Over the years, when I’ve told people I’m from Wisconsin, they’ve responded, “Great cheese curds!” I heard it just last week. Although no single dairy product can define my home state, no matter how adorable or tasty it may be, it’s better than the response I got in the ’90s: “Home of Jeffrey Dahmer, right?” Indeed, but I digress.
Cheese curds are mild, milky, springy, squeaky goodness, served plain or dolled up with flavors like jalapeno, dill, and horseradish. (You can find just about any flavor imaginable somewhere.) In my family, we snack on them straight out of the fridge, tuck them into sandwiches and wraps, and melt them over burgers and into scrambled eggs. Of course, thousands of restaurants serve them battered and fried.
Although no single dairy product can define my home state, no matter how adorable or tasty it may be, it’s better than the response I got in the ’90s: “Home of Jeffrey Dahmer, right?” Indeed, but I digress.
In Wisconsin, you can stock up on them at supermarkets, gas stations, and even the airport, from front-and-center displays at Milwaukee’s Mitchell International. Heading out on a road trip a few years ago, my sister and I bought a ten-pound bag on the border with Iowa. Perfect. Cheese curds aren’t unique to the Badger State, but vendors at farmers’ markets in New York City, where I live now, have admitted to me that they don’t think their curds are as good as Wisconsin’s.
What’s so special about the cheese curds in Wisconsin?
It probably has something to do with freshness. More than a quarter of the country’s cheese supply—some two billion pounds per year—comes from the state. That creates a whole lot of fresh curds, which are to finished cheese what white dog is to aged whiskey. The curds you buy in stores are the building blocks of cheddar, usually, pulled out of production before they would be pressed into molds and aged to completion.
Curds are a cheesemaker’s snack, best enjoyed immediately. If you’re fortunate enough to have cheese producers in your city, go for the bag with the most recent date on it. Cheese curds often go out to stores the day they’re made, so you might be lucky enough to find today’s. The rest of you can try a couple of mail-order vendors from Wisconsin: Carr Valley Cheese and Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery.
Wisconsinites know about the squeak—a sign of freshness that comes from the curd’s elastic protein strands rubbing up against the enamel of your teeth. It doesn’t last long, usually two days at most, but you can actually revive it by microwaving curds for just a few seconds. That’s assuming any of your cheese curds last two days. Microwaved, fried, melted, or fresh from the bag, they always seem to go quickly.