Cheese curds are an important step in the cheesemaking process, as well as a standalone food in some parts of the world. They are small chunks of cheese solids that have been separated from the natural whey present in milk, but not yet pressed into molds to make cheese. Different treatments of the curds yield different end cheeses, and the curds can also be eaten straight. Curds, especially those from cheddar cheese, are very popular in the American Midwest in particular.
To make cheese, milk must first be curdled, usually with a combination of acid, rennet, and bacterial cultures. The curdling process coagulates the solids in the milk, yielding cheese curds swimming in whey. The whey is drained from the curds, which may also be cut to facilitate drainage, and then the curds can be salted, packed into molds, and turned into cheese. The finished cheese is typically aged to create a mature, rich cheese, which can be sold as soon as the aging process is complete.
Fresh curds have a mild, slightly milky flavor, and a characteristic “squeak” when eaten. The squeakiness makes them very popular among some consumers, as eating them feels slightly bizarre. Unfortunately, cheese curds rapidly lose their freshness, and they must be eaten very quickly or they will start to dry out and taste very salty, in addition to losing the squeak. Ultimately, they will taste like poorly handled young cheese, which is exactly what they are.
When they are fresh, cheese curds may be deep fried, sprinkled on top of foods, or served on appetizer platters for a special treat. Since they go bad very rapidly, it can be difficult to obtain them in an area that is not close to a major cheese manufacturer. Consumers can, of course, make their own by curdling milk, just as they can make their own cheeses. Once produced, the curds should ideally be eaten within 10 to 12 hours for optimal flavor, texture, and squeak.
The vast majority of cheese curds produced around the world are, of course, turned into cheeses, ranging from the “curds and whey” of soft cottage cheese to hard cheeses like Parmesan and Pecorino. Cheeses are an incredibly diverse group of food, so it is sort of amazing to ponder the fact that they all begin with humble squeaky curds.