Keeping butter at its best means keeping it cold

Martha Stewart /

Published Feb 19, 2013 at 04:00AM

Q: Is it true that butter will stay fresh on the counter?

A: While salted butter can be left out longer than other varieties, leaving butter at room temperature isn’t always safe. The salt content and fine water dispersion in regular salted butter inhibits the growth of almost all harmful bacteria. But when that balance is changed — in unsalted, light or whipped butter, for example — the risk of contamination is greater. In fact, there have been outbreaks of staphylococcus aureus food poisoning associated with whipped butter left at room temperature.

Other bacteria, including listeria, can also grow in low-salt or unsalted butter. Butter can be contaminated at any point after the cream is pasteurized — during processing, shipping or even in your own kitchen.

Dishes designed for keeping butter at room temperature, such as a butter bell — a container that stores butter in a cup, upside down, resting in a small amount of water — may seem like a good way to keep spreadable butter at hand, but they do not eliminate the risk of food-borne illness if the butter was contaminated. Play it safe by keeping butter in your refrigerator at 38 degrees and making sure not to leave butter out for more than two hours while you’re using it.

Spreadable, edible butter in seconds: If you don’t have time to let your butter soften at room temperature, the editors in our test kitchen recommend microwaving butter for about 20 seconds or until evenly softened, flipping it a quarter turn every five seconds.

Selecting ceiling paint

Q: I need to paint my ceiling. Should I use glossy paint so that the colors of the room reflect off it?

A: High-gloss paint is traditionally used in bathrooms and kitchens, because it inhibits mold and mildew growth in high-humidity areas and is easy to wipe clean. Plus, when done well, a glossy finish is “beyond beautiful,” says Martha Stewart Living’s Kevin Sharkey. But the sheen that makes it so durable and dramatic also reflects a great deal of light and color — maybe too much. Even the slightest imperfection in your ceiling will be magnified if you use a glossy paint on it. Any nick or bump will be glaringly obvious when covered in high-gloss paint. Ideally, the surface you paint should be flawless, but getting it that way is difficult and expensive. It’s also likely that the additional glow will outshine the color intensity you’re going for; the ceiling could end up being an eyesore.

To achieve the best look, paint your ceiling with matte (or flat) white paint that has a slight tint to it. Find the color of your room on the store’s swatch wall or paint fan deck, and choose the lightest shade in that family — one so faint that you can barely tell there’s any blue in it, for example. It will push the room’s color to the next level.

Storing coffee beans

Q: I buy ground coffee in bulk and freeze it, but I noticed that the package says not to refrigerate or freeze it. Why is this?

A: Taking opened coffee in and out of cold storage creates condensation inside the package, which can act as a buzzkill for your beloved morning pick-me-up. “Moisture stales the coffee and makes the oils go rancid faster,” says Anthony Carroll, manager of the Starbucks Green Coffee Quality group. Exposure to air, heat and light can cause similar flavor changes, so Carroll recommends buying only a week’s worth of coffee at a time and keeping it in an airtight container in a dark, cool spot. For a true coffee-shop taste, purchase whole beans and grind them right before brewing. “Grounds have more surface area for oxygen to attack, so they get stale faster,” Carroll says.

If you like to stock up on prepackaged coffee, check the “best by” date. If you plan to brew before then, keep the container, unopened, on a pantry shelf. It’s fine to stash an unopened supply of grounds or beans in the freezer for up to a month. Leave the coffee in its unopened can or vacuum-sealed bag to avoid letting air in. If the package doesn’t have a good seal or it’s open, repackage it in smaller portions among resealable freezer bags (up to a week’s worth per bag). When you take the coffee out of the freezer, store it at room temperature.