Monday, November 19, 2012

Canning butter and cheese

By request from a reader, here are directions for canning butter.  I've also included directions for canning cheese, after the section on butter.  I appreciate the request.
 Canning butter
Home-canned butter
It's easy to can butter and cheese at home.  It can be done in a water-bath kettle, or any kettle big enough to cover your jars with water.  You need some kind of rack in the bottom to keep the jars slightly elevated, but I've used a cooling rack in the bottom of a kettle, or a rack from the bottom of a roaster pan.  You can use a pressure canner, either with the lid latched and brought to pressure, or just with the lid settled on top.
Some people melt the butter first, in a pan, and let it simmer for a while before pouring it in jars.  I set my jars in a pan that has a couple inches of water in it and the stove burner turned low.  Then I slice chunks of butter into the jars.  The heat of the water melts it and I keep adding butter.  I fill the jars to about an inch from the top, to allow for 'head space', which is a space you leave between the product in the jar, and the lid.
I found this explanation of head space on a site called
"This space is needed for expansion of food as jars are processed, and for forming vacuums in cooled jars. The extent of expansion is determined by the air content in the food and by the processing temperature. Air expands greatly when heated to high temperatures; the higher the temperature, the greater the expansion. Foods expand less than air when heated. This is why you must leave more headspace when using a pressure canner!"
Although it says "when using a pressure canner", I think head space is also needed in water-bath canning, since the air is heated in the jars during that process too.  At any rate, the extra space at the top would prevent boiling over.
While I'm letting the butter melt I get a small pan and put the jar lids in it and cover them with water.  I let them simmer on another burner.  What I've always been told is that it softens the rubber strip around the edge of the bottom side of the lid and allows it to seal to the jar.  My mother always simmered hers for at least half an hour, so I have too.  The one time I forgot to get them started and simmered them for just 15 minutes I had quite a few jars in that canner load that didn't seal.  So science aside, I stick with the half hour minimum. 
When the jars are filled I lift them out of the pan of water and set them on a towel. I go around and wipe the rims with a clean, damp cloth. Using a fork I fish a lid out of the small pan of water, and touching only the edge of the lid, I place it on the jar. Then I screw a ring on it until it's snug but not over-tight.  This is a picture of the lids and rings, sometimes called caps and bands, or other terms.
I set the jars in my canning kettle, which usually already has hot water simmering in it.  Sometimes I have to use the jar-lifter tongs to put the jars in the water, if the water is too hot.  When all the jars are in I check to see that the water covers the tallest jar by at least an inch.  If it doesn't, I add water. 
Now the lid goes on and when it boils, I begin timing.  I've seen directions that say they need to boil for half an hour, for 45 minutes, and for an hour.  I went with the hour, for safety, but butter isn't a dense food once it's melted, so it's probably safe enough to boil it for the shorter time. 
When the butter comes out it looks like this.
After it's cooled about 15 minutes you need to start picking up the jars, holding them in a hot pad or towel but making sure you can get a good hold on the jar, and tip them upside down and back upright a few times.  The butter has separated during canning and this mixes it back up.  Some people shake their jars but I prefer to tip them over and back upright instead.  I suppose I imagine the butter getting bubbly and frothy-looking if I were to shake it!
Pick them up about 10 minutes, and more often if you think it needs it, until it's cool enough that it stops separating as it sits.  When it's cool it'll look like this:
As you see in the picture at the top of this post, I use different sizes of jars for butter, but I tend to stick to small jars, such as half-pints and jelly jars.  I have canned butter in jars as big as pints, though.
* * * *
Canning Cheese
In addition to butter I also can cheese.  The thing I like about canning cheeses is that they return to their original texture and firmness after they cool.  For example, canned cheddar firms back up and can be slid out of the jar and sliced:
or shredded:
I use jars that have the same size mouth, or opening, as the sides of the jar.  In this picture the cheese was in a half-pint jar.  It uses a regular-mouth lid, but since the jar is so small it looks like a wide-mouth jar, with straight sides.  If I use a pint jar I use a wide-mouth one.  It's easier to get the cheese out of the jar.
To remove the cheese from the jar I hold it in a pan or bowl of hot water for a couple minutes.  This softens the cheese where it touches the glass.  Remove the lid and run a knife around the inside of the jar.  Keeping the knife between the cheese and the side of the jar, apply a litttle pressure to the cheese and slide it out with the knife. 
When you're done cutting, slicing, or shredding it, push the leftover block of cheese back into the jar.  It's easier to slide it out when you go to use the rest of it later.
Mozzarella cheese cans up nicely.  It turns a darker color and is a bit more crumbly as you shred it, but once the pizza or lasagne, or whatever you've made, is done baking, you can't tell the difference.
Cream cheese is one of my favorite cheeses to can.  This time of year (November) cream cheese is on sale for a good price at our local store, so I buy several boxes and can them.  Later in the year when cream cheese is twice the price I paid for them, I still have lots of cream cheese.
Cream cheese looks pretty after it's canned.  It doesn't darken during canning like other soft, light-colored cheeses.  The texture is the same as a fresh block of cream cheese.
I can cheese the same way I do butter.  I set the jars in a couple inches of water, in a pan on the stove over low heat.  It takes longer for it to melt.  One time I crammed the jar full of chunks and canned it without waiting for it to soften or melt, figuring it would melt during canning.  I ended up with jars about 2/3 full.  I also didn't know if I'd allowed enough time for the cheese to melt and then get hot enough for canning.
Cheese is denser than butter, so it really does need more time than butter.  I can mine at a full boil for an hour.  Pressure canning is a good option for dense cheese like cheddar and mozzarella.  I haven't tried cheese like pepper jack and provolone, but I plan to do that some time this winter.  I'm watching for a sale.
Cheese doesn't separate like butter, so once you remove it from the canner you don't have to do anything to them.  Place them on a towel and let them cool.
Other dairy products I've canned have had varying results.  Egg nog cans up nicely but darkens a little and separates somewhat.  It needs to be shaken before you drink it.  We can up a jar or two at Christmas time, then in the summer we open them for a surprise treat.  The first year we didn't chill the jar first, and egg nog tastes icky at July room temerature!  Be sure to chill it first! 
Milk can be canned but you end up with a product that looks like evaporated milk.  The flavor tastes slightly scorched but is otherwise good.  It, also, tastes better if you chill it before drinking. 
If you're a margarine user I would imagine it could be canned the same as butter.  Not knowing how the scientific properties work in the 'healthier' mixes of margarine I'd recommend using only real margarine.  If you're using a heart-healthy variety that says it can be used in baking or melted in cooking, then it would probably do okay for canning.  If you find a really good sale on it, canning might be a money-saving option.
I go one better on my canning.  I don't have extra energy costs for canning butter and cheese.  I almost always can it this time of year when it's on sale for the holidays, and here in Montana we're using our woodstove all day to heat our cabin.  Our woodstove has a large flat surface big enough to hold two canner kettles, side by side.  I take advantage of the heat source that would be hot this time of year anyway.  For those of you that heat with wood, you might be able to do that too.
If anyone has something they'd like to add to this discussion, please leave a comment here on the blog or email me at:
November 20, 2012:  I received a question by anonymous post -
"Can you tell me how long the butter and the rest last as far as shelf life?

