Weird Food: Why Is Squeaky Cheese Squeaky?

If you're not from Wisconsin or thereabouts, you may never have heard of the tasty treat squeaky cheese. But you should give it a try.

If you live in the upper Midwest of the United States or the corresponding region in Canada (or anywhere near a cheesemaker) you probably know all about squeaky cheese. But it's an oddity to much of the nation, where cheese only comes from supermarkets.

The process of making cheese combines a bit of art and science, but to break it down quickly: cheese generally starts with some kind of milk (cow, goat, soy, etc.) to which a coagulant such as rennet or a natural souring culture is added. This forms first soft curds, then harder curds when the whey (liquid) is removed. Then salt and other seasonings are added, the cheese is molded, pressed, banded and aged however long is required for that kind of cheese. Of course there's much more to it than that, but all we need to know is that the process of cheesemaking results in these little nubby curds after the whey is released and before the cheese is pressed into a block or wheel shape like you see in the grocery store.

Squeaky cheese is simply a bit of the curd taken out before the rest of the batch is aged. It is very fresh (cheesemakers say it is best still warm out of the vat, but can be eaten a couple of days out of the vat) and most often seen made from cheddar cheese. It has a kind of strange texture, a little like silly putty, but it tastes like cheese. The cheese squeaks because it has not been aged at all, thus the texture is squeaky rather than the normal firm aged cheddar that does not squeak. Cheddar cheese is usually aged from two months to four years before being sold.

Squeaky cheese is a regional favorite in those areas where there is a lot of cheesemaking (and people from Wisconsin seem to take particular pride in their squeaky cheese), but it doesn't travel well (and has to be eaten quickly) so it is not available everywhere. If you can find cheese curds in your local market and don't live near a cheesemaking company, don't buy them. They're probably old and likely will taste much more like silly putty than the makers intended.

Different cultures, particularly the Belgians and Finnish, have a tradition of eating squeaky cheese. You will often find such cheeses (with names like leipajuustoa or juustoa) on traditional smorgasbords. A traditional recipe reveals simple ingredients: milk, sugar, starch, salt and rennet. This cheese is prepared fresh and broiled until golden on both sides after being flattened onto a cookie sheet or pizza pan. This cheese is said to be good in coffee (just drop a couple of pieces in your cup and enjoy the coffee, then eat the pieces of cheese with a spoon) or as a dessert with warm cheese, cream (whipped or not) and berries.

There's also a fresh cheese that can be found in many Hispanic markets called queso para freir, which means cheese for frying, and segues beautifully into my next suggestion for what you can do with cheese curds.

Another good use for squeaky cheese is deep fried cheese bits. First dip the curd in some kind of liquid (beer, milk, buttermilk, something tasty), and then in something crunchy (seasoned cornmeal, breadcrumbs, powdered ranch dip mix, onion soup mix, whatever you like). Make sure they're well coated, then park them in the freezer for about an hour before frying in clean, mild vegetable oil at around 375 degrees for just a couple of minutes, until the outside is golden and the inside is gooey. Serve plain or with ranch dressing, salsa, or whatever you like to dip fried cheese into.

By mail order and on the Internet you can find many places that sell cheese curds or squeaky cheese. Prices normally run about $3.50 to $4.50 or more a pound, but it's the shipping rates that really hurt. Because this cheese stops being squeaky (and tasty) really quickly after being produced, it has to be shipped at least express, if not next day. Even for just a pound of cheese, the cost can be really high. This is one of those things you want to order every now and then but go in with a friend or two to save on shipping costs.

If you're not from a part of the world where squeaky cheese is readily available, next time you go on vacation to a place where they make cheese you should stop into the factory and try some of the delicious curds. They are very popular with people who grew up with them, with a fresh taste impossible to find in aged cheese. And if you do live somewhere where these morsels are available and haven't tried them, go out now and get some. Get a bunch, because once people find out that you've got cheese curds, you'll have lots of new friends and you won't have to worry about the fact that they get old fast""there won't be any left to get old!

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