We know Little Miss Muffet sat on her tuffet eating her curds and whey, but what are curds exactly? And how do they differ from the squeaky snack called cheese curds? The answer to these questions needs to begin with a short lesson on cheese making.
To make cheese, milk is pasteurized and cooked until the whey separates from the curd. Then the curd is put into a mold and pressed to create a wheel or block of cheese.
Any curd that doesn't make it into the mold are "cheese curds," the by-product of cheese making, and are a snack unto themselves.
How Cheese Curds are Made
As cheese is being made, curds form after the milk is acidified (using starter culture) and coagulated (using rennet). The coagulated milk is cut and heated, separating the liquid (whey) from the solids (curds). The process of cheddaring then begins and the curds are stacked, cut up, pressed together and stacked again repeatedly. This is done to release more moisture and give the curds a specific texture. The curds are then run through a mill and are milled into two- to three-inch pieces and then salted.
How Cheese Curds Taste
Cheese curds have a mild and cheddar-like flavor. (More often than not, cheese curds are made during the process of making cheddar cheese. Like cheddar, the color can be white, yellow or orange.) The slightly rubbery texture causes the cheese curd to squeak when you bit into it.
For this reason, cheese curds are also called "squeaky cheese."
How to Eat Cheese Curds
The best way to enjoy a cheese curd is as fresh as possible--straight from the bag--which is why they are usually sold at the site where they're made. You can eat plain or add flavorings such as herbs, garlic, spice blends or jalapeno.
Cheese curds are also sold deep fried; this is a popular preparation in Wisconsin and Minnesota and often sold at state fairs and festivals. Considered a local delicacy, fried cheese curds are part of the menus at restaurants and bars, and are offered at some regional chain fast-food locations.
Cheese curds can also be a part of a recipe, like Poutine, which originated in Quebec, Canada, and is a dish of French fries smothered in cheese curds and gravy. Tillamook, a company that produces and sells cheese curds, has some interesting cheese curd recipes on their website, including a grilled cheese curd sandwich, cheese curds panzanella salad and a cheese curd quesadilla.
Unfortunately, cheese curds' fresh taste--and their "squeakability"--diminishes pretty quickly. They can be put in the refrigerator or freezer, but they will lose some of their flavor and squeaky texture. It is best to keep at room temperature and eat as soon as possible.
How to Make Cheese Curds at Home
If you are so inclined, you can make your own cheese curds at home. Cheesemaking.com has a recipe for homemade cheese curds with step-by-step instructions, a detailed list of ingredients and links for buying starter culture and rennet.
This recipe also has great photos that show the cheese curd process.