Six months to Five years.
The shelf life, or storage life, of canned butter or cheese depends in part on how you store it.  The most ideal place dark and cool with a steady temperature.  Dark keeps the oils in the butter and other dairy product from oxidizing and becoming 'off-flavor'.  Cool temperatures extend the lives of any canned or dehydrated food, but especially those with a high-fat content.  There's probably a scientific explanation (and maybe someone will share it with us?) for why.  I just know that it does.
Steady temperature is easier on the food than a constant cycle of heating and cooling.  Daily temperature fluctuations, such as night time and day time temperatures, are harder on the food than seasonal.  Since canned butter and cheese can be frozen, you could store them in a shed or garage even in a cold climate.  Try to put them near the floor and cover them with old blankets, newspapers, or cardboard to insulate them against fast rises or drops in temperature.
I have butter and cheese I canned in 2009 that I'm just now using and it's as fresh tasting as if I just bought it.  It's been stored in dark containers but has been subjected to some temperature fluctuations, mainly seasonal.  If I had stored it in a kitchen cupboard at regular household temperatures, or even worse, in a place where it was exposed to light, I would try to eat it within six months.
With optimum storage and proper canning procedures I would say it would be safe to eat for at least five years.  Beyond that I'd inspect the jar carefully before I opened it.  Look for discoloration or mold spots, and make sure the jar is sealed tightly.  To check the seal, tap on the lid.  If it pushes in when you touch it, the jar isn't sealed even if it seems like the lid is tight.  Don't take a chance on eating it if you think it has come unsealed in storage. 
Open the jar and smell the contents.  Does it smell like the original fresh product?  If might smell a bit old but that wouldn't mean it's not safe.  If it smells rancid you might want to discard it or mix it with pet or livestock feed.  Some cheese like cheddar can get a white crusty-looking scum around the edges or top of the jar.  This is normal.  It's crystalized fat.  It's safe to eat but you can scoop it off if you prefer.
Thank you for the question.  It's something I should have thought of when I wrote the post!
From the mailbox:
"Thank you for the great instructions on your blog on canning butter. Guess what I finally did today? 12 half pints and 6 pints of butter ready for the pantry (okay, it is a closet that I took over). Woohoo!

