They’re a much-loved staple at bars and restaurants, supper clubs, farmers markets and festivals in Wisconsin. (You can even find them at local gas stations and the Milwaukee airport.) Here you’ll find them served fresh, deep-fried, marinated, flavored, and on top of a myriad of dishes like sandwiches and pizzas. Yes, it’s true that in The State of Cheese, we have a delicious obsession with the milky and blissfully mild cheese curd.
Cheese curds may have originated as a humble by-product of cheesemaking. But today, these playful pieces of young cheese are skillfully handcrafted and sold by artisanal cheesemakers across the state. And there’s no denying that the ultimate place to experience them is here in Wisconsin. Why? Cheese curds are best enjoyed fresh at room temperature on the same day they’re made or shortly after. They’re known for their iconic “squeak,” which is an attribute our cheesemakers take great pride in.
But what exactly are these little nuggets of goodness? Simply put, they’re the freshest of fresh cheese. Curds are separated from the whey during the cheesemaking process. Cheesemakers cut the curd into pieces and then stir and sometimes cook the curds; then they’re drained. The more whey drained from the curds, the drier the cheese. Our Wisconsin cheesemakers specially craft cheese curds (usually cheddar ones) flavored with salt or other tasty ingredients and then package them for immediate sale.
From their signature squeak to chic ways to serve, get to know cheese curds better with answers to these common questions.
Q: What kind of cheeses are cheese curds made from?
A: While traditional curds are born from cheddar, curds are also made with other cheeses like brick and muenster. Fun fact: It takes 10 pounds of milk to make 1 pound of fresh cheese curds!
Q: How do cheddar cheese curds get their unique shape?
A: Those adorable irregularly shaped pieces are the handiwork of the cheesemaker. Cut curds are stirred and drained, then undergo a “cheddaring” process. The curds settle into a mass, and large mats of curds are cut into slabs. The slabs are repeatedly stacked, turned and restacked by hand. When the desired pH is achieved, the slabs are milled into small pieces, and no two curds are alike.
Q: Why do cheese curds squeak?
A: There’s just something about that squeak that makes everyone smile. It’s also a sure sign you have fresh curd. The freshest curds are squeaky due to their tightly woven protein network that rubs against your teeth when you bite into a firm, springy one. The squeak is often called a "stutter step" by those in the cheesemaking business. Cultures break down the protein network as the cheese ages, increasing the acidity and quieting the you-know-it’s-fresh squeak.
Q: How do you revive a cheese curd’s squeak?
A: Fresh cheese curds do not have preservatives. It’s recommended to store the curds in the refrigerator for 5 to 7 days or freeze them to extend their shelf life. If the curds lose their magical sound, revive the squeak of cheese curds by placing them on the countertop to thaw or in a microwave on defrost for 10 to 15 seconds.
Q: What are some exciting ways to enjoy cheese curds?
A: There’s no denying that cheese curds are satisfying, but don’t stop there. Get creative by tossing fresh curds in salads or with French fries and gravy like our Canadian neighbors do in a dish called poutine. Another idea is to melt them atop grilled flatbreads. And don’t forget about fried cheese curds. They make excellent tomato soup and burger toppers! And since we’re talking Wisconsin cheese curds, a frosty pilsner or Bloody Mary is ideal for pairing with the fresh and fried versions.
Cheese Curds or Bust
Experience a season of squeaky fun in the sun with unique cheese curd destinations across the state.
Ellsworth Cheese Curd Festival
This year, the festival runs June 23-24 in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, and promises 6,000 pounds of cheese curds, more than 20 dishes made with curds and, for the die-hards, a Cheese Curd Eating Contest.
There will be tastings, samples and booths serving classic deep- fried curds with a choice of dipping sauces, an exclusive curd flavor, and cinnamon-sugar curds for an addictively yummy dessert. Made famous by the local Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery, whose cheddar cheese curds have earned worldwide acclaim, the Village of Ellsworth was named the Cheese Curd Capital of Wisconsin by a proclamation of the Governor in 1983.
