What's been largely a dairy belt phenomenon is now steadily making its way to a wider audience of eager eaters. The humble cheese curd is gaining in popularity, with culinary applications that go way beyond the deep fryer.
Never had them? Now's a good a time as any, especially considering their price...
Maybe you've seen them around, looking much like the picture above, perhaps at street fairs or amusement parks. But they're also sold in packages, plain, for those in need of an at-home fix.
A cheese curd is a snapshot of the very first stage of cheesemaking, that is, the acidification of milk and its separation into solid (curd) and liquid (whey). After cultures are added to a vat of milk, the mixture is then heated to encourage souring and then sits for about three and a half hours. Then, as curds form, they're drained from the whey and packaged in their natural, irregularly shaped pieces.
If at this point the curds were then piled into molds, pressed to release them of extra whey, and aged, they'd become aged cheese. But cheese curds are genius: since they don't need to age, the turnaround time for profit is much quicker, and there's more product to sell upfront.
Cheese curds are equally creamy and tart: they take on both characteristics of that newly acidified milk. But what's most addictive is the squeak from biting down on them! Eat cheese curds plain-- they're great as a high-protein snack. To melt, it's easiest to grate the curds on a box grater. When heated, the cheese elasticizes, becoming ribbony and smooth, adding a unique textural component to mashed potatoes (it's the not-so-secret ingredient for the mashed potatoes at Keith McNally's newest restaurant, Minetta Tavern), purees, scrambled eggs, and grilled cheese.
Ellsworth Creamery in Ellsworth, Wisconsin, has been making cheese for nearly 100 years. They're perhaps the best-known and most widely distributed maker of cheese curds, and theirs are cheddar cheese curds, which means that the starter bacteria and culture used to acidify the milk are designed specifically for the making of cheddar.
This year, they'll make 3.6 million pounds of cheese curds. Sounds like just about enough to get beyond the boundaries of the dairy belt... and then some.
Ellsworth Creamery Cheese Curds are available by mailorder at Murray's Cheese for $3.49/half pound package.
Related: The Cheesemonger: Cheddar
Image: Flickr member Dalboz17 and smcgee licensed under Creative Commons.