Born and raised in Wisconsin, I have eaten a fair amount of fried cheese in my 27 years. Working in restaurants in Door County over the course of many summers, I have also served a large number of cheese curds to folks visiting our beloved peninsula.
So I have heard tourists ask the million-dollar question a number of times: “What are cheese curds?”
“Cheese curds, or the curdled parts of milk, get battered and deep fried. They are traditionally served with a side of ranch,” is my standard reply.
Brian Renard, owner of Renard’s Cheese and home to some of the best fresh curds in the county, elaborates:
“We get all the milk for our cheese from about 24 patrons in Door and Kewaunee County,” Renard said. “My milk-hauler is actually my brother-in-law, so it’s truly a family operation. My dad bought this building in 1961. He started making cheese when he was 14. This factory was already here. There’s been a cheese factory on this corner for over 100 years. We’ve been here over 50 years.”
According to Renard, in the last 10 years, fried cheese curds really started taking off. The largest demand used to come from Door and Kewaunee counties, but it was only a matter of time before the beloved cheese curd took hold in some of Green Bay’s restaurants. After all, what better snack for a Cheesehead?
“What we take in today we make tomorrow. In the morning we pump it through the pasteurizer. Once we put the milk in the vat, we inoculate it with a starter culture. It takes about 45 minutes to fill up a 15,000-pound vat.”
Cheese curds naturally occur in the cheese making process, and these curds are skimmed off the top while the rest gets turned into cheddar cheese. Making the curds takes about four hours.
Renard said, “Out of a 15,000-pound vat of milk, we’ll get 1,500 pounds of cheese. That’s about a 10 percent yield, which is good. There’s a lot of whey, but we sell that to another processer who makes it into cow feed. So nothing goes to waste.”
To ensure that your cheese curds are the best – and squeakiest – they can possibly be, make sure to buy them fresh.
“You can’t walk away! Otherwise the cheese will get too hot and push right out of the breading,” explained Renard. “You don’t have to pay as much attention to cheese curds that are double-breaded. Ours are single-breaded, and they have a different flavor; you taste more of the cheese curd.”
Up at the Wickman House in Ellison Bay, owners Mike Holmes and Joe Fahrenkrug, alongside Head Chef Mike Cheslock, are up to something a little different. They offer goat cheese curds as an appetizer.
“We wanted to put curds on our menu for awhile,” Fahrenkrug said. “We feature a few other goat cheese items; we serve award-winning Evalon on our cheese plate. We started to wonder what it would be like to make goat cheese curds.”
These fresh cheese curds come from LaClare Farms in Chilton, Wisconsin, and are beer battered before going into the fryer.
“They’re not quite as firm as a normal curd, and you don’t necessarily get the same squeakiness,” Cheslock said. “As for the homemade beer batter, it’s Wisconsin! The taste and texture of the curds is a little different. The beer adds a hint of flavor to the batter and complements the goat cheese.”
Over at the Wild Tomato in Fish Creek, Brit and Sara Unkefer use cheese curds as a topping on their “Green and Gold” pizza. The flavor of the fresh curds complements the roasted chicken, bacon, grilled broccoli and spinach on this fabulous ‘za. “We were coming up with a Donation Creation [a monthly special pizza that raises money for a local charity], and we thought it might be fun to put curds on a pizza,” Sara Unkefer said. “We also needed to find a way to utilize all the curds that were too little to batter and fry, so the they became the ‘gold’ in the Green and Gold pizza.”
The Wild Tomato’s delicious, hand-battered cheese curds are some of the best in the county.
“When you freeze something and then throw it in the fryer, it’s going to have different characteristics. Nothing’s ever frozen in our process,” said Unkefer. “The curds are squeaky when we get them in! We dip them in buttermilk, toss them in flour, and then coat them in a light tempura batter before throwing them into the fryer. You want them to come out golden brown.”
So be sure to get a taste of our local, authentic cuisine, and eat some cheese curds – fresh, fried, or on a pizza – the next time you visit the peninsula. This regional treat won’t let you down, and may become a favorite Door County indulgence.
Photography by Katie Sikora.