A Midwesterner Demystifies Everything You Need to Know About Cheese Curds

From how they’re made, to why they’re so beloved, and where to find them.

PHOTO: CULVER'S; DESIGN: SAMANTHA SHIN

As transplants, we learn to live without the comforts of our hometowns. Case in point: When I moved from Wisconsin to the East Coast after college, I could handle — nay, understand — the quizzical responses I got when attempting to locate a “bubbler.” (It’s a drinking fountain.) No tailgating before baseball games? Fine.

But there also comes a time when the indignities become too much to bear. For me, it was the moment I couldn’t track down my favorite Midwestern comfort food, cheese curds. To make matters worse, my East Coast pals were entirely unaware of their existence: “What is a cheese curd?” they’d ask.

It’s a common question outside America’s heartland. So, in honor of National Cheese Curd Day, created by that other Wisconsin mainstay, Culver’s, on October 15, we’re lifting the veil on this great Midwestern mystery. Here’s what you need to know about cheese curds, including how they’re made, why they’re so beloved, and where to find them.

Think of cheese curds as baby cheese

Turns out, cheese curds aren’t as mysterious as you might think — essentially, they’re young (meaning unaged) cheese. For some, cheese curds are a byproduct of the cheesemaking process; dairy farmers would bring home the soft curds that went unused while making blocks of dense cheeses like Cheddar. But, as the snack grew in popularity, many creameries began to devote their dairy to producing the bouncy, salty bits of baby cheese beloved across the Midwest.

Curds are formed when milk, enzymes, and starter are heated at a low temperature to produce milk solids, a.k.a. the curds, and liquid whey. Once those solids have formed, the curds are extracted from the whey, formed into slabs, and repeatedly stacked in a process called cheddaring — giving the cheese its name. But what happens next differentiates cheese curds from a standard block of sharp Cheddar: to make the latter, the slabs are processed repeatedly, molded into wheels or blocks, and then aged for several weeks.

To make matters worse, my East Coast pals were entirely unaware of their existence: “What is a cheese curd?” they’d ask.

By contrast, cheese curds skip the molding and aging process entirely, going right from the slab stage into a mill, where they’re cut into nugget-like pieces of soft, mild, springy cheese. The final step involves salting and bagging the cheese for immediate consumption — and with cheese curds, freshness is key. The hallmark of a fresh curd is a signature squeak upon first bite, which is caused when the tight proteins of the cheese slip and bounce off the smooth enamel of our teeth. (Note: The squeak is best achieved with room temperature cheese. Fried cheese curds, like those found at Culver’s, don’t squeak.)

This affection for the curd’s signature sound, coupled with the Midwest’s dairy heritage (as of 2018, Wisconsin was reportedly producing 3 billion pounds of cheese annually), is why cheese curds are so popular in the non-coastal states: the farther they travel, the lesser the freshness, and, thus, the smaller the squeak.

PHOTO: Culver's; DESIGN: SAMANTHA SHIN

Fried cheese curds: a Midwest tradition with ancient roots

But what really transformed the curd from a humble bit of cheese into the dairyland’s snack of choice? A dredge in breadcrumbs and a trip to the deep fryer. Piping-hot and cooked until crisp and golden brown, fried cheese curds are the stuff of Midwestern dining tradition — so much so that people even write songs about them. And, really, what’s not to love about fried cheese?

The complete history of fried cheese curds remains something of a mystery even in the Midwest, but the crispy, cheesy dish made its debut at the Minnesota State Fair nearly 50 years ago, in 1975. Some, however, claim fried cheese can be traced all the way back to ancient Rome with a dish called globuli, in which morsels of cheese are coated in semolina, fried, and rolled in honey. Centuries later, the 1758 cookbook The Compleat Housewife logs a recipe for cheese curd fritters. The recipe has since changed — state fair vendors have experimented with everything from cheese curd tacos to a sweet, bacon-laced version — but the traditional fried cheese curd remains king in the Midwest.

The fan base expands

If you don’t live in the Midwest, you don’t have to hit the fairground to get your hands on the region’s favorite treat. Since 1997, national restaurant chain Culver’s, founded and based in Sauk City, Wisconsin, has made a mission of spreading the good word of cheese curds throughout the United States. (In 2018 alone, the restaurant served more than 28 million orders of curds!) Today, the curd-curious can track down the snack at Culver’s locations in 25 states, stretching from Idaho to Florida.

At Culver’s, the cheese curds are as authentic as they come. In keeping with tradition, the restaurant chain only uses curds from LaGrander’s Hillside Dairy in Stanley, Wisconsin, to create the fried dish. Salty nuggets of white and yellow Cheddar are coated in breadcrumbs, seasoned with the restaurant’s blend of herbs and spices, and fried until they’re buttery and browned on the outside. The result is magic: The decadent breading creates a crunchy contrast against the cheese’s soft, stretchy center. To get the full Midwestern experience, pair with ranch dressing — but, really, fried cheese pairs with any dipping sauce.

PHOTOS: CULVER'S; DESIGN: SAMANTHA SHIN

How to enjoy the dairyland delicacy

As a side or on their own, there’s no right or wrong way to enjoy a cheese curd. Those new to curds should first try them unfried; start with plain, then branch out with flavors like garlic and herb, horseradish, or hickory bacon. Because of their easy grab-and-go shape, the cheese makes for a convenient addition to school or work lunches and game-day cheese boards, but they can easily be tossed in a salad or on top of a bowl of chili. In Wisconsin — where stunt garnishes are something of a state sport — it’s common to see curds cozied up to a pickle spear and celery stick as a Bloody Mary garnish.

But cheese curd pros know to bring them into a main dish. The Quebecois classic, poutine, makes use of the soft cheese by layering French fries and raw curds and coating the mixture in a rich gravy. Those jonesing for the Canadian dish can concoct their own version at any of Culver’s more than 800 locations: Pair a large order of crinkle-cut fries with fried curds, and top the mixture with the restaurant’s Wisconsin Cheddar cheese sauce. Feeling extra decadent? Just in time for National Cheese Curd Day on October 15, the restaurant will also debut the limited-edition CurderBurger, which tops their deluxe ButterBurger with a solid crown of fried cheese curds. (Of course, you can create your own any time of year by piling their famed burger with an order of curds.)

The reality is, in the Midwest, cheese curds are more than a dish — they’re an experience. To get the full effect, I like to pull fried cheese curds apart to admire their gooey, cheesy center. I often think of cheese curds like snowflakes: No two are exactly the same, and because of their freshness, they sometimes fuse together in the fryer to create heart-like shapes. To get a glimpse at the curd in its many forms, just search the hashtag #CulversCurdNerd on Twitter and Instagram — and get to know the dairyland delicacy a little bit better.