We are all looking for ways to make our food supplies last longer, especially the products we consume the most. How we might be able to extend their shelf life for times when supply or our access to their supply may be limited by situations out of our control.
Milk, Cheese and Yogurt; three staple dairy products you’ll likely find in any household across the globe, in one form or another. Delicious, versatile, affordable and convenient, they are high in protein and packed with key nutrients including calcium, vitamin D and potassium. Despite the rise of plant-based dairy alternatives, it’s easy to see when you read through the list of benefits why demand for traditional animal-based dairy products is still very much alive and kicking.
We’ll explore the various options for the long term storage of these three much loved products within this article and in turn uncover even more ways we can improve our relative preparedness and level of self sufficiency.
To set the scene, we need to bear in mind that the shelf life of any dairy products depends on two main things:
- How it is prepared or processed
- How it is stored; like any food product, if not stored correctly it’s shelf life will be shorter
Let’s have a look at each product individually to find out more and weigh up the respective options.
Milk - Storing For The Long Term
There are quite a few options for the long term sorting of animal milk be it cow, sheep or goat milk. Animal milk will either be fresh or treated. Treated milk is otherwise known as UHT which stands for Ultra High Temperature. Fresh milk when stored unopened in the fridge can last for up to 2 weeks. Unopened UHT milk can be stored for up to 6-9 months.
The good thing about milk is that it’s easy to know when it’s gone off and shouldn’t be consumed. As with most foods, Texture, Smell and Taste are the key indicators to check. If the milk has gone bad, it will have a lumpy texture, it will smell sour and if it’s ticked both those boxes you probably won’t even want to risk tasting it!
- Freezing Milk
- Evaporated & Condensed Milk
- Powdered Milk
- Pressure Canning Milk
The least time consuming method for storing milk long term. You can freeze milk for up to 3 months. Defrost either by leaving it in the fridge or placing it in a bowl of water. Once defrosted, assuming it’s texture is ok (i.e. not lumpy), consume the milk within a few days of opening.
Freezing and defrosting milk can change its taste as well as its texture but it won't have any adverse effect on its nutritional value. Just remember that you’ll be relying on a power supply so there is always a chance that your store could be lost due to spoiling.
Evaporated milk is milk that is dehydrated until 60% of its water content has been removed, or more precisely evaporated. Following this, the milk is chilled, packaged in cans and heat-sterilized at a high temperature, all the while, maintaining the milk's nutritional value. The result is a much thicker consistency and a slightly darker colour.
Condensed milk is the sweetened version of evaporated milk. Both are made by cooking milk at a low temperature to evaporate the water. When making condensed milk, sugar is added during this heating process until it’s dissolved.
Unopened, evaporated and condensed milk have a shelf life of between 12-24 months.
Otherwise referred to as ‘dried milk’, the clue is in the name. Powdered or dried milk is made by evaporating fresh milk until it reaches a completely dry state using one of three methods; spray drying, drum drying, freeze drying. The resulting product has a much longer shelf life with some end products lasting unopened for up to 20 years and so proving to be a great solution for long-term milk storage. Given the lack of moisture, the extra bonus of powdered milk is that it does not need refrigeration. It can be used in more recipes that you probably realise.
Many experts will suggest using Non-Fat or Fat-Free milk for best results since milk fat is not stable, whilst advising against the use of raw or unpasteurized milk. Nothing is added during the drying process, it’s only the moisture that is lost, the slow heat from the drying does not destroy any of the vital vitamins and minerals in the milk and so retains the milk's nutritional value.
The other great thing about powdered milk is that you can make it at home with a food dehydrator for instance. You can also freeze powdered milk. It’s easy to see why it’s a great addition for anyone’s food store, be it for the short, medium or long-term.
Similar to evaporated milk in taste and colour, home canned milk will last for around 1 year and thus proves to be another great option for long term milk storage. Of course this method requires specialist pressure canning equipment but if you are interested in long term food storing, such equipment could well prove to be a worthwhile investment when you realised all the products you can use it for.
