Storing Butter and Cheese on a Boat

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2010 • all rights reserved

Storing Butter & Cheese

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.

With 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>>

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Comments

  1. I used canned butter throughout the South Pacific for 2 years and it was a saving grace. It stores well in the bilge for more than 3 years and allows more room in the refrigerator. I am a fan of butter for baking. It is mostly NZ butter readily available in the islands but difficult to get in NZ. I would open a can then fill small tupperware type containers and place these containers in the coldest part of the fridge with the one in use near the top.

  2. I agree with the canned butter comment! The only thing I haven’t provisioned here in NZ is canned butter as it is ridiculously expensive and difficult to find. We’ll get it once back up in the islands!

    Ghee is easy to make when you can get fresh butter. It will keep well without refrigeration so I make two pint jars of it and carry canned butter for other things. Sometimes I’ve added a brine to the top of the ghee jar but I don’t know if this is necessary. Ghee has a higher smoke point than butter or margarine so it works well for stir frying/sauteing. I haven’t used it for baking and probably wouldn’t.

    For cheese if you wrap the opened block in wax paper and then put it in a ziplock it doesn’t mold. Vinegar works also but I find the wax paper method easier – especially when you’ve just cut off a few slices and don’t want to re-vinegar it. Reuse the paper for each cut, but when you start on a new block, use a new sheet of new paper.

    You can also find long life “cheese” that will keep unopened without refrigeration for months. I don’t know what it’s really made of and since we’re trying to eat only real food, we don’t have it often. It doesn’t melt but is a good stand in for cheese and crackers (my husband’s favorite lunch).

    • I agree with Tara on the use of Ghee. It can be found in many stores, but not inexpensive. A couple of cans or jars of Ghee will last a long time before opened and once opened it will last for a month or more in a container that is airtight. Tastes great and is better for those that have a lactose issue. If you make it yourself and have a FoodSaver get the vacuum fixture for mason jars – with air gone you could store for a year. I haven’t tested the Ghee, but 2 years ago I brought some Macadamia nuts back from a visit to Australia and put some in a mason jar and vacuum sealed it. Opened them last weekend and they were as fresh as they were 2 years ago. For another cooking oil consider coconut oil, it has a great flavor and is healthful. It also stores well in an airtight container.

      WRT cheese – the more aged the better, but not all cheeses fit into this group and lots of people like different cheeses. We buy 2 year old aged cheddar and I seal it in a FoodSave bag and put it in the bilge. I forgot a brick in our bilge and when I was doing some maint. found it 3 months later – opened it up and cut a piece and it tasted as good as the one we just bought. OK now full disclosure – we are in the Puget Sound area and have a “cool” climate, so a South Pacific sailor may not have the same results. I also grew up in Pakistan, India and Thailand and we used Ghee in Pakistan and India and it lasted for quite a while in that climate un-refrigerated.

  3. I keep butter in the freezer for storage and a butter bell on the counter with about half a stick at a time. The butter lasts fine on the counter for as long as it takes to use it up (usually three(ish) weeks in the bell as long as I change the water every day or so.

    • Carolyn Shearlock says:

      Dave —

      I’d never heard of a “butter bell” until I got your note. If anyone else wants more info, I found the web site for it:

      Butter Bell Crocks by L. Tremain

      The same company (as well as several others) sell them on Amazon, where it gets rave reviews:

      Butter Bell on Amazon

      • Jeremy Pierce says:

        You can make your own butter bell instead of buying.

        I take a half pint jar and fill it with butter and submerge it upside down inside of a bigger bowl I have with water in it.

        Be inventive with what you got…The concept is all that matters

  4. While not seafaring, I do live off-grid without the benefit of refrigeration and need to find alternatives for perishable items. I’ve used both the canned butter and canned cheeses (Red Feather, Bega, Kraft) and they are very palatable, and definitely worth the extra cost if you’re looking at long periods without refrigeration. I also use cheese and butter powder, as well as the newer freeze-dried grated and cottage cheeses, available from survival/long-term storage suppliers. They all have their place in my pantry, and some work better for certain applications than others (butter powder for flavor in cooking with oil as the actual fat, but it’s not so great spread plain on toast). Stored in vacuum sealed bags and/or airtight containers, they last several months without refrigeration and take up a minimum of space… the only thing you really have to worry about with the dry stuff is having enough water to reconstitute them.

  5. Ida (s/v Cheers) says:

    I have heard that you can store butter without refrigeration by submerging it in brine. And you can store cheese by submerging it in oil. Have you had any experience with either? Thanks.

    • I don’t have first hand experience with either — Dave’s recommendation of the Butter Bell is somewhat similar to submerging it in brine (although you use freshwater in the bell) — and I’ve heard of submerging cheese in oil, but never done it. With butter, I’d think it would somewhat depend on where you are and what the climate is like. If it’s too hot, the butter is just going to melt and mix with the brine.

