I’ve gotten a couple of questions about storing butter and cheese while cruising. With our coastal cruising, I’ve never gone longer than a month without reprovisioning — usually two to three weeks — but as the cheese selection was limited in some of the places we visited, I have stored cheddar for 5 or 6 months at a time. As the majority of cruising boats have refrigeration, I’ll first discuss long-term storage of cheese and butter with refrigeration, then options if you don’t have refrigeration.
Even with refrigeration, you need to take some precautions to store butter and cheese longer than a week. Butter (and margarine, too — I’ll refer to both together as “butter”) will pick up flavors and odors the longer its stored, and cheese will mold if not properly handled.
Butter — Any butter that won’t be used in the next week should be double-bagged in heavy-duty Ziploc bags (get as much air out as you can) or vacuum sealed. This will really help protect it against picking up tastes from other things in the refrigerator. I like to put just one or two sticks in each package (particularly if vaccuum-sealing) so that I can easily take out a little at a time.
I usually put my entire stock (except what I’m currently using) into a plastic container with a tight lid (see food storage supplies) that I can tuck into an out-of the way spot in the refrigerator — the colder the better. I’ve kept butter this way for as long as three months when I’ve found a particularly good price.
Note that I use olive oil and canola oil in place of butter in a lot of my cooking so that I don’t need to carry as much butter in the refrigerator — see reducing food in the refrigerator for more information. It’s also healthier!
The stick(s) that I’m currently using I put in a Lock & Lock plastic container. I just use a small rectangular box out of the set I have. The Rubbermaid Lock-It boxes also do a good job of protecting against odors.
Cheese I basically store in the same way. If it comes commercially packed, I leave it in its wrapper and put Ziplocs or a vacuum sealed bag over that. If it’s been cut from a larger piece, I wipe the piece well with white vinegar (you can use other types of vinegar but they may leave a bit of a taste) and make sure it’s dry before putting it in a Ziploc or vacuum sealed bag. I also put these in a larger plastic box for long term storage; I keep opened cheese blocks in their own tightly-lidded plastic boxes.
If cheese freezes, it will be more “crumbly,” but otherwise fine to eat.
If hard cheeses develop a little mold, you can just cut it off and wipe the remaining part with vinegar.
Cream cheese will keep for up to 6 weeks if you vacuum seal the blocks individually, foil and all (take it out of its box). Using Ziplocs instead of vacuum sealing it, I’ve kept it 3 to 4 weeks before it developed mold.
Cottage cheese, ricotta and other very moist cheeses can generally be stored unopened for a week or even sometimes two if they came in a sealed plastic carton (the kind with plastic film or foil over the top). I’ve never had much luck with storing them longer, or storing very long once they were open. I’ve tried turning the carton upside down, as has been suggested in many places, but it just hasn’t done anything for me.
Without a Refrigerator
In cool weather, you can often store cheese and butter in the bilge or other cool area of the boat for a month or more, following the techniques above. If you do this, be sure to put them in a high-quality plastic box with a tight-fitting lid so that nothing — bilge water or bugs — gets in. In the tropics — or even summer in the US midwest or south — it’s harder:
Butter — I’ve heard that in some locations you can get canned butter, particularly in the South Pacific. I’ve never seen it anywhere that I’ve been and have no experience with it. I’ve found it for sale a couple of places in the US (here’s one) — a can contains the equivalent of three sticks of butter and costs $6 plus postage (Dec 2010). The manufacturer says it has a 3-year shelf life unopened. If you’ve used it, please relate your experience in the comments.
Otherwise, regular stick butter will last a week or so without refrigeration when the temperature is over 80 degrees. Be sure to store it in a tightly lidded plastic container as it will be very soft and will leak out of a Ziploc or a typical butter package.
Hard cheeses encased in wax and then vacuum sealed, put in Ziplocs or wrapped in aluminum foil can be store maybe a month in hot weather according to some friends. The longest I’ve even tried to keep cheese without refrigeration has been a week, so I’m not an expert. The one thing that I do know is that the harder the cheese, the longer it will last.
UPDATE — Kim from Jack Tar Magazine says, “I can say from experience that unopened, plastic-encased solid cheddar can last over a MONTH without refrigeration in Mexico. It gets oily, but that isn’t a huge problem. I have lived many months in hot climates sans refrigeration – most people would be surprised at how many things do not need it.”
As with butter, you can find canned cheese in some locations and it has a very long shelf life before it’s opened. Here in the US, Amazon carries a couple of brands of canned cheese (when I looked, each can contains about a half pound) — it’s not cheap, but if you’re headed on a long voyage in hot weather, it may be worthwhile.
Another, less expensive, option is cheese powder. No, you can’t nibble on a piece like you would a piece of cheese, but you can use it to make cheese sauces and macaroni and cheese.
For more information on storing food without a refrigerator, see Beth Leonard’s article on Keeping Food Without Refrigeration.
Also see how to make your own sour cream from non-refrigerated ingredients>>