Apparently, it’s not enough that California competes with Wisconsin as the dairy state; now they are encroaching on our curd territory. The reason cheese curds always have been a regional delicacy is that they have to be fresh. That means they don’t travel far from the creamery that produces them. Ideally, the curds should be eaten within hours of their making.
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Fresh cheese curds squeak, so sometimes they are called “squeaky cheese.” (The squeak has been described as sounding like two balloons trying to neck.) Getting fresh is definitely the secret to the squeak, although there is a scientific explanation, and it has nothing to do with losing air like a balloon when you bite into them.
“That’s just a myth,” explains Ron Henningfeld, an East Troy native and head cheesemaker at Clock Shadow Creamery in Milwaukee.
The real reason cheese curds squeak is because of the protein structure. The milk fat and casein protein forms a matrix that is elongated when the milk is exposed to rennet, a natural coagulant used to make cheese curds coalesce into a gel-like curd, which is the beginning of cheese.
When you bite down on a fresh cheese curd, these long protein chains are broken, causing the squeak.
“Midwesterners love the fresh cheese curds,” Henningfeld said. “I love fresh cheese curds, too -- right out of the cheese vat. That squeak will tell you it’s fresh.”
The curds Henningfeld makes are sold locally once a week at the East Troy Farmers Market as a fundraiser for the FFA chapter there. However, finding fresh cheese curds can be a mission impossible. That’s why the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board suggests cheese curd lovers go straight to the source. To help out, the board produces a handy cheese curd guide at EatCurds.com.
For people in Rock County, a craving for curds often requires a trip to Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, where curds are made nearly every day.
Decatur Dairy also can be found at the Janesville Farmers Market on Saturday mornings.
Cheesemaker and co-owner Glennette Stettler said curds are a big seller, so in addition to the cheddar and muenster curds, they make other flavors, including white bleu, BBQ mesquite and buffalo.
“They’re very popular,” Stettler said. “We sell them at our store, of course, but we also supply some smaller stores.”
In order for stores to sell fresh curds, they need a local supplier. Laura Jacobs-Welch, owner of The Brick Street Market in Delavan, is holding out hope that a local creamery will supply her with cheese curds once they start producing.
“In the summer, of course, they need to be fresh -- people live for the hunt for fresh curds,” she said.
Terry Woods is doing his best to get up to speed. He and his wife, Denise, bought a small farm in 1982 and are in the process of opening The Creamery at Highfield Farm in Walworth. It’s a small operation, with nine Jersey cows to supply the milk, Woods is waiting for the state to certify his cheese vats.
“I think we’ll probably be making the cheese curds on Monday and Wednesday, when we have more milk,” Woods said. Because Highfield Farm pasture grazes his cows, he milks once a day, with an extra milking on Monday and Wednesday, which will help provide more than the usual 30 pounds of milk per cow per day. The extra milk will be needed when he goes into production.
That’s because he expects there to be a big demand for the fresh cheese product. “Cheese curds are made and processed all in one day,” Woods said. “There’s no aging required.”
Aging is one factor that helps determine the finished product.
Cheese curds, however, cut this process short. The milk is weighed, heat treated or pasteurized. A starter culture is added -- different cultures are used for the different varieties such as cheddar or Muenster. A coagulant, a milk-clotting enzyme called rennet is added to create a custardlike mass.
Cutting begins the process of separating the liquid whey from the milk solids or curds. This mixture is cooked and stirred until the curd reaches the desired temperature and firmness. The whey is drained and the curd is born.
Cheese, on the other hand, goes on to be pressed into blocks or rounds. Cheese ripening, affinage, or cheese maturation is an important process in cheesemaking.
Learning how to make cheese like this can take years, a long apprenticeship, and many hours of training. It’s what cheesemakers aspire to create -- an aged cheese with a unique flavor.
Curds, however, are the dairy equivalent of manna for the masses.
Wisconsin produces more than 2 billion pounds of cheese per year. There are no statistics for how much of that is cheese curds, but when you consider the fact that curds can be made and sold in one day, versus the amount of time it takes for an aged cheese, you can see the profitability of making curds.
Just think -- have you been to a county or state fair without eating, smelling or walking by a fried cheese curd stand?
The Rock County Dairy Promotion Council sells its share of fried curds at the Rock County Fair. “Probably more than 1,000 pounds during the fair,” said Patti Wellnitz of Orfordville. “We’ve been doing it for 40 years or so.”
Their competition is the Janesville Optimist Club, which also has a fried cheese curds booth at the fair. “It’s a tradition -- I think this is our 38th year,” said Rona Dolgner. “We wouldn’t think of selling something else.”
All those curds require a lot of cheesemakers. Wisconsin is home to more than 1,200 licensed cheesemakers with 127 cheese plants. Requiring a cheesemaker to be licensed is unique to Wisconsin. The amount of time needed to get established in the business means cheesemaking often is a family profession. Henningfeld, for example, got into the business because he wanted to stay involved in the family farming business. The Stettlers are into their third generation at Decatur Dairy.
Woods bought his farm when his daughter was young as a way to move his family back to the Midwest. While he is not yet in full production at his creamery, he dreams of producing some fine artisan cheeses. However, he is a pragmatic man and has acquiesced to his wife and will be producing his full share of cheese curds.
“She said I need to have cheese curds and I guess that’s part of being in Wisconsin. People love their cheese curds.”