, but it only became a commercial product fairly recently – which may explain why I’d never heard of such a thing.

Dealing with it in February or early March I had trouble getting it to work at first. You’re supposed to load it with softened butter, which commodity is not that easy to achieve in winter. I can melt butter, obviously, but convincing an entire stick to assume an even soft consistency was difficult so I just tried cutting a not-rock-hard stick into little pieces and smooshing the pieces into the cup. Turned upside-down, the cup promptly plopped the lumpy ball of butter onto the counter. When the instructions (yes of course there are YouTube videos, don’t be ridiculous) call for softened butter, they really mean that. A softened stick smashed into the cup really will adhere to the sides and stay inside when you invert it.

And in theory, that inch of water on the bottom of the little crock forms a seal around the outside of the cup, helping preserve the butter longer in the summer heat. We’re going to test that in a couple of months, but at present I’m already sure that a: it can’t help but be a preservation improvement over a little plastic tub, and b: in all weathers it really is a lot easier to use than a little plastic tub.

Low-tech solutions to low-tech problems! I love it.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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15 Responses to Keeping butter without a refrigerator…

  1. The Neon Madman says:

    I have one, they actually work quite well.

  2. patrick fowler says:

    Another is feather brand canned butter open water sailors use it…expensive but has along shelf life Patrick

  3. Mike says:

    If I had known you had this problem with butter, I would have told you about these years ago. We have had the same problem with keeping butter fresh in the late spring/summer/early fall. Back in 1996, a German cousin gave us one of these French butter dishes and since then the problem has gone away.

    Since you are on the subject of keeping things cool in the heat…

    I know you don’t have a fridge so here’s an alternative. Take a big flower pot, (as big as you can get) place an inch or two of sand in the bottom and then place a smaller flower pot inside the big pot. Next, fill the gap between the two pots with sand. Lastly, soak the sand with water, place the stuff you want to keep cool inside and cover with a damp towel.

    As the water evaporates it cools the inner pot which cools whatever you have in it.

  4. taminator013 says:

    Make sure that you scoop out the approximate amount of butter you are going to use with a clean knife. If you go back for more do not use the same knife that you used to butter your toast or whatever. Any little bread crumb is like a mold starter in the butter. I know this from sad experience……..

  5. jed says:

    Yeah, ditto … have you mentioned butter before? I’ve used a butter bell for at least a couple years. Works a treat, though I don’t use an inch of water – just barely enough so the lip of the bell gets under it. And only distilled water. I’m sure the water here isn’t nearly as bad as yours, but I still don’t want to deal with scale.

    Hey, makes me think, how well would a yakchal work at your place? 🙂

  6. Jw says:

    They are wonderful. Been using one for the past 5 years or so. And you’re right, there is a certain softness that is best for loading the butter bell. Although it doesn’t usually last that long (being eaten), we’ve kept butter at least 3 weeks or so before a complete wash down and reload. And we double dip on a regular basis without problems, YMMV.

  7. Joel says:

    Hey, makes me think, how well would a yakchal work at your place?

    Probably work as well here as it does in Iraq. But what works better is my neighbor’s fridge on the other side of the ridge. 🙂

  8. mattexian says:

    Have you tried ghee (Indian-style clarified butter), or is it available in your supermarkets? I’ve seen it next to the lard, shortening, and assorted vegetable oils here. It’s the solution to the heat of the Indian subcontinent doing similar to the butter there. I’m just a horrible American heathen, keeping a stick of butter on a tray in the fridge compartment for it.

  9. RB in GA says:

    I use surplus German Army butter dishes that I got from Sportsman’s Guide. The work really well to keep butter at room temp. If you try one be sure to check the rubber gasket, as some are a bit stiff and dont seal as well. I’ve kept butter in them for 2 months or so with no problems.
    Red feather is my go to butter for storage, but the stuff has gotten outrageously expensive- about $10/can, I’ve recently been using whatever quality butter is on sale at the grocery store for daily use. Also, when I can find it, I get 2 pound blocks of Amish butter and vacuum seal then freeze it.

  10. TS says:

    I’ve used a butter bell for years in the summer. I bought a marble one from Lehman’s and the marble works even better than ceramic. Also they’re harder to break…but not impossible. I have the bottom of one that I broke the butter bell top on, it makes an excellent container for my salt next to the stove.
    TeresaSue

  11. Terrapod says:

    Oh my! I fear the desert living through winter may just have affected your cognitive skills a wee bit.
    If you ever need to soften a slab of butter, place it (as wrapped) into a plastic baggie, then stuff it down your lumberjack shirt pocket under the coat. Your body is at 97.3 F normally, and it will soften that sucker up in no time. Of course if you have a dog, it would go faster seeing they are around 102F, the only downside being they might eat it before it softens 😉

  12. Joel says:

    So everybody knows about this but me. That’s…actually not surprising.

  13. Just to pile on…

    Ditto to what Mike mentioned – the evaporative cooling will save you a few degrees. I’ll often drape a wet dishcloth or towel over something I just want to keep cool. The only downside is that you need to keep the media (towel, etc.) wet. Between that and layered insulation you can do pretty well.

    Come to think of it – I think they call that a root cellar in it’s fuller iteration.

    And OTOH – in the winter to keep from freezing – just cut open some big critter and crawl inside to stay toasty warm!

  14. TS says:

    I wouldn’t say everyone knows about them Joel, I’m guessing it’s more the people who are always looking for a way to be less dependent on the “normal “ things considered in American life. Which would definitely include people who read your blog. : )
    TeresaSue

  15. ruralcounsel says:

    Need not go overseas for these things. They are pretty popular with the Amish, and certain mail order businesses which are popular with the Amish sell them. Try Lehman’s from Kidron Ohio.

To the stake with the heretic!