Thank you again, I wouldn't have done it if it weren't for your expert tutorial
" - Cindi
It's always nice to hear from people who try these things!  Thanks for writing to me about it!


  1. i just read your book on my Kindle, and I wanted to thank you for the info.Thanks also for letting me know about how to can butter in a water bath. There's no way I could afford a pressure canner, and I don't know any other preppers.

    1. You're welcome. Drop me an email if you run into any problems and I'll try to help you out! Good luck! I'm glad you like the book.

  2. Thanks for the info on canning butter. I want to try this.

  3. You're welcome, Mary. Be sure to share your experience with us when you try it! :)

  4. This website and the next one on godaddy are a goldmine. I just came across your books, and I'm loving them! thanks for the wonder tips and insight.

    1. Thank you! If there's anything you want information on, or anything you'd like to see on either site, please let me know. I'm glad you're enjoying the books!


  5. Oh my gosh. This probably won't be allowed and will be deleted.
    For goodness sakes PLEASE don't can dairy of any nature, and certainly NOT in a WB! Then to top it off you tip it and risk the seal failing? AT least post that this is NOT considered safe by USDA standards so people can make an informed decision. PLEASE!

    1. Of course I would post your comment. People should be allowed to express their concerns. I do know, and have also written in the "Preserving Meat, Dairy, and Eggs" book that some people, including the USDA) don't recommend some of these things or consider them to be safe. This is the same USDA that also allows a lot of herbicides and pesticides in our food, etc., when money speaks. So I'm not altogether convinced they always have our best interests at heart.

      And just because a lot of people, myself included, have safely canned and done these other preserving methods with butter, cheese, and other dairy products (as well as meat) for many years, doesn't guarantee that something can't go wrong.

      There have been hundreds of people here and on forums (such as Backwoods Home, Prepared Society, etc.), as well as people I know in 'real life', who have said they have been canning dairy products for years. There have been no reports of anyone getting sick, poisoned, or killed from their home processed/preserved/canned dairy products (or meat products, for that matter).

      How many commercially processed foods of ALL types have sickened or killed people, just in the last few years? Hmmm......

      Please be educated about your choices, and follow procedures carefully and be very picky about cleanliness and safety. I stand by claim that these things (dairy, meat) CAN be safely canned and otherwise processed at home.

      Thank you for expressing your concerns. I welcome all opinions or thoughts on any of these matters.

    2. I read the FDA website myself. The reason they don't recommend it is that they simply can't be bothered to do the research. They claim "there's not enough interest to be worth spending the money". So, take your risks wisely, but consider it your own research project.

  6. I am sharing your article with everyone because my readers keep asking how to do this. I have been canning both, cheese and butter for a few years now. Ever since Jackie Clay wrote about it. I can the milk in the WB canner, but am thinking about trying it in a pressure canner. I want to see what the difference will be besides the color. It is a safe process and your reply to the other comment was right on.

    1. Pressure-canned milk has a bit of a carmelized/scorched taste to it but it's safe to drink. Warmed and with cocoa added it's really great! :)

      I'm glad to hear you've been canning cheese and butter for a few years. It's really simple to do and it's a great addition to food storage.

  7. Hi and thanks for this, I've canned butter for years. I preserved cheese by dipping it in black wax which worked for cheddar but did NOT work for mozzarella so I am happy to find that I can can the mozzarella. Victoria

  8. This will help my budget so much!!! Thank you! From both me and my 4 kids! !

  9. Hallelujah! I have been canning for 30 + yrs but have always been afraid to can milk or cheese. Butter right now is thru the roof expensive. Hide & watch 2 c if I don't buy 40 or so lbs next time I can catch it on sale & CAN IT ALL! THANKS SO MUCH! 😙

  10. I have also canned swiss cheese - perfectly ok after 10 years in a cool place (I "lost" it for a while, there...)