If you have lived in or around Wisconsin, then you already know all about the awesome-ness of cheese curds. If you are from a more coastal state, then you possibly feeling a little disgusted and wondering why any food would include the word “curd.”
A cheese curd is basically the first substance you get when making cheddar cheese. After milk, culture, and a coagulate come together, the curds and whey separate (yes, we are all thinking about Little Miss Muffet right now). Whey is drained from the cheese vats, and the curds remain. Typically, these curds are then pressed into molds to be aged and turned into the cheddar cheese blocks that we all know and love (mild cheddar ages the least amount of time, extra sharp cheddar can age for years). However, if you can snag these curds before they become cheddar cheese blocks then you have scored yourself a tasty treat.
Cheese curds are mild tasting, slightly rubbery in texture, and salty. They squeak when you bite into them, which causes them to also go by the moniker “squeaky cheese.” The thing about cheese curds is this: they HAVE to be fresh. I don’t mean they were made two days ago and flown to you from a Wisconsin farm. I mean REALLY fresh. If a cheese curd was created at six in the morning, you’re going to want to be eating that cheese curd for lunch. Or breakfast.
It’s not like they are poisonous after a day has passed, they just aren’t quite as good. Don’t get me wrong, if someone gives me a two-day-old cheese curd, I’ll eat it…but I wouldn’t spend any money on these over-aged cheese particles. The tell-tale sign of a cheese curd past its prime is that it no longer squeaks when you bite into it. You can cheat a little bit by bringing your curds to room temperature (10 seconds in the microwave usually does it) which brings back the squeakiness, but that trick usually only works for a day or two.
So herein lays the eternal problem for a west-coast gal who loves cheese curds: You have to buy cheese curds directly from source (i.e. a dairy farm). Once cheese curds have gotten to the supermarket, they are no longer fresh (even if they’ve been vacuum sealed). This is why cheese curds are primarily a Wisconsin treat. Tons of farms in Wisconsin make cheese curds every morning, so you are guaranteed to get the good stuff. But Wisconsin is far away.
There ARE places in and around Seattle where you can get cheese curds, but most of the curds have been flown in from Wisconsin days ago and are therefore not worthy. A few Pacific Northwest farms (Ballad Family Farm in Gooding, Idaho and several of the Tillamook farms along the Oregon coast) and Beecher’s Cheese shop at Pike Place Market do make cheese curds, but not on a daily basis – so you can’t count on them for freshness. When I was little there was a place in Mt. Vernon that made fresh curds every Sunday. My Wisconsin-bred father would take me and my brother there. We would take our ice cream cones up to the observation deck to watch the workers drain the whey out of the cheese vats and churn up the cheese curds. But that place closed years ago, so back to Wisconsin we must head.
This is one of the good things about living in Colorado – I’m three states closer to Wisconsin. Luckily I have several family members residing in Wisconsin, so I have non-cheesy reasons to visit too. I headed that way a couple weeks ago with my family, driving past endless rows of cornfields until we reached our destination. Shortly after hitting the Wisconsin state line, my parents and I were at Cady cheese, making our first cheese curd purchase of the week. I’d had a minor panic attack the previous day, worrying about whether or not I could eat cheese curds, because apparently un-pasteurized cheese and pregnancy don’t mix. But all ended well. Cheese curds are pasteurized. Thank goodness. I can handle the no-drinking part of these nine months, but the inability to eat raw cookie dough and soft cheese is a little tougher.
We stopped at Cady cheese a few days later on the way out of Wisconsin, buying several bags so my dad could take some back home to my brother – a task he failed to accomplish when packing his suitcase early the next morning. My poor brother therefore didn’t get his cheese curds until several days later when my mom returned home with them. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know this delay is completely unacceptable.
So if you’ve ever had a non-Wisconsin cheese curd and were left unimpressed, do yourself a favor and head up to America’s Dairyland. Get the real stuff. Somewhere between the squeaks you’ll be glad you did.