Cheese - Storing For The Long Term
A lot of people might advise against the long term storage of cheese, but we’ll show you a few options here that will prove those opinion wrong:
- Freezing Cheese
- Dehydrated Cheese
- Waxing Cheese
- Oil-Cured Cheese
Cheese crumbles when frozen in one block which makes it impossible to break down when you need to use it, so instead grate your cheese first and freeze it in small freezer bag portions. This will also help you use only what you really need and avoid undue waste. Cheese can be frozen for up to 6 months. As mentioned already, the only drawback with freezing it is the reliance on a constant power supply.
Another great use for your food dehydrator. Similar to freezing, your cheese should be first grated, thinly sliced, or diced. Once dried, the cheese is blended or ground into a powder before sealing airtight bags or containers. Dehydrated cheese can last in storage for up to 15 years. Although it won’t give you the same satisfaction as a fresh slice of cheese, it can be incorporated into many recipes or used simply as a topping or seasoning.
Waxed cheese can last for up to 25 years when stored in cool, dark conditions. The process does require specific equipment but it is all widely available.
Waxing works best on hard and semi-hard cheeses.
In other words, storing your cheese or marinating it in oil, enhancing it’s flavour and extending it’s shelf life. Picture the marinated feta in your local deli counter. Most recipes will call for extra virgin olive oil but you can use nut or rapeseed for example. Great for long term storage or for reducing your day-to-day waste if you have a chunk of cheese left in your fridge and know you won’t use it immediately, submerging it in oil will save it from being thrown away. You can add herbs or any seasoning you wish to further enhance the flavour of both the oil and the cheese.
Yogurt - Storing For The Long Term
Yogurt is made by adding certain bacteria to milk which allows the milk to ferment. It’s this process of fermentation that thickens the milk and gives yogurt its tangy flavour.
Yogurt does of course go ‘off’ but not as quickly as many people might expect. If kept refrigerated, yogurt is usually still ok to eat 7 days after the manufacturer's sell by date. The quality might go down but not it’s safety. This however is more for the short-medium term storage of yogurt.
When it comes to longer term storage of yogurt, there is really only one option and that’s freezing. Frozen yogurt has a shelf life of around 1-2 months. Like a lot of processes that involve extending the shelf life of a dairy product, the texture of your yogurt will likely change. It tends to separate and turn grainy and watery although it will still be safe to use. Freezing can actually enhance the sometimes tart or sour taste of yogurt which might be a bonus for some recipes.
You should try to freeze your yogurt in equal sized batches as opposed to freezing it in one large block. Using an ice cream scoop is a great way to make small ball sized portions that, once frozen, can be transferred to individual zipper bags and kept in the freezer until required.
Freezing Yogurt, a simple step-by-step guide:
- Place a sheet of baking paper on a tray that will fit comfortably in your freezer.
- Scoop equal sized balls of yogurt onto the baking sheet, leaving space between each portion.
- Slide the tray into your freezer and leave the yogurt to freeze overnight.
- Once frozen, transfer the yogurt portions into individual zipper bags or containers before returning them to the freezer.
- The portions will keep for around 3 months.
Just remember, as we’ve touched on in other similar articles, the only downside of freezing your produce is that it relies on a power supply which is always going to present a risk.
Label and Date, Check and Rotate Correctly
As we mention on many of our food related articles, whatever it is you’re preparing for storage, always be sure to:
- Label & Date; your containers so you know what’s inside and when it was prepared and stored.
- Check & Rotate; keep an eye on your food items, checking them regularly for spoiling, signs of pests, cracks in the containers and be sure you’re using them in date order.
Learning basic skills and how to make things from scratch allows us to step away and reduce our reliance on others, particularly when it comes to food, whilst also helping to save money and lower any damaging effects that our consumption and the way we live has on the environment.
Ian Hunter - Father of three, based in Southern Sweden. Author and Co owner of Grow Zone and growing Food all winter. See my full About Page here.
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Co written with Hannah Bramley, a Private & Virtual PA and Lifestyle Management Consultant based in the UK. With a background in managing and ensuring the organisation and preparedness of others, Hannah is now a freelance Personal Lifestyle & Business Consultant, with the ability to turn her hand to any task. Self Sufficiency being just one of her new found interests since the events of early 2020. She is a fitness guru, an ardent foodie, a social media wizard and entrepreneur, with a passion and natural flare for organising, bringing people together and making things happen.