Wisconsin is officially the cheese curd capitol of the world

Wisconsin cheese curds cleaned up at the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest, taking the top 5 spots in both flavored and unflavored.
Worlds Largest Cheeseboard, Aug. 1, 2018
Photo by Amandalynn Jones.
Wisconsinites love their cheese curds, and now the bragging rights are official.

If you want to try the best cheese curds in the world, look no further than the Badger state.

Wisconsin cleaned up in the cheese curd category at the 2022 World Championship Cheese Contest, boasting the top five finishers in both the unflavored and flavored classes. Brodhead’s Decatur Dairy won Best in Class in unflavored curds for their Muenster Curd, and Ellsworth Cooperative Creamery took Best in Class in flavored curds for their Hickory Bacon Curd.

Historically, the world championship contest features just about every type of dairy under the sun, from your basic mild cheddar to milk protein concentrate. But it wasn’t until this year that the competition added the type of cheese that is closest to all of our hearts: curds. 

Judge Marianne Smukowski, who lives in Madison and used to work with Land O’ Lakes, judged the unflavored curds class with Kerry Kaylegian, a professor at Pennsylvania State University. Smukowski says that judging unflavored curds can be difficult because it can come down to the butter that was used to make the cheese.

“I used to do butter every single day when I went to visit plants,” Smukowski says. “I would [test] 90-100 samples of butter per day, so I really know the butter.”

Smukowski says that the difference between products can still be very small. Taking breaks to sip water or eat a plain cracker are key if you want to truly taste the difference in unflavored curds.

Flavored curds, on the other hand, have a lot more going on in terms of in-your-face taste.

Luis Jiménez-Maroto, an assistant coordinator at the University of Wisconsin–Madison Center for Dairy Research, helped judge the flavored curds.

“We’re here to taste cheese and it just happens to have condiments on it,” Jiménez-Maroto says. “If anything takes over the cheese, it won’t score very high, because instead of celebrating the cheese you’re using it as a vehicle for condiments.”

Both sets of judges say they looked for tastes like milky, whey, salt and maybe a little bit of acid.

“It’s very hard as a cheesemaker to find the balance between those subtle flavors,” Jiménez-Maroto says.

Pro tip from Smukowski: If you ever find yourself with some cold, un-squeaky cheese curds, you can freshen them right up by microwaving them for 10-30 seconds. But, if you can find curds that have been freshly delivered that day, you’re in for a treat.

“It’s really bad for me because I’ll stop at a gas station and pick up some curds, but by the time I get home the bag is basically empty,” Smukowski says.

Kaylegian, who lived in Madison for more than 20 years, says the culture of cheese curds is very different outside of Wisconsin. While curds in Wisconsin have a very short shelf life to preserve freshness — as they should, according to the judges — curds in other states might stay on shelves for two months or more.

The contest wrapped up Thursday with the top 20 cheeses announced, though none of the top cheeses were curds. Michael Spycher, a maker from Switzerland, was crowned the winner for the second straight contest for his Le Gruyère AOP.

You can see the full list of results here.

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