Battle of the Cheese Curds
By Jeanne Carpenter | Photos By Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board & Jim Klousia 2
Friday fish fries, Jell-O salads, beer brats: all foods that scream Wisconsin. But is there anything that defines America’s Dairyland more than the squeaky-fresh cheese curd? Travel the state from north to south or east to west, and you’re likely to find bags of fresh cheese curds on the counter of every convenience store and roadside cheese shop between Madison and Minocqua.
Of the state’s 129 cheese plants, more than 45 make and sell cheese curds at least one day a week. Only in Wisconsin is it likely the average person knows which days and at which factories fresh cheese curds can be found six days a week. Let’s face it: When it comes to the easy access to addicting salty squeakiness, Wisconsinites are spoiled.
Protein strands give cheese curds their characteristic and famous squeak. For the first 18 to 24 hours of a cheese curd’s life, the protein strands that form a curd are elongated, and the strands rubbing against the enamel of our teeth creates the squeak. Cheese curds are merely baby bites of cheddar. Instead of hooping and pressing the curds into wheels or blocks of cheese, cheesemakers bag the curds for retail. After a day or two, the squeakiness disappears. That’s why factories make fresh curds several days a week.
All of which begs the question: Just who makes the best cheese curds in Wisconsin?
If you ask judges at the American Cheese Society (ACS), the answer is Crave Brothers Farmstead Cheese in Waterloo. The Craves won first place at last year’s ACS cheese curd judging competition, but Crave Brothers curds are hard to find.
Beyond Crave Brothers curds, experts agree that a few other factories stand out in consistency, perfect saltiness and pleasing size and shape.
Carr Valley Cheese, La Valle
Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, truckloads of fresh cheese curds made at the LaValle plant hit the highway and are dispersed to Carr Valley’s eight retail stores, all in Southern Wisconsin. (You can also order online!). Carr Valley curds are big, rectangular and juicy, perfect for savoring one at a time. Sharing is highly unlikely, so plan to buy two bags: one for yourself and one for a friend.
Arena Cheese, Arena
These folks invented the original Co-Jack cheese (a combination of Colby and Monterey Jack) and are one of the very few companies who make marbled white and orange curds. Available in the Madison area just one day a week, these curds go fast. They have extremely consistent saltiness and squeakiness, are long and rectangular, and are a customer favorite. (Arena Cheese Curds are also available online.)
Cedar Grove Cheese, Plain
Owner and Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills has nearly cornered the market for fresh cheese curds in Madison stores, especially on Mondays and Thursdays. Like many Wisconsin cheesemakers, cheese curds are an important source of income for the company, providing immediate cash flow that helps offset the cost of aging harder cheeses. Cedar Grove curds are smaller and more irregular in size than competing curds, but are always fresh and salty.
Hook's Cheese, Mineral Point
The folks at Hook’s Cheese make a large vat of fresh curds every Friday morning for sale at their factory in Mineral Point on Fridays and at the Dane County Farmers' Market on Saturday mornings. For the past several years, the owners and award-winning married cheesemakers, Tony and Julie Hook, have been assisted at the vat by brother Jerry, sister Julie, and nephew Brian, assuring a solid succession plan for Hook’s Cheeses (and squeaky curds).
Some die-hard tailgaters may bring their deep-fryers to the parking lot, but we recommend being safe and reserving this dish for the at-home tailgate party before an away game. This version of poutine replaces the brown gravy with a spicy-sweet sauce that blew our taste-testers’ minds. Serve it piping hot (although we don’t expect it’ll last long enough to get cold).