How to Store Dairy Products to Keep Them Good As Long As Possible
Can you freeze it? Probably!
I blame my upbringing for my lifetime fealty to dairy products. My dad is from Wisconsin, and my mom is from Ireland, which means, on both sides, my culinary heritage is deeply linked to butter and cheese. I have often thought it would be easier for me to give up cake for life than good, crusty bread smeared with salted Irish butter. But dairy products often have a short shelf life, particularly if you don’t store them properly. Here’s a handy guide to the best way to store dairy.
You probably already know to store milk in the fridge. But where in the fridge matters. Milk, no matter if it's whole or skim, is best kept at around 37 degrees Fahrenheit, which, depending on your fridge, usually means somewhere in the back of the shelf on a lower shelf. You may need to store the milk on its side so that it fits easily. Avoid storing milk in one of the door's shelves. It’s a tempting storage spot because it’s easily accessible, but it’s warmer toward the front, and temperature fluctuations caused by opening and shutting the door frequently will make the milk spoil faster.
For longer-term storage, you have a few options. You can actually freeze milk, as long as you do so in a plastic container (it expands when it freezes, so cardboard and glass, both vulnerable to breaking, aren’t great for this application.) Make sure to freeze milk before the expiration date, and give an inch or two headroom for it to expand. A plastic jug, like the one milk often comes in, works just fine. It’ll keep in the freezer for up to three months. Thaw it by putting it in the fridge and letting it slowly come up to liquid temp. Thawed milk will look grainy, because the fat molecules separate out, but shake it up or put it in the blender for a spin and it’ll be just fine. The shelf life for thawed milk is considerably shorter than that of fresh—you’ll want to consume thawed milk within three to four days, so keep that in mind when deciding what size containers you want to freeze milk in.
If you can find shelf-stable UHT milk, popular in Europe but less common in America, that’s also a great option, since you don’t have to refrigerate it until you open it. (Once opened it’ll last a week to ten days.) Milk can also be dehydrated and turned into powdered milk.
You can also buy canned evaporated milk, which is milk that has been heated and concentrated, taking out about 60 percent of the water in the milk. It’s very creamy and has a slight caramelized taste, which is great for adding to coffee or tea, but keep in mind that, unlike regular whole milk, it should not be a regular food source for babies over a year old, since it does not contain the same amounts of vitamins, minerals, and fat that regular whole milk or shelf-stable milk contain. Canned condensed milk has been similarly concentrated but highly sweetened, so it’s fantastic for making caramels, dessert sauces, and super-simple ice cream.
Heavy Cream and Half-and-Half
Like milk, cream and half-and-half last the longest in a cool spot in the fridge. Avoid the door! The door is for condiments. You can also freeze cream for longer storage, either in an ice cube tray or in a plastic container. Again, you’ll want to shake it up or otherwise blend it once thawed to encourage the milk fat and liquid to reintegrate. Once thawed, heavy cream will whip up just as well as the fresh version. Half-and-half will also freeze just fine, in an ice cube tray, plastic container, or even in a freezer bag.
I have great news for you if you love butter. You don’t even need to refrigerate it! Yes! That’s right! It’s one of those American things that puzzles people from other countries.
If you keep your butter on the counter in a covered dish, it’ll be just fine, as well as extremely spreadable, for three weeks to a month. There are exceptions here—don’t do this if your kitchen is very hot, since it’ll hasten spoilage. It also works best with salted butter, since the salt helps preservation. I tend to keep butter on the counter in the cooler months and in the fridge during the summer.
If you have unsalted butter, or you’re not going to use the butter up that fast, the fridge is still great. Butter is good in the fridge for three months or more. And it also freezes super well and easily, right in the packet you got it, or wrapped tightly in aluminum foil or plastic wrap. It’ll be good for a year or more that way. Thaw it in the fridge before using.
Brie, goat cheese, and other soft or runny cheeses are delicious, but more delicate in temperament than their hardier cousins. If you see spots of green or blue mold on them, you should throw them out—a bummer, but less of a bummer than food poisoning.
