Monday, October 20, 2014

Cheese Curds

My mom likes to say I'm very "food-focused." I can't argue with that. She's right. I love food. I love talking about it and eating it. I get excited about it. A few summers ago, I was at a lovely backyard BBQ, having a very nice conversation with friends, when someone announced that more brats were done. I got so excited -- got up so quickly -- I dislocated my knee and "made the most horrifying sound anyone has ever heard" and an ambulance came and carted me out. So, yeah. I guess I am "food-focused."

This is why the Minnesota State Fair is one of my favorite things. Sure, I love seeing all of the 4-H animals (and my awesome family members who do a bang-up job showing Brown Swiss cows). I love people-watching and counting kids on homemade leashes (because this is very amusing to me). I love visiting the different barns with various activities and free things (lots of buttons and pencils -- arguably too many). The Princess Kay of the Milky Way butter heads are a favorite -- my second cousin Nicole even earned herself a butter head this year. We are very proud.

That's 90 lbs of butter. And Nicole.
But the best part of the fair is the food. For ten glorious days at the end of summer, everyone gets as excited about food as I do. The newspaper publishes lists of new fair fare -- disgusting and disconcerting and deep-fried -- but delicious, if you're willing. There is no "balanced meal." You can't "count calories." You follow your heart. You make sacrifices.

You apply strategy. Is the all-you-can-drink milk stand close to the Sweet Martha's Cookies booth? Of course not. You get your first cup of ice cold, frothy dairy deliciousness and drink it on the way to the cookies, preparing your stomach for the onslaught of dairy. You let it know you're just getting started. When you've procured your cone (or bucket, if you're hardcore) of chocolate chip cookies, you return to the milk stand for a refill. You try to avoid standing near un-chaperoned 4-H farm boys holding informal milk-drinking contests with each other. And you enjoy your milk and cookies like a goddamn American hero.

The best fair food, though, is the cheese curd. It's not even debatable. Recently, Minnesota restaurants have started adding cheese curds to their appetizer menus, but it's really hit-or-miss. The fair curd is rare and specific. It is not heavily-breaded. The cheese melts, encased in a crisp jacket of batter. When you've had a fair curd and a layman curd, you know the difference, and it's... striking.

So... when I moved to LA -- to this state that claims to have "happier cows" -- I assumed I'd still be able to get curds somewhere. Anywhere. But this is not the case. And, to top it all off, I've missed the fair twice now. This is maybe even more depressing than the 2007 State Fair, when I attended a Goo Goo Dolls concert at the grandstand by myself and tried to start a conversation during "Black Balloon" with the couple next to me, who had started making out without my knowledge. Maybe.

Me and my pronounced underbite enjoy some curds, circa 2008!
I have one option: make my own cheese curds. Last year, I used the recipe below with a big ol' vat of oil and nothing to lose. This year, thanks to the wonderful Katy Baker, I now own a little deep-fryer and could make my relationship with curds more official. Either way, though, this modified recipe will leave you with authentic State Fair cheese curds, and I'm the person you can trust with that kind of assessment.

Cheese Curds

2 quarts corn oil for frying (I used Mazola)
1 cup flour
1/4 cup milk
3/4 cup beer (I used PBR)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
2 lbs. cheese curds, broken apart
If you live in Minnesota, you know this is no problem. To acquire curds, you can go literally anywhere -- grocery stores, gas stations -- your fridge, if you enjoy a sensible snack of squeaky cheese. Californians, we struggle. I know there is a stand at the Santa Monica farmers' market that sells them, but when I went last year and informed her that I was going to deep-fry them, she was legitimately hesitant to sell them to me. This year, I went to the Artisan Cheese Gallery in Studio City. They were $10/package. But they did the trick. If you are still confused about what a cheese curd is, here you go.

Made Possible by the Grace of God!

 Let the curds sit at room temperature until they sweat. This will help the batter stick.

Sweating -- just like me, every day, in LA.

Heat the oil to 375 degrees. (If you have a candy thermometer, it helps to check the temp, as that matters.)
Whisk together the milk, beer, flour, salt and eggs until it becomes thin. Yeah, this mixture is sick and seems like something a bully would weaponize in the lunchroom. Just trust it.

Don't smell this. I'm not kidding.

When the oil is ready...
Coat a curd in flour, getting in all of the crevices. This will help the curd stay intact during the frying process. 
Dip the flour-coated curd in the batter, allowing it to soak and become fully immersed.
Using the deep-fryer basket or a thin metal strainer, dip the curd in the oil for about 2-4 minutes. 
A finished curd should be golden brown, visibly crispy, not white. 
If you notice the cheese slipping out of the shell, try coating the next curd in more flour before battering.
You can fry many at once, if you'd like, just adjust the time and be aware that clumping will occur (not necessarily a bad thing). 

This time around, I noticed the curds clung to the bottom of the basket. I don't know how to avoid this. If you experience this, try to let go and let God. Someone in your party will enjoy picking the burnt pieces off the bottom of the basket and you will make them very happy. 

Curds do not last. They must be eaten immediately. This is a great snack if you're having a few friends over and you can easily go from fryer --> mouth. 
Never offer anyone a cold curd. That's, like, very rude.

Some people scoff when you try to explain a deep-fried cheese curd. They are repulsed. Let them express their disgust, but then casually mention mozzarella sticks, or french fries. Say curds are similar but one million times better (this is an accurate mathematical statistic). Then give them a cheese curd and watch their face light up with joy, because cheese brings people together.

Happy baking!


  1. MMMmmm...I LOVE fried cheese curds! Or, what my grandma called "squeaky cheese"! A&W's disgusting attempt at fried cheese curds should be called "cheese turds".

    I will have to debate you on the best fair food, though. Crispy, delicious, powdered sugar-coated FUNNEL CAKES gets my vote ;)

    1. Mmm... funnel cakes are pretty great, too. :) Who am I kidding, I love all the fair food.

  2. "A fair curd and a layman curd.". This is why I will always say yes to reading, reciting, or acting anything you ever write. Ever.

  3. Thanks, Maureen. <3 You know I'll probably hold you to that... :)