What Are Cheese Curds, and Why Do They Squeak?
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What are cheese curds? This quintessential Wisconsin snack is the freshest cheese you'll ever eat.
What are cheese curds? If you’ve ever been to the Midwest, chances are you’ve eaten them by the bagful. This regional specialty is widely available across Wisconsin, as well as Ontario and Quebec in Canada. These wrinkly, squishy pieces of fresh dairy goodness are typically served on their own, atop poutine or battered and deep-fried.
What Are Cheese Curds?
Curds are ultra-fresh cheese bits known for their springy texture and squeaky sound.
Squeaky cheese curds start with pasteurized cow’s milk that’s heated to 90 to 100°F, then cultured. The culture is a strain of good bacteria made from fermented milk. Culture makes fresh milk more acidic, helps it curdle and ultimately gives cheese its unique texture and flavor.
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Next, the cultured milk gets coagulated by adding rennet, a clotting enzyme that separates the milk solids (curds) from the liquid (whey) and helps impart flavor. Using cheese harps (aka curd cutters or wire knives), cheesemakers cut the curds to help expel the whey. Then, in a process called “ditching,” the cheesemakers push the curds into clumps on either side of a cheese vat. The vat has a channel down the middle for draining the whey.
Why Do Cheese Curds Squeak?
Cheddaring is the process that gives cheese curds their squeak, and it’s also the first step in making aged cheddar cheese. Here’s how it works.
After ditching, cheesemakers slice the clumped curds into large chunks called loaves. Then, they hand-turn and stack the chunks several times while steaming them at around 100° to help extrude more whey.
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Once the pressed and drained curds have reached the correct firmness and moisture level, it’s time to mill them into their signature squiggly shape, then wash them with warm water. After a thorough salting, they’re ready to package for sale.
In a large-scale professional operation, the whole curd-making process takes about four hours from start to finish and can make thousands of pounds of cheese. Cheese curds don’t need to be refrigerated for the first 24 hours, and many people will tell you they’re best enjoyed straight out of the bag (or the vat) when they’re so fresh they’re still warm—which is when they’re at their squeakiest.
See why Wisconsin cheese really is the best.
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The Science of Squeaky Cheese
Ready for the science behind the squeak? Cheese curds have a network of proteins. The proteins are called casein, and they’re held together by calcium phosphate bonds. This springy network rebounds when you bite into a curd. That rebound creates vibrations that make the curds emit their signature squeak.
Why do curds lose their squeak? It’s because of the acid in the cheese culture. Over time, acid breaks down the curd’s tight protein network and silences the squeak forever. But, culture is also how you end up with aged cheese.
Let’s say you’re not within driving distance of a creamery. If you must get your cheese curds from the refrigerated section, you can sometimes bring their squeak back.
The unofficial way to do this is to stick the bag of curds on your dashboard while you drive home from the store on a sunny day. But cheese scientists at the Center for Dairy Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have developed a more precise method.
They’ve determined that after storing cheese curds at 45° (the approximate temperature of your fridge’s cheese drawer) for up to two weeks, you can re-squeakify them by reheating four ounces of curds for 15 seconds in the microwave.
Where to Buy Wisconsin Cheese Curds
The ability to extend a curd’s squeak by storing them at a cold enough temperature and carefully reheating them is good news if you don’t live in Wisconsin (or Canada). While there’s nothing like stopping at the gas station to pick up a bag that’s squeaky-fresh, you can have cheese curds shipped to your doorstep for the next best thing.
Cheesemakers usually limit curd shipping to certain days of the week and times of the year to make sure you get the freshest possible product. But we say the wait is worth it! Here are some Wisconsin favorites:
- Ellsworth Creamery Cheddar Cheese Curds: Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery has been producing its famous cheddar curds since 1968. These are the same curds Wisconsinites enjoy every June at the annual Ellsworth Cheese Festival.
- Battered Wisconsin Cheese Curds by State Street Brats: These battered cheese curds are flavored with garlic, paprika and other spices. They’re shipped frozen on ice, so all you have to do is bake them in the oven to enjoy an authentic Wisconsin bar experience at home no matter where you live.
- Clock Shadow Creamery Cheddar Cheese Curds: These curds come from a Milwaukee cheese factory, located in the historic Walker’s Point neighborhood. If you’re local, you can give them a call to find out exactly when fresh-out-of-the-vat curds are available on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays.
- Renard’s Wisconsin Cheese Curds: If you want award-winning curds, try the ones from this third-generation family owned and operated cheesemaker that’s been around since 1961.
How to Make Cheese Curds
In the Midwest, this means, “how to deep-fry cheese curds.” Basically, you make a dry mixture of flour, salt and any optional seasonings you want to include, then combine that with a wet mixture of egg, milk and beer (or buttermilk) to create a batter.
Dip the curds in the batter, then fry them at 375° until the outside is golden brown. Restrain yourself until your freshly fried curds are cooled enough to not burn your tongue, and you’ll be in melty, crispy cheese heaven.