By Kimberly Holland
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Cheese curds are synonymous with the Midwest, so if you live outside that region, how can you know if you're eating the real deal? We asked an expert.

Wisconsin calls itself America's Dairyland. It's on their license plates. You're greeted with fresh cheese at the airport when you land. Fans of the state's NFL team — the Green Bay Packers — even affectionally call themselves cheeseheads. In short, Wisconsin knows its cheese.

I had the honor of meeting with several Wisconsin cheesemakers to discuss how they source their dairy, make some of the most awarded cheese in the world, and explain a cheese curd to outsiders. If you, like me, aren't from the Midwest, cheese curds are a bit of a mystery — and often first experienced in deep-fried form. I had heard of them and eaten my fair share, sure. But I didn't quite understand what made them so unique and so very Wisconsin.

So in honor of National Cheese Curd Day, I asked Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, who I met at his Cedar Grove Cheese plant in Plain, Wisconsin, to talk to me about curds. (He also owns Clock Shadow Creamy in Milwaukee.) What are they? How are they made? Why do they squeak? Settle in with a few fresh curds, and read on to find out what makes cheese curds so special.

Photo: Wisconsin Cheese

1. The first rule of cheese curds is freshness.

Cheese isn't fresh. In fact, cheese is old — that's the point. Cheeses are aged to reach their ideal flavor and texture. But cheese curds should be fresh, and if you aren't in Wisconsin or in the Midwest, the curds you're seeing pop up at your grocery store likely aren't the real deal.

"There are cheese curds, and then there are Wisconsin cheese curds," Wills says. "Whether in Birmingham or in a Wisconsin service station, cheese curds are distinguished by how fresh they are. Wisconsin works with particular state laws that permit cheese curds to be sold up to one day after production without being refrigerated."

He continues, "If they have not been purchased by that time, they must be discarded," Wills explains. "Those warm, fresh cheese curds are the ‘cream of the crop,' unless you work in the factory and can grab them right from the vat."

Outside of Wisconsin, the rules aren't so specific. That means those curds you're picking up at the store could be not at all fresh.

"Of course, that is a logistical challenge and potentially a source of waste. So, sellers find various ways to extend the shelf life, from refrigerating to gas flushing to vacuum packaging. In all likelihood, the longer the shelf-life, the lower the quality."

2. Cheese curds are baby cheddar.

A cheese curd isn't a special kind of cheese. It's just a young cheddar, one that hasn't been aged at all. These curds are separated from the whey during the cheesemaking process, and instead of being molded for a future cheese wheel, they're sliced up and bagged to be sold right away. (It's quick money for the cheesemakers, who are usually waiting months, even years, for their prized cheeses to be sliced and sold.)

"All cheese starts with curds that stick together to form cheese. But, most varieties of cheese start with small pieces between the size of a grain of rice and the eraser on a pencil," Wills says. "The larger cheese curds that people are familiar with come as a part of the traditional cheddaring process. In that process, the small curds stick together into slabs which are turned and stacked repeatedly to remove excess whey and air that can be entrapped. This results in smooth, homogenous mats that are then milled into larger curds. This cheesemaking process was developed to make cheddar cheese that can age for years. It is a great irony that the curds became a popular snack to be consume within hours."

Photo: Bouillante/Getty Images

3. Good curds squeak.

If your curd doesn't squeak, you're not holding a fresh curd.

"What distinguishes good cheese curds is their squeak, caused by the resistance of long strands of protein rubbing against the enamel of teeth," Wills says. "As the cheese ages, enzymes from the cheese cultures and coagulants will break down protein and other components of milk into smaller pieces. The cheese curds will typically lose their squeak within three or four days."

But if you just need that squeak, you can take steps to get it back. For the next couple days, sometimes putting the curds in the microwave for a few seconds will make them squeak again. They aren't quite the same as a fresh curd, but they are still fun.

4. Old curds aren't bad; they're cheese.

All is not lost if you somehow don't finish your curds before they're no longer curds. "All those cheese curd packages that are vacuum sealed or gas flushed and are over a week old are just plain cheese," Wills says. "Older cheese curds can still work well in salads, in poutine, in your eggs, or breaded and deep fried." He adds, "If you know for sure that you are going to have too many curds, they can be frozen. Once thawed, the curds will break down more quickly. Eaten within hours of thawing, they will be almost like new. But if they are breaded fresh — tempura, corn meal, seasoned flour, and pancake batter all work — and frozen quickly, the deep-fried curds will be chewy, stringy, and delicious."

5. Flavored curds are increasingly popular.

You won't find just white and yellow cheese curds anymore. Cheesemakers are becoming extra creative with the variety they offer.

"Flavored cheese curds have also become very popular," Wills says. "Examples include Cajun, olive, horseradish, garlic, scorpion pepper, and ranch. We have even dipped skewered cheese curds in a chocolate fountain." Wills even offers pizza-flavored cheese curds.

6. Some "curds" are just cheese chunks.

Some cheese curd "makers" break up aged cheddar into curd-like pieces and sell them as fresh curds. But they're not. Cheese curds have a short shelf-life. As such, there's more profit to be made in cheese that can sit longer on shelves. Thus the reason for the deception.