If a state is going to identify itself as “America’s Dairyland,” it better have a wide variety of dairy products for citizens and visitors to enjoy. In Wisconsin, one of the most popular is the cheese curd.
Set foot in any restaurant across the state, and it’s easy to find fried cheese curds under the appetizer section.
Del Bar in the Wisconsin Dells focuses on the classic preparation of the cheese curds. Open since 1943, the supper club introduced their take on cheese curds approximately 25 years ago, and have churned them out ever since.
Mike Uptagraw has been a chef at Del Bar for nearly 30 years, and takes great pride in his restaurant’s preparation. The restaurant brings in their cheese from Sassy Cow Creamery in Columbus, and unlike many other restaurants, prepares the curds for the fryer in-house.
One of the most notable aspects of Del Bar’s cheese curds is their size. They come in around twice as big as a typical cheese curd one would find at a restaurant that has their curds shipped in frozen. According to Uptagraw, the increased size helps them cook evenly in the hot oil, as he says smaller curds can fall apart in the fryer.
“We actually get them made a little bit larger for us, it’s actually a little bit easier to work with,” Uptagraw said. “We get them from the company… they’re that size already… when you try to fry the smaller ones, they melt too quickly.”
Del Bar uses their in-house tempura batter for the coating on the outside of the curds, breaking tradition from beer-battering or breading you can find on many other Wisconsin cheese curds. Each curd is battered to order, freshly tossed before being dropped in the fryer.
Uptagraw said that using tempura gives the cheese curds a lighter quality that doesn’t weigh down the texture of the curd.
“We already use tempura to fry some things, and it’s a nice light, crispy batter,” Uptagraw said. “It’s not too heavy, I think the owners just preferred that over an actual bread crumb. If it was a bread crumb, you’d have to do them all ahead of time and keep them in the freezer.”
Uptagraw prefers how Del Bar prepares their cheese curds, speaking highly of Graze in Madison, who employs a similar preparation method. Uptagraw acknowledges that tempura batter isn’t the ultimate preparation method for fried cheese curds, it’s just a preference. His own brother actually prefers Culver’s breaded style of cheese curds.
On the other end of the spectrum in terms of preparation is Redstone’s North End Tavern in La Valle. Purchased in late 2016 by Jeff and Tracy Rastocan, this cozy little tavern sits on a back road approximately 15 miles outside Reedsburg.
According to general manager Jeff Rastocan, he came upon his restaurant’s take on cheese curds from their food supplier, Sysco. After they opened, Sysco reps brought them in to choose their favorite curds for the menu.
“When we opened up our restaurant, they brought us into their corporate kitchen and showed us about 30 different types of cheese curds,” Rastocan said. “There’s a lot of different kinds you can buy.”
The Rastocans settled on not one selection, but two slightly different ones. Both of their cheese curd offerings are made from white cheddar, but the differentiation comes in the breading. One of them offers a spicy kick mixed in with the coating.
“I noticed over the past couple years that people have turned to a lot more spicy foods,” Rastocan said. “And everyone loves cheese curds, so I thought it might be a good idea.”
Unlike Del Bar, Redstone’s doesn’t coat their curds in-house; they receive them pre-breaded from Sysco. This isn’t an uncommon practice for cheese curds, they keep longer, come cheaper and are quicker to prepare if they arrive ready for the fryer. But according to Jeff Rastocan, that doesn’t remove all difficulty from preparing cheese curds.
When frying the curds, the high fat and liquid content inside the cheese can lead to explosive results. Rastocan hasn’t had an incident in the Redstone’s kitchen, but he keeps a close eye on his curds.
When it comes to personal preference, Rastocan holds an unusual viewpoint: he doesn’t like beer-battered curds. He simply doesn’t enjoy the taste.
“I just don’t like the flavor of beer batter. Even with fish, I don’t like beer batter,” Rastocan said.
That might be considered heresy in some circles in Wisconsin, but Rastocan stands by his preferences. For the cheese curds he serves in his restaurant, he serves up batches with a light touch on the breading, creating a thin coating to protect the white cheddar cheese inside from the hot oil.
Straddling preparatory methods between Del Bar and Redstone’s is Prairie House in Prairie du Sac, a relatively recent comer to the restaurant scene in Sauk County. Manager Tasha Pospichal has only been at the restaurant for a year, but she can convey what makes her restaurant’s cheese curds stand out.
While diners can often expect to find a variety of cheddar inside a fried curd. Prairie House chooses to instead incorporate muenster, a soft, tender cheese introduced to the US by immigrants from the Vosgian Mountains in France. Prairie House brings in their cheese from Madison’s Rock Cheese Company, always fresh according to Pospichal.
The muenster itself is a deliberate choice on the restaurant’s part. It has a smoother flavor that doesn’t pack the same lactic punch you get from a sharp cheddar, and its lower melting point means that it melts gently in the fryer. Muenster isn’t likely to explode in the fryer if not properly cooked.
“It gives you that nice little string as you open it up to cool it, or even as you take a bite into it you get that nice long string,” Pospichal said. “The taste of the muenster with the seasoned flour is very, very good.”
Like Del Bar, they prepare the curds’ coating in-house, but they choose a different method than tempura batter. For their curds, Pospichal and her fellow kitchen staff toss the muenster curds in what she refers to as a “western flour,” then buttermilk and finally the flour again before tossing them in the fryer for cooking.
This preparation method, as well as using fresh cheese, produces curds that are irregular in shape but packed with flavor. The seasoning mix used in the flour coating produces a kick that lingers on the tongue and adds a punch to go along with the mild muenster cheese.
“We double-batter them and deep-fry them and they’re very, very good,” Pospichal said. “It sounds like a lot of batter, but it’s really not. It’s very light and flaky.”
In terms of personal preference, Pospichal claims to not have one. A proud Wisconsinite, she has eaten her fair share of curds across the state over the years. If she orders them at a restaurant and doesn’t enjoy how they’re prepared, she simply won’t order them the next time around.
Some establishments offer multiple options for the curd nerds among you who might not like one type of cheese and are craving another. The Park Oasis restaurant in Mauston givescustomers a choice between sharp or white cheddar.
Kitchen manager Ryan Coons has worked at Park Oasis for 13 years after relocating to Mauston from Milwaukee, and he has enjoyed plenty of cheese over the course of his life. According to him, the restaurant vacillates between the two varieties of cheddar, often having both at once.
“We bounce back and forth from both,” Coons said. “We’ll get the white, and we’ll get the yellow ones too… the yellow has a thicker batter on it, and the white has a beer batter. People tend to like both.”
Coons prefers the beer-battered white curds, since they are a thinner batter and he prefers a less dense coating on his curds. He also notes that since Park Oasis is attached to a convenience store, customers at the restaurant are free to buy some fresh curds in the refrigerator there and try them out at home.
“You can buy the ones next door, and they actually have a batter kit,” Coons said. “So if you want something at home, you can do that.”