By Kirstin Jackson
Try my curds, they’re fresh and squeaky,” said Dunbarton Blue’s cheese maker Chris Roelli with a smile as sweet as the chocolate-coated Udderfinger toffees sold at every Wisconsin gas station. If the acres of corn fields, the cows loitering in front of red barns, or the limburger bricks on grocery store shelves weren’t enough to remind this girl she wasn’t in Oakland anymore, the curds did it.
Before visiting Wisconsin to research my book It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese, if you had asked me if I thought cheese curds would ever be embraced west of Nebraska, I would shrug my shoulders. Who cares? I would ask. What were curds, I scoffed, besides immature pieces of fermented milk?
But after having consumed enough of the regional dairy icon on my trip to cushion me for a Wisconsin winter, I developed feelings for the little guys. I liked the fervor with which the community received them. I liked their role in county fairs, restaurants, and home kitchens. I liked what they could do for the cheese makers. I learned to appreciate their simple taste and comforting texture. I would miss them.
Upon returning to California with the taste of the curd fresh on my tongue, however, I started noticing curds at every farmers’ market I frequented. I took this as a sign; I needed to spread the story of immature cheese. And I needed to do it while snacking.
“Curds,” in the Miss Muffet sense, are milk proteins that have been separated from liquid—whey—during the beginning of the cheese-making process. They’ve acidified, seen culture and probably rennet, and will soon be processed in any number of ways—cooked, pressed, drained, salted, aged—before they become mature cheese.
“Cheese curds,” on the other hand, are morsels of actual cheese that have passed the initial curding stage. After being separated from whey, they’ve been cooked, salted, and drained. According to marketing and sales director Tony Birkel at Ellsworth Creamery in Wisconsin (which a former state governor named the “Cheese Curd Capitol of Wisconsin” in 1984), curds were originally the bits and pieces of large-format cheeses like cheddar that didn’t neatly fit into molds. Rather than throw them out, cheese makers in the dairying state of Wisconsin would take the bits home to feed their family and share with friends and neighbors. It wasn’t long before the recipients became attached to the clean, simple flavors and often-squeaky texture of really fresh curds. Soon, a thriving curd market developed.
As every good Midwesterner knows, curds are delicious bits of fermented milk meant to be enjoyed in their own right, in addition to, and not in lieu of, artisan cheese. They’re also a way of life. They’re everywhere in the Midwest. Batter-fried on bar menus and at fairs, bagged and flavored at farmers’ markets, and if you forgot to pick some up at the Wisconsin cheese maker gift shop two miles back, you betcha there’ll be fresh ones at the next one five miles down. Canada uses curds in a dish called poutine: French fries topped with gravy, then curds. I’ve recently spotted upscale poutine versions around the East Bay, too: at the Chop Bar and Flora in Oakland, and at both Gregoire locations.
The curd market—if selling well at our markets and restaurants is telling—is starting to heat up locally. Donna Pacheco of Achadinha cheese in Petaluma, who says she “loves melted curds in a bad way,” is happy about this. The Iowa-born cheese maker sells her curds in farmers’ markets from Kensington to Jack London Square. She created her recipe based on a classic Wisconsin one, but altered it throughout the years so that it now is a blend of her goat’s and her neighbor’s cow’s milk, and then when pressed into molds, later becomes a mature cheese called Bronca.
Beyond the basic, simple, deliciousness of curds, another reason cheese makers want to make them is that they help to provide cash flow in a very expensive industry. Not all curds are easy to make—Pacheco’s are hand-cut and time-consuming—but if cheese makers can sell something that doesn’t take up cellar space and require constant flipping, washing, or monitoring, it can help fund fussy cheeses that do require such tending. Curds are humble, simple creatures that can help cheese makers in an economy where it’s almost impossible to break even just selling milk.
So while you’re waiting for your favorite mature artisan wheel to age, or when you’re in the mood to snack or be comforted with lush simplicity, go for the curds. Achadinha sell theirs at East Bay markets, and Spring Hill Jersey Cheese also sell curds along with their colby and cheddars at farmers’ markets.
When using curds in the kitchen, think simple. Curds aren’t
meant to astonish. They’re meant to provide comfort, squeak if really fresh, and melt lovingly. Fry them in beer or tempura batter or quickly heat in a pan or over potatoes in the oven. Sprinkle them over a salad. Most important, enjoy them. Cheese, interrupted, is a good thing.
Sweet Potato, Wilted Frisée, and Cheese Curd Salad
With its roasted sweet potatoes topped with warm curds, this hearty salad emulates poutine. But the addition of wilted frisée, which becomes sweet when heated, makes it totally modern. Warming flavors of sage and brown butter usher in the colder season. —KJ
10 ounces sweet potato, cut into matchsticks
2 tablespoons, plus 2 teaspoons butter
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon fresh sage, chopped
1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
4 ounces curds
3 packed cups frisée, trimmed
Salt and pepper to taste
Preheat oven to 375°. Place 1 teaspoon butter on a sheet pan and slide into preheating oven, removing when butter has melted. Place the sweet potatoes on the pan and move them around until thoroughly covered with butter. Season with salt and pepper and bake for 20–25 minutes, or until lightly crisp yet tender.
When sweet potatoes are ready, melt 1 teaspoon butter in a sauté pan over medium heat and add frisée. Season lightly with salt and pepper as you cook it until just wilted. Remove from pan and divide frisée and sweet potatoes onto 2 plates.
In the same pan, heat remaining butter on medium-high heat. Add garlic and sage and shake the pan over the heat for a minute. Add the vinegar, shake again, then spoon this sauce over and around the frisée and sweet potatoes. Return the pan to the flame and turn the heat to high. Add cheese curds to the pan and cook just until you see the edges of the curds start to melt. Pour the warmed curds over the plates, season with salt and pepper to taste, and serve.
Kirstin Jackson is a cheese and wine author, consultant, and educator whose first book, It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Cheese Culture, is just out with Perigee press. Check out her blog, itsnotyouitsbrie.com, to learn about book events and where you can find her guide.