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Regional Cheese Cuisine: Wisconsin Colby


Join intern Virginia on her journey to discover how different regions of the US use local cheeses to improve local cuisine. From Vermont cheddar to Wisconsin colby and on to California Monterey jack, she’ll hit the iconic cheese destinations of America and introduce you to regional delicacies and recipes along the way. If you missed it, don’t forget to read last week’s post on The City of Brotherly Love and the Philly Cheesesteak.


Wisconsin is basically synonymous with cheese and produces more than 35 percent of all cheese made in the United States. Wisconsin has over 20 creameries that together make over a billion pounds of cheese a year. Much of it made in small, family-owned and operated cheese factories. Many of the varieties made are award-winning. One of the particular cheeses that Wisconsin specializes in is Colby, originally made outside Colby, Wisconsin.

Colby is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese that most say tastes like a combination of cheddar and swiss. Colby is softer, and has higher moisture content than cheddar. Young Colby is preferred to aged because the aged becomes cracked and dry, rendering it inedible. Colby is often blended with Monterey Jack, another American cheese, to create Colby Jack, which is a good melting cheese.

History

Over 130 years ago, Ambrose Steinwand opened a cheese factory a mile southwest of Colby, Wisconsin. It was not uncommon for a dairy to pop up in the cow-laden area, but what he did forever set him apart. Ambrose made the first cheese recipe that is native to the United States. In 1885, he and his son Joseph Steinwand created a cheese that is now commonly called Colby cheese, which forever intertwined the history of the city with the cheese. On the site where Ambrose’s factory once stood stands the Colby Cheese Factory, built in 1965. Though this factory is no longer operational, it is a monument to the beginnings of the Colby Cheese.

Colby cheese stacked on a plate

Authentic Wisconsin Colby cheese. | Photo Credit: Image courtesy of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Association.

How it’s Made

It is important to note how Colby is made because some think it to be a version of cheddar, which it is not. Cheesemakers are still making Colby much in the same way as the Steinwand family did in the 1800’s. Cheesemakers separate the solid portion of milk – or curd – from the whey by warming the milk, adding rennet, and cutting the curds to get out as much whey as possible. The curds are heated one more time to pull out any remaining whey. The next step makes Colby unique: The cheesemaker has to cool and wash the curds in cold water, drain the water, and then press the curds into forms that will be aged from one to three months. Cheddar is different because it is molded into slabs and rotated to remove any excess whey resulting in a drier and sharper cheese.

Distinguished Creameries

I have found that the best way to find the best food is by asking people you already know. Google searches can be helpful, but it is often the hole-in-the-wall location that you learn about from a friend that turns out to be the best. While researching this article, I went straight to my Wisconsin cheese source – a Wisconsin curd-nerd friend named Alex who made mozzarella in the kitchen of our sorority house for fun. She gave me two recommendations: Scray’s Cheese Factory and Kugel’s Cheese.

Scray Cheese is a family-owned Wisconsin cheese manufacturer dedicated to keeping small, local businesses alive. Their secret ingredient lies within the local farmers they buy their milk from. Their dedication to provide quality milk throughout the years has helped with the success and continuing growth of their factory… Scray Cheese Factory was opened in 1924 by Edward Scray. The factory specialized in gouda, cheddar, and butter. The small factory brought in milk from local farmers by way of milk cans on horse and buggy. Edward created his own cultures and used an open fire underneath the vats to heat the milk. He used wooden hoops to press the cheese into shapes and hand salted each piece. – Scray Cheese Factory, History

Over time the factory expanded their line of cheeses to include three fantastic varieties of Colby: Colby, Salami Colby (which includes bits of salami inside), and Colby Jack. 

Kugel’s Cheese Mart is a small family-owned business that has been making and selling local cheeses since 1952. Located in the town of Lena, Wisconsin, they take great pride in their products… aging most of their cheeses and packaging most of their block cheeses the old fashioned way with a wax covering to ensure the highest possible quality. Although their most popular cheeses are their 5-year-old cheddar, fresh cheese curds, and string cheese. Colby and a variety of Wisconsin-made Italian cheeses including Parmesan, asiago, fontina, romano, provolone, gorgonzola, and mozzarella are also popular. I have it on good authority that despite their size and location they provide exceptional cheeses and you should make an effort (if you can) to go try their Colby. 

The 2014 American Cheese Society Judging & Competition named Meister Cheese as a top Colby for the year. The Meister Cheese Company makes a variety of certified organic and eco-friendly cheeses with the nearly 3000 cows in the surrounding area. They produce three Colby varieties that have been wowing their cheesy fans for years. The Muscoda Mayhem Colby Jack is a punchy cheese filled with habanero, jalepeño, and chipotle peppers. Their regular Colby and Colby Jack are much more mild and extremely tasty as well. 

Recipes

Because of it’s high moisture content, Colby is ideal for snacking and cooking. Try replacing some of the cheddar in this Macaroni and Cheese recipe with Colby for a smooth, creamy finish. 

Poole's Macaroni au Gratin

Answer to Win!

This week’s question:  What is your favorite way to eat Colby? Post your answer in the comments section by Wednesday, October 29, 2014 for a chance to win a FREE issue of culture magazine! You must be located within the continental US to be eligible to win. Good luck!

Photo Credit: Featured image courtesy of Sargento

Virginia Hyde

Virginia Hyde is a southern girl at heart who just moved to Boston to submerge herself in food - mainly cheese, to be honest. Game for any food-related adventure, festival, or gathering, she is ready to share her passion for cheese with others. Virginia is currently working on a Masters in Gastronomy at Boston University.

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