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I've been making garlic butter for years, storing it for months at a time. When I read that garlic-in-oil can grow dangerous amounts of botulinum toxins after similar lengths of time, I wondered how safe garlic butter is and why.

Evidently, the safety warnings specifically target storage in oil. I couldn't find a satisfactory explanation for butter not being mentioned with a preliminary search. The first Google result turns up a grossly unhelpful Yahoo! Answers page whose sources do not mention butter at all.

To the point: is garlic butter safer than garlic-in-oil, and why? Is butter not also an anaerobic environment, so that the same precautions should apply as with oil?

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Are you storing it in the refrigerator? – Aaronut Nov 14 '13 at 13:02
Yes, naturally. However, I never minded keeping it out for up to about 4 hours to spread it more easily or use it in longer cooking sessions. – FvD Nov 15 '13 at 7:02
Garlic oil is also much safer in the refrigerator (though still not great for long term storage). The really strong warnings are for the people trying to bottle it and keep it on the shelf. – Jefromi Nov 15 '13 at 15:15
A common recommendation from health authorities seems to be 1 week max in the refrigerator for garlic-in-oil. It'd be good to know if butter is safer for chemical reasons, or if I just got lucky. – FvD Nov 18 '13 at 3:38
I'm wondering if it has to do with the fact that butter goes bad much quicker than oil does. You could conceivably have oil for a few months and it would still be ok, but butter would go rancid, so maybe garlic butter will go rancid before it's likely to have any botulism in it? – Daniel Chui Feb 20 '14 at 20:53

There's no reason to believe it's safer.

Garlic in oil is "unsafe" by FDA standards. Which means that roughly one in 100,000 bottles of homemade garlic oil kills someone. Before reading about the botulism risk, my friends and I used to make garlic oil at home and hand it out; I'd say we distributed probably 100 bottles, some of which stayed on the shelf for years before being used. In that time, nobody got sick from it (most bottles went to friends, so we'd have heard).

So the fact that your garlic butter hasn't killed anyone yet just means that you're playing the odds. Chances are, unless you get really sloppy, you could go on making garlic butter for the rest of your life and never get botulism poisoning. But not everyone is comfortable with that risk.

EDITED PER BELOW: You can improve your odds of avoiding botulism by straining the oil/butter through cheesecloth (to eliminate solids which would hide spores), and heat-treating it to 160F or more for 45 minutes. This will not eliminate all risk of botulism, but will improve your odds.

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I agree that unless we find a reason why garlic butter isn't mentioned alongside garlic-in-oil in those health warnings, it should be assumed that both are equally dangerous. However, I can't see how that would imply better food safety when straining butter through a cheesecloth. The environment would still be anaerobic, and the spores are heat resistant. Is there any source for this? – FvD May 7 '14 at 13:44
The straining through cheesecloth is to eliminate hydrous solids which could protect spores from the heat-treatment. However, you are correct that my recommentations for heat treatment duration are inadequate. Edited entry. – FuzzyChef Aug 11 '14 at 22:29

Garlic butter should be safer because you make it by chopping up garlic and cooking it in butter. The cooking reduces the water content in the garlic to low enough levels that botulism bacteria should no longer an issue.

The garlic in oil issue is that at the water content and pH of garlic, oil blocks the oxygen, allowing the anaerobic bacteria to thrive. But if you change either the water content, by cooking, or the pH, by pickling, then the bacteria can't grow.

Of course, either cooking or pickling will change the taste of the garlic, but both are delicious, so it's fine. :)

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Not only does butter contain more water than oil, this well-researched answer states that botulinum spores would grow on dried garlic immersed in oil. Butter would be more dangerous if water content was the deciding factor. Also, the garlic butter recipes I know don't involve cooking. – FvD Feb 26 '14 at 2:41

Unlike oil, butter isn't pure fat. Typically, it's around 80% fat in an emulsion with roughly 20% water and dissolved milk solids. So, no, it's not a truly anaerobic environment. If it were melted or clarified, it may be a different story. Furthermore, butter's crystaline structure -- at room temperature and below -- is bound to be aerated to some degree or another.

Also unlike oil, which is usually stored at room temperature, butter is usually stored at or below 40 degrees F, which retards bacterial reproduction of any kind. The botulism bacteria itself isn't inherently dangerous. It's pretty common in soil and also, therefore, in agricultural products, especially root crops like onions and garlic. When the bacteria reproduces under anaerobic conditions, however, there is a toxic chemical by-product of that specific process. Since low temperatures retard bacterial reproduction, they also reduce the risk that the toxin will be produced.

Realistically, the risks of garlic-in-oil preparations are probably mostly over-stated, but it can be a complex issue, and the consequences of botulism poisoning are too grave to take any chances.

That said, if you're making garlic butter with fresh garlic and storing it anywhere but the freezer, "months at a time" seems like too long, from a quality perspective if not a food-safety one.

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The water and dissolved milk solids may make it not a pure fat, but they don't make it a non-low oxygen environment. Storing garlic in oil in the refrigerator is also discouraged because some of the botulism strains are active below 4 C, and since most refrigerators cycle up and down around their target temperature, growth is possible. While the risks may be exaggerated for garlic in any fat, you have not distinguished the butter case in any meaningful way. – SAJ14SAJ Nov 14 '13 at 21:58
1) I'm not sure the structure of butter can be called crystalline, even if it solidifies at room temp. Even then, this link suggests that oxygen levels in processed fats like butter would be kept low to increase its shelf life. Water would not inhibit bacterial growth, so I don't see how this would explain a difference to other oils. 2) From a personal taste perspective, the garlic butter becomes more potent over the weeks (as the aroma diffuses into the fat, presumably). Quality doesn't seem to suffer until the butter turns rancid. – FvD Nov 15 '13 at 7:44

3 days if not refrigerated. 14 days in a fridge. Freezing is not recommended.

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Is there some documentation or reasoning for this? – SAJ14SAJ Nov 28 '13 at 23:50
And can he provide you with some documentation or reasoning? This is a safety question; making assertions without backing is not really a good thing. – SAJ14SAJ Nov 29 '13 at 0:03
1 if you read it at the end it says it has shelf life of one week. You can freeze if you wish but fresh is always tastier – Amanda Nov 29 '13 at 0:12
Why is it different from oil? (And I know you meant well, but ehow isn't really the most trustworthy source - that article was written by someone who didn't cite sources, and doesn't have a culinary or food safety background, so she might well have just picked the amount of time it seemed to stay good for.) – Jefromi Nov 29 '13 at 5:05
Frozen butter is indiscernible from fresh butter. In fact most butter in the world is frozen for storage – TFD Mar 22 '14 at 20:07

Lactic acid has been shown to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum. That is why it is safer to use butter than oil. link

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This is not a good argument. First, any acid will inhibit c.b., if you use enough of it. Butter has nowhere near enough lactic acid. Second, the link talks about a live colony of lactobacilicus, not about isolated lactic acid. It is normal that a live colony can outcompete other bacteria, but there is no live culture in butter, not even in sourmilk-made butter. Third, one of the most insidious things about botulism is that the spores can survive what the active bacteria can't. – rumtscho Sep 22 '14 at 22:53
The link is interesting. But if that is the basis for your premise, you're way, way short. – Jolenealaska Sep 22 '14 at 22:55

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