Why You Need to Move to Wisconsin — Fresh, Squeaky Cheese Curds


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A bit of the backstory:

Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, beer and brats: these are all foods that scream Wisconsin. But is there anything that defines America’s Dairyland better than a squeaky, fresh cheese curd? Travel the state from north to south or east to west, and you’re likely to find half pound bags of fresh cheese curds on the counter of every gas station and grocery store between Madison and Minocqua.

Of the state’s 129 cheese plants, at least 45 factories make and sell fresh squeaky cheese curds at least one day a week. That’s right: only in Wisconsin is it likely the average person knows on which days and at which factories they can buy fresh cheese curds right out of the vat. And perhaps nobody knows fresh curds better than Bob Wills, master cheesemaker and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese in Plain, and Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee. Last week, I sat down with Bob at a picnic table outside his office at the Cedar Grove cheese plant to talk curds.

Fresh squeaky cheese curds are made and shipped out of both of Bob’s cheese plants at least four days a week. In fact, cheese curd production defines each cheese plant’s entire production schedule. Customers place orders for cheese curds, cheesemakers start making them around 10 p.m., and by 7 a.m., trucks are leaving each factory to head to stores with fresh squeaky cheese curds.

“I’ve estimated that in the summer months, we’re making around 26,000 pounds of fresh cheese curds a week,” Bob says.

Like many Wisconsin cheese factories, Cedar Grove Cheese also sells fresh curds right from the factory starting at 8 a.m., and even overnight ships cheese curds to folks experiencing a “cheese curd crisis.” People all over the country call up Bob, tell him there are no fresh curds available where they live, and Bob then overnight ships the curds to them. “It’s usually an exorbitant shipping cost, but they don’t seem to care, because they need their cheese curds,” he says.

So what exactly makes a fresh cheese curd squeak? For the answer, we turned to Pat Polowsky, author of Cheese Science Toolkit at cheesescience.org and a graduate student studying under the direction of Dr. Paul Kindstedt and the University of Vermont. Until recently, Pat worked in Wisconsin at the Center for Dairy Research in Madison. I email him weekly, lobbying him to return. But until then, we talk on the phone. This week, I caught him right after class in Vermont.

Pat says two main things are going on in a cheese curd to make it squeak: First: calcium, which acts as the glue to hold the structure together. Second: an intact protein structure. As a cheese curd gets older, acid is produced, and some of the calcium “glue” dissipates. The structure softens, and eventually, the protein breaks down completely. The squeak disappears. The reason we can actually hear the squeak in our mouths is from the cheese protein rubbing against the enamel of our teeth. So if you have false teeth, fresh cheese curds don’t squeak.

I asked Pat about folks who don’t live in Wisconsin, and therefore don’t have daily access to fresh cheese curds. What should they do? I suggested moving to Wisconsin, but Pat was more diplomatic. He says you can buy cheese curds in a grocery store and put them in your microwave for 15 seconds on low power. If the curd isn’t more than 10 days old, you may get the squeak back. No one knows for sure why the microwave trick works, but Pat says it probably has to do with the hydrophobic effect on proteins.

So why aren’t fresh cheese curds found so prevalently in other states? It turns out it’s because most Wisconsin cheddar plants still make cheddar the old-fashioned way: by cheddaring curd.

“If we’re talking about cheese curds, we need to talk about why they’re in Wisconsin and not everywhere else,” Bob says. “It has to do with the cheddaring process, where we mat and stack and turn and flip slabs of curd, and then run them through a mill. Ironically, the cheddaring process is designed to make cheese for aging – it’s like kneading bread, you want to get the oxygen and excess water out – but then we turn around and turn it into a product that we sell instantly.”

But cheesemakers in Wisconsin don’t just make fresh cheese curds because they’re popular, they also do so because it’s a valuable source of cash flow that can finance a cellar of aged, artisan cheese.

Even though he’s making 26,000 pounds of cheese curds a week, Cedar Grove Cheese is much better known for its aged specialty cheeses and aged cheddar. With as much as $2.5 million of cheese aging to perfection, it’s the cash from the curds that allow Bob to keep paying the bills while his aged, artisan cheeses age.


Thank you to GetCulture, Inc. for sponsoring this episode of Cheese Underground Radio. Did you know you can make fresh, squeaky cheddar cheese curds right in your own kitchen? GetCulture Inc. is the home for hobby cheesemakers and a source of ingredients and equipment to make homemade cheese, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk and more. Visit the Get Culture store in Madison, Wisconsin, or shop the store online at www.getculture.com.

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Studying a Wisconsin Icon: the Cheese Curd

There are few things that define Wisconsin better than fresh, squeaky cheese curds. And while I’m a firm believer that everyone should just visit or move to Wisconsin to enjoy curds while they’re fresh, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research in Madison knows that’s not possible. That’s why CDR staff are studying cheese curds in order to find a way to extend the squeak.

In a paper published today, authors Dr. Mark Johnson and Pat Polowsky explain why fresh curds squeak: when eating a fresh curd, our teeth compress the curd’s protein network, making it resist and then rebound as our teeth pass through it. The rebound is what generates vibrations and causes the squeak.

Alas, fresh curds only squeak a day or two, as time breaks down the cheese’s calcium phosphate, and curds lose their ability to resist and rebound. But that’s where Mark and Pat come in: through trial and error, they’ve discovered new ways to prolong the squeak of fresh curd (hint: it involves your freezer). To read the results of their study, visit the Dairy Pipeline, pages 4-5. Then try and replicate at home – warning – this may require the consumption of a large amount of cheese curds. Darn.

