What grabbed my attention this week is a low-tech, possibly even ancient gadget called a butter bell. You could call it a method for finding that happy medium between hard-to-spread butter in the refrigerator and ruined butter left too long on the kitchen counter. The butter bell is a small crock with a bell-shaped lid. You add some cool water to the bottom of the crock, then put your butter in the bell, turn it upside down and place it into the crock. The water forms a seal around the exposed butter to keep bacteria, insects, dust, and odors out. And you can forget ever putting cold butter in the microwave again, which leaves you with butter that's more pourable than spreadable. Butter Through the Ages explains how the bell works. With a bell you can supposedly keep your butter out of the refrigerator for up to a month before it starts to go rancid. It's always soft enough to spread and ready to serve at the dinner table.

Some experts are a little skeptical of the claim that the bell will keep butter fresh for a month. Maybe you should use your butter up faster than that to be on the safe side. Martha Stewart says that salted butter will keep longer than unsalted butter, but if you leave the bell in direct sunlight or if the house gets very hot, it will probably go bad sooner. A commenter with experience says butter in a bell will melt and make a mess if the house is hot. You should wash the bell thoroughly before reloading it with fresh butter. Also keep in mind this will NOT work with margarine or the abomination they call "spread" (which is already soft because it is made of soybean oil and water).

You can buy a Butter Bell brand crock for about $20. I also found bells from Norpro and Pinzon for about half as much. Of course, you can pay more. If you've used one of these, please leave your opinion for the rest of us.