June 21, 2011
Shortly after I moved to the Adirondack Park, a little south of the Quebec border, I noticed a sign outside a roadside food stand advertising “cheese curds.” This struck me as weird at the time. I knew cottage cheese was made up of curds and whey, the stuff Little Miss Muffet ate, but that didn’t sound like a very appetizing accompaniment to hot dogs and fries.
I soon learned that these were a different sort of curd—irregularly shaped lumps of fresh cheddar that hadn’t been pressed and aged. They are a popular treat among French-Canadians and a major component of poutine, a concoction of fries, gravy and curds. Some people eat the curds plain or deep fried (as they were at the roadside stand). They melt exceptionally well, so they’re also used anywhere aged cheddar might go, like in macaroni and cheese.
Curds have another distinguishing feature: they squeak when you bite into them. Some people even call curds “squeaky cheese.” The fresher they are, the louder the squeal. At their freshest it may sound like you’re making balloon animals in your mouth, or that a tiny window-washer is squeegeeing your teeth. Alas, the effect is fleeting; within a few days of production the curds lose their musicality. So the only way to experience the phenomenon is to go somewhere where cheese is produced, or to make it yourself.
Native Wisconsinite Louisa Kamps explained in the New York Times a few years ago that the squeak comes from the fact that the binding proteins in the cheese are still “superelastic, like new rubberbands.” She describes the sound as like “two balloons trying to neck.”
Wisconsin, as the number-one cheese producer in the United States, is also the nation’s undisputed cheese curd capital. But as the third-biggest cheese-making state and the neighbor of fromage blanc–loving Quebec (like most things, cheese curds sound nicer in French), New York has its fair share of curds. Last weekend I bought some from a local farmer’s market; the Argyle Cheese Farmer had both plain and flavored varieties. I got plain and basil-garlic. Although they were only a couple of days old they had already lost their squeak, but they were still delicious—like mild cheddar, with a texture that reminded me of stringless string cheese (a little springy). Curds can also be made from other kinds of cheese; or rather, all kinds of cheese can be eaten at the curd stage.
If you can get your hands on some curds, try them beer-battered and fried, sprinkled in salad, in the place of anywhere you’d use another melted cheese or, of course, in poutine. And if you can’t find fresh curds, you could always make them yourself.
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