OK, so we aren’t actually ancient yet, but we are mariners; as such, we have voyaged for long periods of time without coming anywhere near a delicatessen. And, like the ancient mariners, we may be cool (so we like to think), but our provisions are not. Doing without refrigeration simplifies life in some ways (see any article on energy budgets), but also means we have to get a little creative in order to fulfill our penchant for cheese. I’ve decided to share some of our cheesy ideas. Those who re-provision frequently, have large fridges on their boats, or say “no whey” to cheese, may wish to scroll on by – all others, break out the wine and crackers.
I should note that our ideas have accumulated over many years. Others may learn faster. We are not experts, nor even connoisseurs – we can’t tell a Muenster from a Gorgonzola and both sound like creatures from a B-movie! Nonetheless, we are fond of cheese and, frankly, a shared love of pizza is part of the glue that holds our relationship together. On a long voyage, you don’t want to mess with that!
You are probably aware that hard cheeses like Parmesan last longer than soft cheeses, so to start with, one can simply stock up on those. If they are well-sealed, they will last for a good long time. Even the semi-soft cheeses like Mozzarella can keep un-refrigerated for maybe a month, if you don’t open the commercially sealed package. However, you have to keep an eye on it – if there was any contamination at the factory, the mold will happily make little mold babies inside your sealed package.
Some of the fancy hard cheeses can be pricey and we don’t tend to stock up on these. Instead, we’ve either looked for ways to preserve our softer cheeses, or have explored substitutes.
Ways to Preserve (beyond refrigeration)
When we departed Victoria for Hawai’i, we were carrying several provisions that had been vacuum-sealed and, of course, cheese was one of them. Vacuum-sealing protects the item from moisture, bacteria, and oxygen, all of which can cause rancidification of fats and oils. Although vacuum-sealing in and of itself can be useful for storing cheese, it is better to add another step – either coat with vinegar, or dehydrate.
Coat with Vinegar
Vinegar is your friend because it is not chummy with mold. I have never seen a moldy salt and vinegar chip… although perhaps that has more to do with eating them long before any risk of spoilage.
After coating the entire surface of the cheese with vinegar, let the vinegar dry. You can then vacuum-seal it for extra protection, or you can wrap it in cheesecloth. The cheesecloth can also be treated with vinegar for more protection.
Dehydrating cheese is not complicated if you have a food dehydrator (or you can also use your oven). We’ve only tried this with Mozzarella (given the high priority of pizza), but of course other cheeses can also be treated this way. I’ve read that salty Feta is particularly tasty when dehydrated. We have dried both sliced and grated cheese. Once the cheese was dry, it was vacuum-sealed.
When making that all-important pizza, we would soak the Mozzarella in a little water. Admittedly, this didn’t make a nice texture for the cheese, so I wouldn’t recommend serving it on crackers, but it worked OK on the ‘za. Conversely, one could make the pizza sauce a little more liquid and the extra moisture would help re-hydrate the cheese. Slices were less messy to deal with, but the grated cheese re-hydrated more quickly and spread more evenly. Dried grated cheese could also be made into sauces for pasta, or added to any number of dishes for flavouring.
Since cheese has a high fat content, there could be a risk of the dehydrated cheese becoming rancid, but we have not run into this, probably because we used the vacuum-sealer.
Wrap in Cheesecloth
We’ve had good results with the fresh goat cheese available from small family businesses in Mexico (e.g. at Agua Verde and San Basilico). This mild-tasting cheese is very moist; allowing it to dry out is key to preserving it. We didn’t bring our dehydrator on the boat with us, but found that wrapping our vinegar-coated round in cheesecloth kept the flies and dust off while allowing the whey to drain out (put the cheese in a container initially to catch the liquid). Once the cheese wasn’t dripping any more, we wrapped string around the package and hung it up so it could dry and gradually harden. Cut off slices as needed and re-wrap. The truth is, we ate this too quickly to let you know just how long it might have lasted for.
As an aside, whey is edible (just ask Miss Muffet) – you can drink it, bake with it, or flavour sauces. When we made Mozzarella on the boat (from a cheese kit), there was a lot of whey left over, even after making a huge batch of pancakes; we mixed chocolate milk powder with the whey and had an interesting and tangy drink.
Store in Olive Oil or Brine
A strong cheddar taste can be harder to find in Mexico, or if available, pricey compared to the more common mild white cheeses. Thus, during our last drive to Guaymas, MX, we purchased a large block of strong cheddar in Arizona before crossing the border. Once we were at the boat, we cut the block into smaller pieces, put them into sterilized mason jars, then added olive oil. (See the lead photo.) When removing a chunk of cheese, one might need to add extra olive oil to keep the rest covered. This process worked very well and the cheese continued to sharpen while stored this way. At the end, you will probably have some cheesy-flavoured olive oil to make a nice pasta dish with.
