If you were raised outside the Midwest or have never tried a poutine, you might be wondering why there’s so much hype surrounding these shapeless, lumpy masses. Where do they come from, why do they squeak, and what relation do they have to actual aged cheese?
Curds are popular in regions that have a long history of cheddarmaking, particularly in the Midwest and in Canada. In essence, they're the building blocks of cheddar cheese. They start out like most cheeses do: Milk is coagulated into a gelatinous mass that’s cut into little cubes, which are stirred and heated to remove moisture. In cheddarmaking, those curds are formed together, stacked, and kept warm while acidifying and draining (a process called “cheddaring”). The stacked curds are then re-cut into chunks. If they’re destined to become cheddar, these chunks are salted and pressed into a form—but they can also be eaten just like this, as “cheese curds.”
Curds are best if eaten the same day they are made, when their protein strands are elastic; wait any longer, and you risk losing their signature squeaky texture. This is an easy task if you live in Wisconsin, where curds are served and sold at nearly every corner. But because curds must be eaten fresh, they can be harder to find in places that aren’t cheese curd havens. Look for local cheesemaker shops or farmers markets in your area to find your own. Can’t find a vendor? Making your own is easier than it sounds.
Since cheese curds are fresh by definition, they're very mild in flavor: lactic and slightly salty, with an addictive, rubbery texture.
Like finished cheddars, curds vary from region to region; they can be flavored with herbs and spices, deep fried, or, as in Canada, served over french fries and brown gravy to make poutine. But we love them best alongside a pilsner—by the handful.