Since 1940, the slogan "America's Dairyland" has appeared on Wisconsin license plates. So it is fitting that quite a few of the state's traditional favorite foods include ample portions of butter and cheese. Eat like a local in Wisconsin and order a few of these specialties, from boiled fish ladled with melted butter to a byproduct of the cheese-making process that has become a popular side dish.
A typical Wisconsin boil begins with salted water to raise the boiling temperature. Potatoes and onions are added, and then fish fillets (usually whitefish). Eventually, the contents of the cauldron boil over, forcing out the oily layers. In America's Dairyland, it's typical for the cooked contents to be plated, slathered with melted butter, and eaten with dark bread featuring a salted crust.
The Door Peninsula is a favorite vacation region and fish boil mecca along the shores of Lake Michigan. For those who cannot travel that far north, Fitzgerald's Genoa Junction in Genoa City serves up a delicious all-you-can-eat version featuring cod rather than whitefish. Fitzgerald's is only a few miles north of the Illinois border and about 70 miles northwest of Chicago. The restaurant does not accept credit cards for payment.
Many will associate Wisconsin with cheese production, and rightfully so. According to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, there are 9,520 Wisconsin-licensed dairy farms in the state and 144 cheese plants. If Wisconsin broke away from the United States and formed its own country, it would rank fourth in world cheese production.
When cheese is made, solid pieces of curdled milk emerge. These form the start of a spongy snack that is prepared in a variety of forms. In Wisconsin, many restaurants deep fry the curds and serve them as a side dish. It's not uncommon for the wait staff to offer either french fries or cheese curds to complement a customer's hamburger order.
Cheese curds in Wisconsin are sometimes called "squeaky cheese" because the smooth outer layer has a tendency to squeak against the teeth.
Madison's State Street Brats serves fried cheese curds with celery and ranch dressing. To avoid big crowds and long waits in this sports bar, time your visit for a day when the University of Wisconsin Badgers are not playing football or basketball.
The name Kringle might conjure up images of a pastry to be enjoyed with coffee on Christmas morning, but the Wisconsin variety is favored throughout the year. This treat has a Danish pedigree, and is made with Wisconsin butter that is carefully layered across the dough to create a flaky crust. But once the crust is formed, Kringle departs from a standard recipe. It can be filled with a variety of jams, fruits, nuts, and icings to create unique treats.
In 2013, Lawmakers named Kringle the official pastry of Wisconsin State, with sponsors insisting such a designation would boost economic growth in Racine, the Kringle capital of Wisconsin
O & H Danish Bakery in Racine has been serving Kringle since 1949 and currently boasts 27 varieties that can be ordered either in the bakery or by mail. The bakery has four other Racine-area locations.
Pączki might not have won the state pastry designation, but it is well established as a Wisconsin favorite. In fact, Fat Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday, is known in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest as Pączki Day. How did it start? Families about to observe Lent emptied their kitchens of lard, sugar and fruit through Pączki production.
The roots of this doughnut-like treat date back to Poland in the Middle Ages. Prior to cooking, the dough is mixed with a dash of grain alcohol to prevent the frying oil from penetrating the finished products. Some bakeries simply add a sugary glaze, while others fill Pączki with fruits, jams or custards.
To try one for yourself, check out Grebe's Bakery in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis. This place even hosts a "Build Your Own Pączki" contest each February.
Spotted Cow Beer
The Revenue Cabinet in Madison reports that Wisconsin's 191 breweries typically turn out roughly 900,000 barrels of beer a month. Many of those places are rather small microbreweries that specialize in a specific style. Not surprisingly, Wisconsin ranks among the top 10 states in per capita beer consumption.
Among the largest of those microbreweries is New Glarus Brewing in the Swiss-settled town of the same name. It offers a variety called Spotted Cow that has become Wisconsin's best-selling draft beer.
The brewers describe Spotted Cow as a cask-conditioned ale, made from flaked barley and "the finest Wisconsin malts." It's naturally rather cloudy, and small particles of yeast are often visible at the bottom of a glass. Brewers say they "allow the yeast to remain in the bottle to enhance fullness of flavors."
Don't expect to order it outside of the state. It is offered exclusively within the borders, and establishments trying to sell it in other places have been raided and fined. The brewery posts this comment on its website about the licensing policy: "Sorry about the limited distribution, non-Wisconsinites, there are only so many hours in the day to make beer and we can only keep up with the local demand."
Perhaps the best place to sample Spotted Cow is at the brewery in New Glarus, about 30 miles southwest of Madison. Brewery tours and a tasting room are available from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. on every day but Sunday, when the hours are 12 noon until 5 p.m.
Grilled Beer Brats
When ordering these grilled sausages in Wisconsin, be sure to say the word "brat" (pronounced brot) and not the more formal bratwurst. There are scores of varieties, all some combination of chopped beef, pork or veal encased with spices and fat.
Brats certainly are not unique to Wisconsin, but they take on more significance at football tailgates, Milwaukee Brewers baseball games, and backyard picnics. The state's Germanic settlers perfected a Wisconsin variation called the beer brat.
A beer brat is simmered in a mixture of beer, peppers and onions for about 20 minutes. Then, fully cooked, they go to the grill to take on the expected color and flavor of a standard brat.
No complicated recipe here—simply add a pat of butter (or a scoop) to the top of your ground beef patty and enjoy the rich, moist taste of a butter burger. Just don't tell your cardiologist that you ordered it.
This tradition started in several Wisconsin eateries, and today is further popularized in the growing Culver's fast-food chain. It's yet another indication that Wisconsin loves to combine its most famous food products on the same plate. Yes, Wisconsin is known for more than just dairy cattle. The state has about 14,000 beef producers.
Some places will add butter to your beef patty as it is cooking. Others will place a thick layer of butter between bun and beef prior to serving. There are restaurants where your burger will arrive in a pool of melted butter. Be careful what you ask for!
Solly's Grille, in Milwaukee, is open every day and even offers butter burgers on its breakfast menu. This family-owned enterprise opened in 1936 as a coffee shop but eventually became a grille when its butter burger grew in popularity. The menu says they only use "Real Wisconsin creamery butter." It's open 6:30 a.m. until 8 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. on Monday and 8 a.m until 4 p.m. on Sunday.