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


Listen to an interview with Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills and Cheese Science Toolkit author Pat Polowsky on Cheese Underground Radio:

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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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Bucky Badger Cheese Curds

This weekend was homecoming at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and while our beloved Badgers lost the big football game in overtime, we fans enjoyed home team color red and white cheese curds, thanks to Wisconsin cheesemaker Cesar Luis of Cesar’s Cheese.

Here’s Cesar mixing and adding his super secret red recipe to turn the milk blood red — rumor has it a few visitors to the cheese making viewing window at Sassy Cow Creamery were a bit horrified to see red in the cheese vat, until they found out they were to be turned into red and white cheese curds for Bucky’s big game.

Mmmmm …. red milk. Probably a good thing this didn’t happen on Halloween. I can imagine the rumors now.

Cheddaring the red curd.

Milling the red curd.

And voila, red cheese curds, mixed with regular, white cheese curds!

The ingenuity of Wisconsin cheesemakers never ceases to amaze me. Go Badgers!

Cheesemaker for a Day at Roelli Cheese

Ever wonder how heavy a slab of cheddar curd is? Thanks to Cheesemaker Chris Roelli, 15 more people now understand the art, science and muscles required to make a vat of Cheddar.

On Saturday, Chris and his crew at Roelli Cheese in Shullsburg were kind enough to host 15 members of Wisconsin Cheese Originals for a rare Cheesemaker for a Day event. We spent the morning helping Chris make a vat of Cheddar, and then, after lunch in the upstairs former cheesemaker living quarters, had an amazing tasting of six of Chris’ current and brand new cheeses, but we’ll get to that in a moment. First, here’s what our day looked like:

1. Members arrived just in time to see Chris pour in the annatto to make sure our curds were bright Wisconsin orange.

2. A little more heating, rennet added, more heating, time to set, and it was time to check and cut the curd. We learned Chris likes a “clean cut” — meaning when he places the knife in the curd mass, it should break quickly and cleanly – no globs allowed.

3. While the curd healed, and then stirred, Chris gave members the backstory of how he became a fourth generation Wisconsin cheesemaker. It all started with his great grandfather, who had made cheese in both France and Switzerland in the early 1900s. He was looking to make a better living for his family making cheese, and had decided to either emigrate to Russia or the United States. When his cousin, who had already arrived in Russia, sent him a letter saying if he was coming to join him, he should bring a gun, Chris’ great grandfather chose to sail to the United States instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.

4. Finally, it was time to drain the whey from the curd! As we found out, cheesemaking is a lot of hurrying up and waiting. And while you’re waiting, you clean. And then clean some more. But since Chris was nice, he didn’t make us do the dishes – his helper Mark did all the work. We just got to do the fun stuff.

5. After raking the curd to one end of the vat to allow the whey to drain off, the “cheddaring” process started in earnest. Chris cut the mass in to half, dividing it into two loaves, separated them further, and then started stacking slabs to push the whey out. The slabs were then cut again, and stacked another four or five times. On the fourth time, we all got a turn at “cheddaring”. This is the Old World style of making Cheddar cheese and Chris makes it this way every day.

6. Then it was time to mill the curd. Chris uses a milling machine dating back to the 1950s. We stood back and let Chris and Mark handle the milling, as its knives are sharp enough to take a finger with it.

7. Last steps: wash the curd, stir and then salt!

8. It was then time to eat warm, squeaky and fresh curds right out of the vat.

After our curd snack, we helped Chris put curd into bandaged cheddar forms and put them in the press.

Then it was time to clean up, head upstairs for lunch, as the best part was about to be revealed. Chris cut up six cheeses for us, three of which are on the market, one that will hit the market in another month, and another two still under development that will likely be ready in time for the holidays. Is this, or is this not, an amazing table of fine-looking cheeses????

Roelli Cheese fans will recognize the front left square red cheese — that’s Red Rock, a creamy cheddar blue that’s taking specialty cheese shops by storm. And in the back, third from right is his Gravity Hill with Sea Salt and next to it, the flagship Dunbarton Blue, both currently on the market. The cheese at far right is a brand new creation hitting the market next month that is a goat/cow mix and partnership with LaClare Farms. The cheese to the far left was our absolute favorite and will be hitting the stores in a few months. It’s called Marigold, and this is a cheese to watch my friends. Front right is Chris’ new Bandaged Cheddar, which will also be on sale around the holidays. Yum.

Many, many thanks to Chris Roelli and his crew for putting up with an extra 15 people in his make room on a Saturday. We adore you!

All photos copyright Uriah Carpenter, 2012.