28

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?

  • 1
    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
  • 3
    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. – Cascabel Nov 15 '13 at 15:15
  • 3
    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
  • 1
    Botulism is still quite rare in most countries. Many people are ignorant of it, yet there are very few documented cases of it – TFD Apr 21 '14 at 22:40
6

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.

  • 6
    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
  • 1
    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
3

I suspected that @FuzzyChef's answer was essentially correct, but I felt that the question was not conclusively answered without sources, so I ended up never accepting an answer. Thankfully, Linda Harris published this very comprehensive summary (which I recommend you to read if you are a fan of garlic), from which these parts stand out:

Garlic is a low-acid vegetable. The pH of a clove of garlic typically ranges from 5.3 to 6.3.
[...]
Adding wine or vinegar to garlic provides an acidic environment (less than pH 4.6) so that Clostridium botulinum cannot grow.

A quick Google search reveals that butter has a pH of 6.1 - 6.4, so there is indeed no reason to believe that garlic butter is safer than garlic in oil.

As the summary says that garlic in oil is safe for up to 4 days in the refrigerator, it should be safe to assume that the same would hold for garlic butter.

Most interestingly, however, the document explains a method to acidify garlic for long-term storage in oil, based on research that was published a year after this question was originally posted. The method should be just as valid for garlic butter. In short:

  1. Prepare 3 parts of 3% citric acid solution (about 15 g citric acid / 500 ml water) per part of garlic to be acidified (and don't change this ratio, obviously)

  2. Coarsely chop the garlic into pieces no longer than 6 mm (1/4 inch) in any direction

  3. Put the garlic in the solution, mix, cover and let soak for 24 h at room temperature, then drain/sieve.

This acidified garlic is safe to use in oil (and presumably butter), according to science. Enjoy!

0

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. :)

  • 9
    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
-1

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.

  • 6
    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
-1

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

  • 1
    Is there some documentation or reasoning for this? – SAJ14SAJ Nov 28 '13 at 23:50
  • 10
    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
    ehow.com/how_8289511_make-garlic-butter-compound.html 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
  • 1
    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.) – Cascabel Nov 29 '13 at 5:05
  • 2
    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
-2

I thought that our stomach acid kills botulism spores... Which is why we recommend that infants under 12 months do not eat honey. Honey can store botulism spores... But it's not dangerous for older kids and adults.

  • 5
    I also have read this, but I think the people panicking over garlic stored (room temp) in oil arent worried about the spores themselvs (present on fresh garlic too, no?), but the mischief the spores may get up to when submerged beneath oil in an anaerobic environment, and may in time begin a flourishing colony on the (moist, nutritious) garlic. After while, you would have botulinum toxin, and it could kill you if you eat it without cooking it to the point of breaking it down (dont know temp or time for that) That's my understanding; I'm sure someone here will correct me if need be. – Lorel C. Sep 17 '17 at 22:38
  • @LorelC. sums it up nicely - you have to differentiate between exposure to the spores (which under normal conditions won't be able to grow in humans - with exceptions, especially where the imune system isn't fully active) and exposure to the toxin, which may kill you - 5-10% of all cases of botulism are fatal. – Stephie Sep 19 '17 at 22:40
-4

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

  • 1
    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
  • 1
    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

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.