What to Eat in Wisconsin: Iconic Eats from America's Dairyland

Everybody knows Wisconsin is renowned for its top-notch cheese — but that's not the only food the state is known for. Here's a tally of all the great grub Wisconsin has to offer, plus tips on where to sample the iconic eats.

Photo By: Deer Creek Cheese

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Wisconsin Bakers Association

Photo By: www.oldfashionedthemovie.com

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant

Photo By: Inthewoods Sugar Bush

Photo By: O&H Bakery

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Deer Creek Cheese

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: White Gull Inn, Jon Jarosh

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: OJ’s Midtown Restaurant

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: Terese Allen

Photo By: Jim Klousia

Photo By: The Walker House

Photo By: Terese Allen

Photo By: Island Cafe and Bakery

Photo By: Native Food Network

Photo By: The Booyah Shed

From Colby to Craft Beer

It’s known as America’s Dairyland, but Wisconsin serves up an extraordinary array of edibles: produce from apples to zucchini; ethnic sausages and grass-fed meats; fish from lake and stream; foraged foods; and specialties like craft beers and cream puffs. And, oh yeah, there’s also cheese galore. The state’s lush food culture stems from its varied geography and climate, a rich tapestry of ethnic backgrounds and a deep-rooted history of dairying and mixed agriculture. In Wisconsin, we don’t just celebrate with food; we celebrate because of food.

Bratwurst

If you like sausages, you’ll love Wisconsin, where butcher shops churn out a cornucopia of links — the savory, spicy gift of diverse ethnic groups that have settled in the state throughout its history. The undisputed king is bratwurst, the German-style sausage that’s mandatory at picnics, tailgate parties and backyard cookouts. In fact, when the Green Bay Packers play at home, you can smell the peppery aroma for miles around Lambeau Field. Still, the most-brat-obsessed town in the state is Sheboygan, self-proclaimed Bratwurst Capital of the World, where joints like the Charcoal Inn offer a “double with the works”— two brats on an oversized hard roll with mustard, onions, pickles and ketchup. (There are locations on both sides of town; just follow your nose.)

Go to: Charcoal Inn — Southside Location

Cream Puffs

European-born cream puffs earned local status at the Wisconsin State Fair during the 1940s, when visitors queued up in the Wisconsin Bakers Association’s facility there to get a rare taste of a wartime scarcity, whipped cream. Bakers heaped dense clouds of it into golden pastry puffs and showered the treats with powdered sugar. No wonder the demand turned into a tradition. Today, visitors down some 50,000 cream puffs a day during the fair’s two-week run. Can’t make it to the state fair? Then get thee to a dairy festival or county fair, where the longest line at the event will lead you directly to a cream puff truck or stand.

Brandy Old Fashioned

If states had official cocktails, as they do mottos, Wisconsin’s would certainly be the brandy old fashioned. Why brandy and not whiskey, as is customary elsewhere? It could be the penchant for fruit brandies that Germans brought to Wisconsin in the 19th century. It could be marketing: Some say Korbel’s introduction of its brandy in 1893 at the Columbian Expo in Chicago turned the heads of Wisconsin Germans who visited the fair and then spread the word throughout Dairyland. Old Fashioned's go hand in hand with another beloved regional institution, the supper club. At classic places like the Ding-A-Ling, the cocktails are so prevalent as an evening starter that bartenders can practically mix them with their eyes closed.

Go to: Ullman's Ding-A-Ling Supper Club

Roesti

Stroll downtown in the village of New Glarus and it’s as if you’ve been transplanted to Old World Switzerland. Chalet-style storefronts and a quaint hillside church set the stage for the Glarner Stube, a Swiss restaurant with carved-wood decor, a hammered-copper-topped bar and a community feeling inside. Diners start with a stein of beer and a chewy landjaeger sausage, both from nearby producers, then order pork schnitzel or veal kalburwurst or maybe a bubbly cheese fondue. Whatever the choice, locals know not to skip the roesti, a crusty golden round of butter-fried grated potatoes with onions and melty Swiss cheese throughout.

Go to: Glarner Stube

Limburger Sandwich

Surface-ripened, aged and famously malodorous, Limburger is a 19th-century northern European cheese that was traditionally layered between slices of dark bread with raw onions and horseradish (or mustard) and washed down with good local beer. When the sandwich-beer combo came to Green County, Wisconsin, with Swiss and German immigrants, taverngoers went for it in such a big way that it wasn’t until decades later, when saloons closed during Prohibition, that Limburger sales declined. Yet the last Limburger cheese factory in the country, Chalet Cheese Co-op, still makes and distributes more than a million pounds of it annually, and you can still get an authentic Limburger cheese sandwich at Baumgartner’s Cheese Store & Tavern, located on the town square in little Monroe.

