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.