Canning milk? It’s definitely a question that has crossed the minds of many DIY homesteaders.
We all know that canning is an excellent way to store food and make sure it stays safe, but can we really can milk and other dairy products in jars at home like we do with tomatoes and okra? Is it safe to can milk?
No, it is not safe to can milk. Milk is too rich in fat to be canned at home with the assurance that all germs will be killed during the process.
Simply stated milk is just too risky to safely can at home, and the chances of spoilage are high, to say nothing of food poisoning.
In fact, milk is one of a few foods that the USDA specifically tells people to never can at home. Keep reading to learn more about canning milk, and why it is a bad idea.
Bottom Line Up-Front: Canning Milk at Home is Generally Not Safe.
Right up front, the “official” answer regarding canning milk at home is that you should not do it.
It is unsafe because at-home water bath canning processes generally cannot raise the temperature of milk high enough, long enough, to reliably kill the bacteria that will lead to spoilage and food poisoning.
To be clear: Yes, some people can milk at home with a pressure canner. Some even do it regularly with water bath canning and consume it later with no ill effects.
But the facts are that canning milk yourself is risky business, and there is an elevated risk of a bad outcome.
The High Fat, Low Acid Content of Milk Means it Cannot Be Canned at Home
The main reason for this is that milk is very high in fat. As most canners already know, the fat content of a food increases the chances of the food going rancid, and that means a nasty taste assuming it is still safe (or safe-ish) to eat.
But fat can interfere with the effectiveness of heat processing in another, worse way by acting as insulation for bacteria and other microorganisms.
When canning, you need to raise the temperature (in most cases) to at least 240F. This is because 240°F is the temperature at which spores that cause botulism will be reliably killed.
But when it comes to milk, the high fat content in milk means it is difficult to evenly heat all the way through and keep it hot enough to do the job. This means that it will take much longer to reach the sustained target temperature of 240°F.
And since you can’t guarantee that every bit of milk has reached this temperature for a long enough time during usual canning processes, there is an elevated risk of spoilage and food poisoning when canning milk.
At-Home Canned Milk Can Be a Breeding Ground for the Bacteria that Causes Botulism
You’ve probably heard of botulism. Often whispered of with a shudder among canners, botulism is not a germ, per se, but rather the devastating and potentially fatal illness causes by a toxin produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum.
Clostridium botulinum reproduces by forming spores, which are highly resistant to heat and other environmental conditions.
Spores are formed under low oxygen conditions- the kind of conditions you might get in a sealed, airtight canning jar- and can remain dormant for several years.
When exposed to the right environmental conditions it can grow rapidly in the presence of nutrients. The bacteria then produce the toxin, which can cause botulism if ingested.
When that happens, you are in for an awful time. Botulism is potentially fatal: symptoms of botulism include difficulty swallowing, double vision, slurred speech, and muscle weakness.
If left untreated, it can lead to paralysis and respiratory failure, causing death without sustained life support.
Early diagnosis is essential for successful treatment, but people affected are usually affected for the rest of their lives, so it’s important to seek medical attention ASAP if you suspect you may have been exposed.
The USDA Warns People against Canning Milk at Home
Think I am overreacting? Don’t take my word for it: the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has made it very clear that they do not recommend canning milk at home using boiling water methods. It’s just not safe.
The USDA recommends that milk be canned only in a pressure canner using scientifically tested guidelines for time and temperature, with the required temperature being achievable using a pressure canner for a more than an hour.
Even then, it is still a comparatively high-risk food to can yourself.
Commercial Canning Facilities Have the Right Equipment
Shelf-stable, safe canned milk is of course achievable: factories do it all the time. This is because they have the right equipment.
Commercial canners use special systems to heat milk for the necessary length of time, and at higher temperatures than you can achieve with a water bath or pressure canner.
This technology is out of reach, in both size and cost, of even the most motivated at-home canner.
But it pays off, because factory-canned milk is as safe as it gets when it comes to shelf life without the risks of spoilage and food poisoning.
Buy Canned or Powdered Milk if You Need it for Long-Term Storage
So while it may be tempting to try canning milk at home, I think it is just not worth the risk. Instead of trying to can milk yourself, save your time and energy and purchase commercially processed canned or powdered milk for long-term storage.
It’s safer and more reliable, and you won’t have to worry about botulism.
If You Are Dead-Set on Storing Your Own Milk, Try Freezing or Freeze-Drying Instead
When it comes to storing milk, there are a few different ways to go about it. One option is freezing the milk, which can be done by pouring the milk into ice cube trays and then putting them in a freezer bag.
Similarly, there is a process called freeze-drying which can also be done at home with a specialized appliance.
Freeze-drying in particular will produce dry milk that can be powdered and stored at room temperature where it will last for a very long time.
These are both safer alternatives to normal canning methods for milk since they do not involve the same risks of bacterial growth.
Tom has lived and worked on farms and homesteads from the Carolinas to Kentucky and beyond. He is passionate about helping people prepare for tough times by embracing lifestyles of self-sufficiency.