Go to: Baumgartner's Cheese Store and Tavern

Swedish Pancakes

Limpa bread? Waitresses wearing dirndls? Goats grazing on the sod roof? It can only be one place: Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, near the top of Wisconsin’s Door County Peninsula. Tourists flock here to photograph the goats, to browse the Scandinavian boutique and, most of all, to dig into thin, eggy folded Swedish pancakes with tart lingonberries. (For lunch or dinner, it’s Swedish meatballs and mashed potatoes.) Scandinavian heritage is strong in Door County, and Al Johnson’s has been its icon for decades.

Go to: Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant

Maple Syrup

Beer, bratwurst and cheese may be Wisconsin’s best-known culinary icons, but when it comes to reflecting the region’s history, culture and climate, they can’t beat maple syrup. It’s a deeply beloved, hauntingly delicious indigenous food that permeates Wisconsin’s history, seasons its cooking (both sweet and savory) and shapes its cultural psyche. Most of the state’s maple operations are family-run businesses that market locally and online, like Inthewoods Sugar Bush of Manitowoc. The folks at Inthewoods also welcome visitors during maple season, to show off their syrup in the making and share that wondrous, life-is-sweet taste of 100 percent pure liquid gold.

Danish Kringle

Few towns have as close an identification with a food as Racine, the kringle capital of the nation. Bakeries there produce millions of the multilayered, fruit-filled pastries annually, meeting the formidable local demand and shipping to kringle lovers nationwide. Like many of Racine’s residents, kringle is a result of Danish immigration in the 1800s. And like most newcomers, it adapted to American ways while retaining its ethnic heritage. It was once a huge, doughcentric, pretzel-shaped affair, but today’s kringle is smaller, flatter and oval-shaped, with many filling varieties and a high ratio of fruit to pastry. Nobody bakes it better than the folks at O&H Bakery, where Wisconsin Kringle features two local favorites: cranberries (the state’s No. 1 fruit) and cherries from fruit-growing Door County. Kringle became Wisconsin’s official pastry in 2013.

Go to: O&H Bakery — North Racine Location

Beer-Cheese Soup

Two of Wisconsin’s signature foods come together in beer-cheese soup, a luscious, grin-producing potage found on countless menus around the state. At The Old Fashioned in Madison, where regionally sourced cheeses, meats, potables and other specialties are the order of the day, the beer-cheese soup is made with Huber Bock beer and sharp cheddar, and is garnished with yet another Wisconsin favorite: popcorn. As for the rest of the menu, if you read through all the food descriptions in this gallery and find yourself wishing for a place you could try them all, your best bet is The Old Fashioned, “where Wisconsin is king.”

Go to: The Old Fashioned Tavern & Restaurant

Fried Cheese Curds

Cheese curds are small, bumpy lumps of (usually) cheddar that are collected before the cheese has formed into blocks. Kids of all ages love them for their moist, springy bite and mild, salty flavor. Try to get them as fresh as possible, before they are fully chilled, because that’s when they squeak. Yes, this cheese makes noise when you eat it. Fresh cheese curds are hugely popular in Wisconsin, but deep-fried cheese curds have attained cultlike status. Batter-fried and served with tasty dips, they’re on the menu at such restaurants as the landmark Lakefront Brewery in Milwaukee. Guess what goes really well with them? Yep: beer.

Go to: Lakefront Brewery

Colby Cheese

If you think cheese must be strong-flavored and stinky to be world-class, think again. Invented in Wisconsin by Joseph F. Steinwand in 1885, Colby is sweet-salty and mild-mannered, with a buttery note and a pleasingly nubby texture. It’s so yummy, in fact, that one factory’s version of it was deemed the best cheese in the world in 1982. The reputation of this classic suffered during the 1990s, however, due to efficiency demands and changes in standards of identity, and these days only a few cheesemakers still make the real deal. Among them are Hook’s (winner of that global honor) and Deer Creek Cheese, whose handmade Colby is named after Wisconsin’s state bird, the robin.

Friday Night Fish Fry

Fried-fish meals occur in many parts of the country, but seldom are they as communal, habitual and widespread, and nowhere are they as closely identified with a state, as they are in Wisconsin. The tradition links Wisconsinites to their water-wealthy environment and to a history of native and immigrant dependence on this once-abundant food source. Additional factors that drive the weekly craze include a large Catholic population (who historically went meatless on Friday) and the influence of gemütlichkeit, a German concept that connotes sociability in the context of food and drink. There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of fish-fry joints in Wisconsin. If you can experience only one, make it the landmark Serb Hall in Milwaukee. It’s big. It’s beloved. And it’s terrifically good.