A cheaper and more readily available option is to use brine instead of olive oil. We boiled water and then added about 1 cup of salt for 4 cups water. Once the salt was dissolved, we let the brine cool (keeping the lid on the pot to maintain sterility), then added the liquid to the cheese-filled mason jars. The rings for the lids may get rusty, however, if there is any leakage or if brine gets on the rim while fishing out cheesy morsels. By the way, you can also preserve butter this way, although if you get to the South Pacific, you can find commercially canned butter.
Whether using oil or brine, the cheese must be completely immersed, but since it floats you need something to keep it down. Using what we had on hand, we broke up some wooden brochette skewers and poked them into the top layer of the cheese. Toothpicks would be simpler. The spikes kept the cheese from floating up and hitting the lid.
If you want to get fancy, add some fresh herbs to the oil or brine. Someone once gave us a jar of Feta cheese preserved with lemon slices and fresh basil in olive oil. Wow, was that ever good!
Cheesy Options and Other Tidbits
Mild White Queso. We tried various mild Mexican white cheeses as substitutes for Mozzarella (on you-know-what); as the French would say, ça marche, but some of these cheeses didn’t melt very well.
Cream Cheese. So, I looked this up and learned that the US Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service recommends that cream cheese not be left out of the fridge for more than 2 hours – what?! We have found that a week or possibly even two is fine, if the package remains sealed and, once open, depending on how hot the weather is, we’ve had it last for at least a few days and maybe even a week. You can make your own decisions about this, of course.
MacLaren’s Imperial Sharp Cheddar Cheese. If you like a sharp cheddar flavour, this spreadable cheese is an excellent boat food, which lasts for months without refrigeration. Although the oil might separate a bit, just stir the cheese up. We’ve never had it go bad. I’m not sure how readily available it is outside of Canada.
La Vache Qui Rit (The Laughing Cow). Most likely you are familiar with these little triangles of creamy tastiness. Although we’d eaten this product before we went off-shore, we didn’t realize how great a boat food it was, until we picked some up in French Polynesia and discovered that it lasts very well (many months), even in the tropics. It also comes in various flavours.
Mini Babybel.Wax, of course, is commonly used to preserve cheese. We like to carry the small Babybel round wax-coated bites of gouda (other types and sizes are available) – the single-serving size means there is no worry about it going bad once opened. These keep for several months; the cheese will develop a stronger flavour over time.
Powdered Parmesan. Commercially-prepared powdered Parmesan (aka “shaky cheese”) is readily available, lasts well, and stores easily on the boat. It can enhance a wide variety of dishes.
Cheez Whiz. This processed product doesn’t really count as cheese but it certainly keeps well. The jar will say to refrigerate after opening but we have found that to be unnecessary. The “cheese” will darken over time though. Truthfully, we don’t use this product much since we figured out better tasting and more nutritious options.
Cheese in a Can. Easy Cheese is an example of this processed cheese that you spray out of a can. We got this once somewhere in the South Pacific when other options were limited. It’s fun and tasty enough, but the packaging is hard on our tree-hugging souls.
Squeezo. This is our name for the runny orange cheese goo one can get in Mexico – it comes in a plastic bag and you can squeeze the queso out onto your nachos. Before opening, it doesn’t need refrigeration and it lasts at least a couple of days after opening. We haven’t done thorough research on this product as we weren’t really sure what was in it and thought the flavour was not good enough to compensate for the extra calories.
Cheesies. OK, calling this cheese is even more questionable than the last three options, but sometimes you need a treat for happy hour. In Mexico we’ve seen Cheesie bags that were 4 feet high! The sheer excess of this was very enticing to one of us, but the other one very sensibly expressed several doubts, including concerns about where to store such a giant container of chemicals and air. We did get a much smaller bag and discovered that there was disappointingly little flavour (at least for that brand). Again, exhaustive research was lacking, but for my money, I’d stick with Canadian cheesies.
Curdle Your Own. One final option is to make your own cheese. The raw ingredient, milk, is easily available in powdered form (with the brands found in Mexico and the South Pacific being much superior to Canadian ones). Together with some enzyme tablets, a thermometer, and a lot of water, you can create your own batch of mild cheese whenever needed. As noted earlier, save the whey for use in cooking!
Hopefully this article has provided you with food for thought. Although there may be other reasons for mariners, both young and ancient, to avoid long passages and remote anchorages, lack of cheese need not be one of them. Even without refrigeration, there are many ways to preserve and store this versatile and tasty sustenance. You may not be able to eat exactly the same things you do when on shore but that’s all part of the adventure.