Culver's Curderburger Offers An Absurdist Glance Into An Untapped Meat Substitute: Cheese

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Culver's Curderburger Offers An Absurdist Glance Into An Untapped Meat Substitute: Cheese

Culver’s (in)famous Butterburger might be the best fast food burger out there. After all, its roots lie smack-dab in the middle of Wisconsin’s Burger Belt, a strip of burger goodness that runs between its two biggest cities, Milwaukee and Madison. The stretch of I-94 that runs between Wisconsin’s political and cultural capitals has given birth to some truly spectacular burgers. Local hits like Kopp’s, the Village Bar and Bubba’s all sit just off the well-worn interstate, but Culver’s is undoubtedly the Belt’s crowning achievement.

Bringing a buttery ‘Sconnie postcard to every town it graces, a trip to Culver’s is like a trip to the Burger Belt. Solid burgers aside, its menu offers a few tasty treats that can be tricky to come by outside of the Dairy State, including cheese curds and frozen custard. None of this is necessarily anything new. After all, Culver’s has been around for a while now, and curds and custards have been beloved treats in my neck of the woods for decades.

Culver’s made waves on social media as an April Fools joke grew wildly out of proportion. The prank? A cheeseburger with its cheese replaced by one massive fried cheese curd patty. Now, nobody loves a good cheese pull like the denizens of social media, so naturally, the “Curderburger” became a culinary white whale on social media. Like a lot of food-based social media April Fools Day jokes, the idea got so popular that Culver’s eventually turned people’s dreams into reality and served the Curderburger for one day only in October of 2021. Now, it’s back for a slightly longer period of time.

Let me retrace my steps a bit since it’s easy to forget that not everyone’s had a chance to nosh on this delicacy. Cheese curds are one of the things I took for granted growing up in Milwaukee. If you hear about cheese curds and think of those little squeaky cheese bits that top poutine, you wouldn’t be wrong. Though they aren’t technically cheese (yet), they do bear a lot of the same flavors, just with a bit more concentrated umami. They’re a necessary ingredient in poutine, but in Wisconsin, we don’t eat them with fries and gravy. We fry and serve ‘em as an upgraded accessory to a burger or a Friday fish fry during Lent or as a bar snack to throw back during a Bucks game. If you’re looking to get really fancy, you could order them with a side of ranch. Curds have certainly caught some traction outside of Wisconsin, but they’re still pretty difficult to get outside of the Midwest.

If you’ve never had one before, imagine if a mozzarella stick was cut into bite-sized pieces before it was fried. Inside, you still get a stretchy, mouth-scorching, cheesy bite, but cheese curds hit a level of richness and firmness that other cheeses just don’t. They’re kind of like a really sharp cheddar without the abrasive funk. They maintain a much stronger shape and texture than most other cheeses would in a 350-degree fryer, so they have slightly more resistance to the tooth.

So, if they’re so delicious, why are they so hard to get? Why wouldn’t they be everywhere? It’s because cheese curds are just young cheddar that hasn’t aged yet. Within a week, curds naturally become sharp cheddar, even in vacuum-sealed packaging. There are ways to preserve them and prevent the baby cheddar from growing up, like freezing, but most “cheese curds” aren’t curds anymore. They’re just cheese. The state of Wisconsin takes them so seriously that cheese curds are actually heavily legislated, which is why Wisconsin cheese curds are the cream of the crop, so to speak.

That’s not to say anyone selling curds not designated as Wisconsin cheese curds is selling you funny-shaped cheese (though they might be), but it is to say that Culver’s calling their curds Wisconsin cheese curds means that they really are the real deal.

Ironically, I’m not the biggest fan of Culver’s curds. The batter and breading just aren’t my jam. They’re still delicious and I’d take them over fries most days of the week, but compared to the ones I’m used to at home, they’re just not that great. So imagine my surprise when the Curderburger’s bacchanalian cheese curd patty was everything I missed about the curds of my youth.

I’ve had plenty of burgers with cheese curds on them. After all, it’s a lot like a cheeseburger with extra steps and crunch, but the Curderburger has the perfect ratio of breading to cheese—and yes, one incredible cheese pull. Because of the critical mass of molten cheese within, the massive curd patty probably spends longer in the fryer, so the breading is heartier and the curd is meltier than Culver’s average curd. This makes for a tastier experience that’s much closer to the perfect curd for me. It also makes for one messy burger (as any good burger should be) after the first bite sends molten cheese flying out the back of the mammoth curd.

The idea of a big hunk of fried cheese on a sandwich reminded me of a common use for halloumi, a popular Cypriot goat cheese that’s often served grilled and can be used as a meat substitute. Now, a grilled hunk of goat cheese might not have as much in common with a massive fried cheese curd, but I made sure to try one sandwich without the burger patty to test its viability as a vegetarian option.

Overall, I was really impressed! Cheese curds’ fatty, umami-rich quality won’t quite fool meat eaters or completely replace the succulent, Maillard crust-coated deliciousness of a burger patty, but it’s a solid substitute. As the demand for meat, especially beef, substitutes continues to grow, this monstrosity of fried cheese born as a social media stunt could represent a future for vegetarian fast food options.