      -Carolyn

    • I store butter in a salt brine down in the cellar for 3-4 months before a bit of mold starts to form on it. No harm though, just lightly scrape it off. It will keep probably from mid fall through spring this way.

      I use a 4TB salt to 1 Quart water brine, wide mouth jar + lid, and 1 Lb of butter… fits snuggly and holds itself down under the water level. I find that the butter doesn’t take on a salty taste and it sort of “dries it out”…almost makes it harder I guess is the best way to describe it. Just let it set at room temperature to make it spreadable.

      Excellent alternative to freezer storage if you have a cool dark place to keep it. Kroger had a sale and I bought about 10-15 lbs back in Oct. Cellar temps ranged from mid 50s in the fall to right now about 35-40. You might increase the salt to preserve better, but I hate to waste the salt when its not totally necessary for its preservation in my case. But for the summer, since the cellar gets warmer, I would probably drop it down a well or cistern to help keep it

      • I doubt this will work for boats in the tropics, but if you’re in the high latitudes this might work in the bilge. Just be sure to use really watertight containers in case any bilge water gets on the containers!

  6. If you are prone to canning, pickling, or dyhydrating your own stuff, canning butter is actually fairly easy with shelf life of up too 3 years! There are a lot of recipes out there on the net. Check out prepper and survivalist forums too. They can often be a boaters best resource in the kitchen!

  7. Bob Bechler on Facebook says:

    Canned butter from New Zealand or Denmark are excellent products and require no refrigeration.

  8. Diane Dashevsky says:

    You can slice blocks of cheese into “sticks” and place in a jar and cover with good quality EVOO for long term storage on passage. You can also do the same thing with fresh herbs such as basil, thyme, etc. My basil has lasted 6 mos now…

  9. Hi,

    I love your blog! Plan on starting my cruising life in 2015 and your tips will be invaluable.

    I was wondering if you have ever tried a butter bell to store butter http://www.butterbell.com. I’ve used one here in Chicago”s summers with no issue. Let me know if I should bring it along.

    See you on the water,
    Sail Away Girl

    • I haven’t used one, but Dave Skolnick (see his comment above) does. He’s a very experienced cruiser (a director of Seven Seas Cruisers Assoc) and also a delivery captain, so I trust his recommendation.

      • Ben (s/v CHRISTEL) says:

        Cheese, according to Lin Pardey;
        place the pieces in a container and filled with a
        best EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL.

  10. Jenn Cole says:

    Something I’ve found handy is when you have a batch of frozen butter in the freezer and need to use it in a hury but dont want to wait for the time it takes to thaw. I grate it or I use a vegetable peeler. It woeks well. The butter melts quickly and you can just do what you need to use and put the rest back in the freezer.

  11. Hi there,
    We have been buying cheese by the 2.5kg block in Malaysia where we can, then cut it up in about 6 smaller blocks before vacuum sealing and putting in the bottom of the fridge. It lasts for ages. We buy this big because it is hard to get . We use margarine rather than butter, it seems to handle melting and chilling better than butter but only Meadiwkea or Flora (Australia and SE asia.

  12. We did see the canned butter from NZ in St Marteen and were wondering. We might get one or two when provisioning just to taste (and in case of total desperation ! being French I can’t live without my butter 🙂 ). I’ll let you know after I try 😉

  13. Freeze-dried cheese is wonderful. It is shredded which isn’t the same as biting into a slice but does well for cooking. Once reconstituted it is great on a baked potato or in a salad, it melts well over chips or on garlic toast or pizza. It will even work well in a sandwich with cold cuts or melted for a grilled cheese. You can enjoy it just as you would shredded fresh cheese. The selections are limited to a few basics but as the industry gains more momentum look for more gourmet and artisanal choices coming soon. Freeze-dried gives no-refrigeration options to many wonderful food choices.

  14. That very same canned NZ butter (red feather) is available for less at Pleasant Hill Grain. They also have a lot of other really good stuff that I have provisioned with. I bought a “sampler can” of some of their dried foods and ended up buying several, including tomato paste, which I think is the greatest food invention since sliced bread and will use even if/when I end up on land again… Their Ova Easy is also wonderful!

  15. Canned butter from NZ is fantastic. Great to keep a can or three around for those times when you run out of fresh. If you are sailing across the Pacific, pick it up in the islands where you can usually find it a good price. Do NOT wait until you get to NZ as it is hard to find there and, as said in previously, very expensive.

  16. Molly Ebelhare says:

    We used to find canned butter in Belize. Being part of the commonwealth, the butter was from New Zealand. I haven’t looked for it recently because we haven’t been in Belize for a while. Again, because of the commonwealth, you might find it in more remote parts of the Bahamas. It was delicious butter and came in a beautiful can. I can’t remember the brand.

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