Topic: Food

From Butter to Wine

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My friend Rebecca left a voice mail this week asking how long eggs and butter can stay out of the refrigerator before they go bad. I get calls like that a lot. Usually, I can help, but the hard ones are from friends entertaining at a restaurant, when they’ve been handed the wine list and they’re calling, panicked, from a restroom. (I can always tell — that tile echo is unmistakable.) They don’t know what to order, and I understand the pressure. They don’t want to appear unknowledgeable or cheap.

Wine lists can be many pages long and overwhelming–I know a lot about wine, but compared with the amount of information about varietals, vintages, wine producers, regions, etc., I know a mere smidgen. Anyway, I can usually navigate a wine list, but muddling through what everyone wants to drink can be difficult, on top of trying to match the cuisine being served. One person orders a soup with a lot of cream and a main course of spicy meat. Another starts with an artichoke-laden salad followed by lamb.

Try asking the person serving you how well he or she knows the wine list, and get recommendations. If you’re still sweating like Nixon, ask to speak to the sommelier and express your needs. That’s his or her job: to maintain the wine list and to get you what you want at a price that makes sense to you. No shame in that, I promise. And may that be the worst thing that happens to you this week!

Anyway, I got back to Rebecca and it turns out, lovely person that she is, that she wanted to make cookies for her new neighbors. She took the butter and eggs out and put them on the counter. A combination of kids, phone calls, work, car pools, grocery shopping, text messages, pets, snow, sun, hockey, and basketball intervened, and those eggs and butter stayed on the counter for 10 days. “I had good intentions, but I don’t want to poison the new neighbors,” she laughed. And being a frugal New Englander, she wasn’t quite willing to throw the ingredients away.

Here’s the deal. Most supermarket eggs can stay out of the refrigerator for a few hours, depending on the temperature of your home, but you must store them in a cool (40 degrees) fridge. They should last 4 to 5 weeks in the fridge, depending on when they were delivered to your market. If you buy fresh eggs from a farm, you can keep them out on the counter for a good week, assuming that your kitchen temperature is in the 70s. Farm eggs aren’t scrubbed the same way supermarket eggs are, and the shell’s natural protective coating is still there. It prevents air, bacteria, and just about anything else from passing through the shell, thus keeping fresh eggs … well … fresh. But whether it’s from a basket on your counter or the container in your fridge, if an egg looks or smell odd for any reason, don’t use it. It’s better to err on the side of safety, especially with eggs.

As for the butter, smell and appearance are the giveaways. My parents to this day don’t refrigerate their butter. Occasionally they lose a stick, because they don’t use it fast enough. If the butter separates, curdles, or smells “off,” move on. Despite what my parents do, I strongly suggest not leaving butter out in the summer. Salted butter, by the way, will last longer out of the fridge than unsalted; the salt acts as a preservative. The refrigerator will certainly keep your butter fresher longer. Be sure to keep it well-sealed, as it’s really good at picking up refrigerator odors.

  • Sandra

    How long can hard boiled eggs be unrefrigerated. I have two granddaughters, ages 3 and 5 who refused to let go of their decorated eggs on Easter. They dragged them around everywhere and slept with the basket of eggs next to their beds. I figured throw out 2 dozen eggs.? . . or possible food poisoning? Hmmm not much of a choice there. But I sure was disappointed in not getting the deviled eggs I was looking forward to.

  • William

    Near the end you wrote about your parents not refrigerating butter and you advised that if the butter separates, curdles or smells “off” – to move on. I remember many years ago reading somewhere that if butter started to turn rancid, if you cut off the rancid portion the remainder would still be ok to use. Would you please comment on that; and would you also please comment along the same lines with regards to cheese: leaving out of refrigerator, mold on the surface, good rinds to eat and those not to? Thanks!

  • Michelle

    I agree about the wine lists; I like to think I know a lot about wine, but when it comes to pairing the right white or red with the correct entree, I like to leave that to the experts. Unfortunately, not every waiter knows too much about wine pairings, so I usually end up taking my questions to the bartender. http://blogs.nashuatelegraph.com/livefreeordine

  • Supplementary question: how long can mayonnaise be left out? We often hear that mayo-gone-bad is the source of summertime picnic food poisoning incidents, so I’m paranoid about this and try never to leave it out for more than a minute or two. But if I forget and the mayo is on the counter for a few hours, should I throw it out?

  • At Le Pure Cafe in Paris last week (and it’s not often I can say something like that) I didn’t even *try* to decrypt the wine list. As you suggest, I simply asked our server and she ran down the list of half-dozen wines they served by the half litre, giving me a thumbnail sketch of each (“a very strong wine from the south of France,” for example). I choose one that she made sound especially good, and I drank happy.


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