If you’re planning on eating them within a couple days of purchase, the plastic wrap they came in is fine. Mozzarella should, in fact, be kept in its plastic wrap or brine, and eaten within a week once opened. The best way to store soft cheeses in the fridge for longer, up to ten days or more, is to wrap the cheese in a layer of parchment or wax paper, followed by a loose layer of foil—if it hasn’t already been wrapped in cheese paper by your cheese shop (by the way, that cheese paper is perfectly reusable). Wrapped this way or vacuum-sealed in bags to prevent freezer burn, Cook’s Illustrated found that soft cheese can also last in the freezer for up to two months. It’ll lose some of its original texture, so if it’s a very fancy cheese it’s still best to eat it soon, but if you don’t mind it being slightly harder than normal, freeze away. When you’re ready to eat it, put it in the fridge to thaw out. If you don’t have a dedicated cheese drawer, store your cheese in a cold spot in the back of the fridge, away from other smelly things—cheese can absorb odor
Hard and Semi-Hard Cheeses
Cheeses that are firmer to the touch and have lower moisture content, like Pecorino, Parmesan, and Cheddar, belong in this category. If you're eating them quickly, as in within a few days, it’s fine to keep them in their plastic wrap. For longer term storage, wrap them in parchment or wax paper followed by a layer of plastic wrap or foil. Just like soft cheese, you’ll want to store these varieties in a cold spot in the back of the fridge. You can freeze these cheeses too, as long as they’re well-wrapped to prevent freezer burn. If your hard cheese develops a moldy spot, you should be fine to cut the moldy spot out and eat it, provided you cut out a one-inch radius around the mold.
Shredded Cheese and Sliced Cheese
Got a bag of pre-shredded cheese? Keep it in the bag it came in, or put it in a resealable bag, and it’ll be good in the fridge for a week or two after it’s been opened. It’s also a great candidate for the freezer, where it’ll last for up to three months. You can even grate and freeze your own hard or semi-hard cheeses and stash freezer bags for easy distribution and melting. Sliced, packaged cheese also freezes well—seal it in a freezer bag or an extra layer of foil to prevent freezer burn. Thaw in the fridge when you want to use it.
Keep yogurt in the fridge, of course. Once you open yogurt, it’s best within 5 to 7 days, but it can be stretched to about two weeks. If you see mold or pink streaks in it, throw it out—it’s not worth the risk. Luckily, if you have too much yogurt and not enough time to eat it, you can definitely freeze it. Frozen yogurt is a treat that many national chains have capitalized on, and yes, it’s totally just the stuff you eat with granola but in the freezer, plus flavoring. Yogurt loses some of its texture when it's frozen and thawed, but it’s delightful when kept frozen. You can make your own frozen yogurt flavors, like this Coconut-Mango Frozen Yogurt. Or you can just put dollops of yogurt on a sheet pan lined with parchment or foil, freeze them, and transfer to a freezer bag to plop into smoothies and baking. You could also freeze it in a freezer bag or an ice cube tray, if you’d like.
Once you’ve opened cottage cheese, it’ll stay good in the fridge for seven to ten days. Don’t leave it on the counter! This is not a cheese to play fast and loose with. But there is a neat, and very easy trick to prolonging its shelf life—just store it upside down. The tub will form a kind of vacuum seal, which will hinder the growth of bacteria. You can freeze it, too! Transfer to a freezer bag and it’ll be good for two to three months. Cottage cheese loses its texture when you defrost it, so it’s not as good to eat plain, but still excellent for baking or smoothies.
The upside-down trick works well for sour cream, too! In the fridge it’ll last for up to two weeks. Plus, did you know you can make sour cream at home with milk, cream, and vinegar? You sure can! You can also make crème fraîche, sour cream’s fancier, mellower French cousin, with buttermilk and heavy cream. But anyway, once you have it, use it, or freeze it. Like cottage cheese and yogurt, it won’t be as good texturally as it was fresh, but you can use it for cooking or baking, especially in this sour cream pound cake.
That crucial ingredient of biscuits and pancakes, buttermilk actually lasts a pretty long time in the fridge. As long as you keep the carton closed tightly, it’ll be good for three weeks to a month. But yes, you can also freeze buttermilk, too! Shake it up and freeze in an ice cube tray, or in a freezer bag, or in a quart container. It’ll stay good for up to three months. If you love making biscuits but aren’t keen on keeping buttermilk around all the time, may I introduce you to the wonder of powdered buttermilk? It’s excellent for baking—you just reconstitute the buttermilk by adding some water—and keeps in the fridge for a year or more. Definitely enough time to make it through stacks and stacks of pancakes or piles of biscuits.