The Downtown Madison Deep-Fried Cheese Curd Challenge

Just like Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, and beer brats, deep-fried cheese curds are uniquely Wisconsin. Once relegated to county fairs, bars, and bowling alleys, the deep-fried delicacy today claims top billing on many an upscale menu. In downtown Madison, dozens of restaurants offer deep-fried cheese curds as an appetizer or side, and some are even transforming the once lowly fair-food into a top-shelf item.

So which downtown Madison restaurants do deep-fried cheese curds the best? To find out, I visited four different restaurants in a two-hour timespan for the ultimate taste test. But first, I had to pick up my photographer to capture the cheesy journey on film, which proved to be the first hurdle in what was to be a tougher writing assignment than first anticipated.

On a Thursday at 1:00 p.m., upon getting into my car, my photographer promptly informed me he had only two hours for the assignment. Unlike me, he has a real job, and two hours was the longest fake dentist appointment he could make without raising the suspicion of his boss. Incredulous, I asked him, “You mean we have to a) drive downtown, b) find a place to park, c) visit four restaurants and order cheese curds at each, d) eat aforementioned cheese curds, and then e) photograph each, all in two hours?” He stared back at me, unresponsive. I sighed. “Well then,” I said, “Challenge accepted.” And we roared off in my cheek geek mobile to hit four restaurants in 120 minutes.

First stop: Tipsy Cow on King Street. Neither of us had been there, and because we had to wait for our order of cheese curds to cook, we asked the bartender to throw in a couple of burgers, too. Fifteen minutes later, the burgers and cheese curds arrived at our table.

Five minutes later, my burger was gone, and my photographer was still trying to get the perfect shot of the $7.99 curds, which had arrived in a plastic basket lined with black and white checkered paper. I assured him that by now, he must have a good shot, and proceeded to taste my first deep-fried cheese curd of the day.

Hand-battered with New Glarus Spotted Cow beer, the white cheddar cheese curds at Tipsy Cow are very good. Light and fluffy, not greasy and not filling—at least at first—they dare you to eat them all, one luscious curd at a time. Stupidly, we did eat almost the entire basket before asking for the check. Strike one.

Second stop: Graze on Pinckney Street (pictured far top, right). We bellied up to the bar, ordered a basket of $8 cheese curds, and chatted with the bartender while he made me an iced latte. Ten minutes later, a very nice silver metal basket filled to the brim with enormous deep-fried cheese curds appeared, along with a bread and butter plate, and fork and knife for each of us. I wrinkled my brow. Typically, cheese curds are finger food. At Graze, however, cheese curds are considered the first course, and are big enough to require utensils. Sourced fresh daily from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus and dipped into an in-house vodka batter, these cheese curds are the masters of their domain. Did we eat the entire basket? Of course. Strike two.

Third stop: The Old Fashioned, also on Pinckney Street. By this time, it was after 2:00 p.m., and the bar was fairly empty, so we found two stools under a lamp (the photographer was becoming a pro at shooting curds by this time). We ordered two tap root beers and a $6.95 basket of cheese curds. Five minutes later, the curds arrived, along with General Manager Jennifer De Bolt, who had caught wind that a cheese curd writer and photographer were in town.

Offered with a choice of five sauces, including roasted garlic, smoked Spanish paprika, a tiger sauce with horseradish and mayo, a tiger sauce with blue cheese, and the reliable standby of buttermilk ranch, the curds at The Old Fashioned are second to none. Smaller and greasier than the curds at Graze, they are tasty and addictive. Similar to the Tipsy Cow, The Old Fashioned sources their curd from Vern’s Cheese, a distributor in Chilton, Wisconsin. De Bolt said curds are delivered fresh three days a week, and are dipped in buttermilk before being rolled into a secret seasoned flour concoction. The result: pure bliss.

“The key to a good deep fried cheese curd is starting with a fresh curd,” De Bolt told us. “I can tell the difference between a one-day-old curd and three-day-old curd.” By this time, so could we. The curds at Graze had been super fresh—still milky and squeaky, while the curds at the Tipsy Cow had been less stringy and denser. We happily ate nearly the entire bowl of Old Fashioned cheese curds before realizing our mistake. You guessed it, strike three.

Last stop: the Great Dane Pub on East Doty Street. Hoisting ourselves up to the bar, we reluctantly ordered yet another basket of cheese curds. A few minutes later, the $8 curds arrived, along with Executive Chef Matt Moyer, who seemed disappointed to tell us they had stopped making deep-fried curds in-house years ago. Instead, they purchase frozen curd from a manufacturer in Stevens Point, which uses Point Beer in the beer batter. The result is a super-smooth deep-fried cheese curd, perfectly acceptable, but which pales in comparison to fresh, hand-battered curds.

“We do use fresh curds from Hook’s Cheese in Mineral Point for our poutine,” Moyer said, “and despite the fact our curds are not made in-house, they are still our number one selling item on the menu at all five restaurants.” We could see why. If ever there was a food made to eat with a pint of beer, it is a deep-fried cheese curd.

With our bellies full of hot oil and cheese, we stumbled back to the car. It was a little past 3:00 p.m., and I asked my photographer if he would get in trouble for being late to work. He shook his head. “There is no possible way I’m going back to work,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “I’m fairly sure the dentist found a problem. In fact, I’m pretty sure I needed a root canal. I’m going home to lie down.” Turns out Madison’s deep-fried cheese curds had beat us both. But we didn’t mind. Challenge accomplished.

Note: this article is published in the current issue of Madison Originals Magazine. Check out this awesome publication and the cover photo by clicking here