Cheese Curd Food Trucks
Curd Girl is based in Madison and travels to festivals around the city, sharing award-winning, deep-fried cheese curds and homemade sauces made with local, organic ingredients. Also, if you’re in central Wisconsin, check out Say Cheese Curd Company. You can’t miss their bright yellow food truck, serving deep-fried cheddar curds from Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery hand-battered with their family’s special recipe.
Sister Bay Cheese Curd Food Tour
Take a savory spin through Sister Bay on this two-hour walking tour with Door County Kayak Tours. Your group will taste a variety of cheese curds and other cheesy delights from Door County’s most renowned hot spots, such as Husby’s Food and Spirits and Wild Tomato restaurants.
The Curd King
Master Cheesemaker Steve Stettler has followed his family’s storied cheesemaking history perfectly.
Steve Stettler is a third-generation cheesemaker and the owner of Decatur Dairy. He’s an accomplished graduate of the Wisconsin Master Cheesemaker® Program, certified in brick, cheddar, farmers cheese, havarti, muenster and specialty swiss cheese. But that’s not all. Steve was the first Master Cheesemaker in the world to be certified in cheese curds in 2020!
“Being a Master, you're helping to carry the torch of the strong cheese history we have here,” says Steve. “Curds are so important to tourism and Wisconsin’s cheese reputation that it should be a stand-alone Master Cheese (certification). People come to Wisconsin for cheese curds and beer. Curds should have a standard that a Master Cheesemaker should be held to. It is an art.”
Today, Steve crafts an array of fresh cheese curds, including muenster and cheddar curds, as well as various flavors like tomato bacon basil, ranch, French onion and Buffalo. According to this well-seasoned curd artist, the criteria for the perfect cheese curd are simple. “The squeak in your mouth with the right hint of salt!” Steve claims.
Decatur Dairy in Brodhead, Wisconsin, has been handcrafting cheeses since the 1940s. Steve sells artisanal cheeses like curds, European-style havarti, basil farmers, marbled colby-swiss and original Stettler Swiss online and at the cheese shop adjacent to the factory. This summer, share one of their freshly made grilled cheeses or a bag of curds on their quaint outdoor patio.
Wisconsin cheesemakers reigned supreme in the cheese curd categories at the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest.
The top three finishers in the unflavored and flavored categories hailed from The State of Cheese. Decatur Dairy won Best of Class in unflavored curds for their Muenster Curds, while Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery won Best of Class in flavored curds for their Hickory Bacon Cheese Curds. Also winning top awards were Arena Cheese and Nasonville Dairy for their unflavored curds, Ellsworth’s Hot Buffalo Cheddar Cheese Curds and Cedar Grove Cheese’s Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Curds in the flavored category.
No matter where your travels take you in Wisconsin, there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to find our beloved cheese curds. Here’s a list of cheese companies you’ll want to explore!
Elevated Cheese Curd Combos
Need an easy yet elegant bite in a hurry? Combine these cheese curds with simple accoutrements, and voilà, you have patio party perfection.
Ellsworth's Hot Buffalo Cheddar Cheese Curds
Thinly Sliced Deli Chicken + Green Onions + Blue Cheese Dressing
Decatur Dairy's Tomato Bacon Basil Curds OR Ellsworth's Hickory Bacon Cheddar Cheese Curds
Cherry Tomatoes + Fresh Basil + Balsamic Glaze
Decatur Dairy's Muenster Cheese Curds
Fresh Peach Slices + Thinly Sliced Prosciutto + Fresh Thyme + Sauvignon Blanc Wine
Cedar Grove's Horseradish Cheddar Cheese Curds
Thinly Sliced Deli Roast Beef + Arugula + Sweet Red Bell Pepper Strips + Crème Fraîche
Renard's Cajun Cheese Curds
Fresh Mango Slices + Fresh Pineapple Pieces + Fresh Cilantro + Margarita
Henning's Pepper Cheddar Cheese Curds
Candied Bacon + Fresh Raspberries