Artisanal Cheese Plate

Wisconsin’s “cheeseheads” chuckle good-naturedly at their nickname but also take immense pride in it, in part because America’s Dairyland crafts nearly half of the nation’s artisanal cheeses. Many are featured at Fromagination, a premier cheese shop that’s perhaps the best place in the state to assemble a cheese plate. Located on the Capitol Square in Madison, Fromagination carrries such champions as Marieke Gouda Mature, a 2013 world champion that’s aged on Dutch pine planks, and Pleasant Ridge Reserve from Uplands Cheese, the most-awarded cheese in American history, which is a Gruyère-like variety made from the nonpasteurized milk of a single herd.

Go to: Fromagination

Fish Boil

The name is weird; the meal is anything but. The defining culinary experience of Wisconsin’s thumb-shaped, water-surrounded Door County, a fish boil is an unctuous combo of fresh whitefish and red potatoes (and sometimes baby onions) cooked over fire in salty water, drizzled with hot butter and served with rye bread, coleslaw and the fruit-growing region’s signature dessert, tart cherry pie. Thing is, you don’t just eat a fish boil; you attend one. At restaurants like the White Gull Inn of Fish Creek, tourists gather at dusk around the outdoor boil pot, breathe in the smoke-happy scents and gasp at the final drama, when fuel hits fire, flames shoot high and the water boils over to douse the blaze. Then local, communal and gourmet-worthy dinner is served.

Go to: White Gull Inn

Frozen Custard

Ahh, frozen custard. Plush, creamy and egg-enriched, with no sparing of butterfat, this Dairyland treat is a Wisconsin phenomenon. It came north via the 1925 World’s Fair in Chicago and first took hold in Milwaukee, where ice harvesting and access to fresh cream from nearby farms made it a natural fit. One of the most-lauded custard companies today is Kopp’s, started by the late Elsa Kopp in 1950 with three locations. Custard’s reach widened in recent years with the growth of Culver’s, a regional fast-food-and-frozen-custard chain that operates nearly 600 restaurants in the Midwest and beyond.

Go to: Kopp's Frozen Custard

Cream Pies and Tortes

Small-town diners are places where folks build bonds of community connection and identity, often over pie. And in Wisconsin, it’s likely to be over cream pie. (It’s the Dairy State, after all.) At OJ’s Midtown in friendly little Gillett, the bakers are pie artists who fill homemade crusts with every imaginable flavor of creamy custard — banana, coconut, peanut butter, sour cream raisin, chocolate and more — and smother the pies with whipped cream or meringue. Related to cream pies, and just as iconic as a Dairyland diner dessert, are tortes, which are not the fancy cakes of European fame, but chilled confections that typically start with a nut or cookie crust that’s layered first with cream cheese; pudding, gelatin, fruit or ice cream, then with whipped cream and finally with nuts or crushed cookies or candy. Yowza.

Go to: OJ's Midtown Restaurant

Hmong Egg Rolls

When Hmong refugees came to Wisconsin after the Vietnam War, they — like so many immigrant groups before them — brought their own flavors to the state’s culinary culture. Hmong growers introduced fragrant lemongrass, footlong asparagus beans and other Southeast Asian crops at farmers markets around the state. They opened restaurants that feature fresh, colorful traditional dishes like larb (ground beef and herb salad salad), som tum (spicy vegetable slaw) and spring rolls. Especially popular is the Hmong fried egg roll, which is filled with noodles, vegetables and meat, set off by fiery chile sauce. Visit Hmong’s Golden Egg Rolls in La Crosse for the real thing.

Go to: Hmong’s Golden Egg Rolls

Morel Mushrooms

When the last big glacier swept down from Canada across Wisconsin 10,000 years ago and petered out near the southwestern corner of the state, it left that region’s wooded hills and deep, river-filled valleys free of glacial drift ... making it the best place in the state to find forest mushrooms. Indeed, hunting for morels — those most elusive and delectable of mushrooms — is a passion for area families during the damp days of May. Non-foragers look to farmers markets, grocery stores and farm stands for their supply, or attend the annual Morel Mushroom Festival in Muscoda, the state’s official Morel Capital. And chefs at local-foods-focused restaurants, such as the Driftless Café in Viroqua, positively revel in the bounty.

Go to: Driftless Cafe

Morning Buns

Created in the early 1970s at the groundbreaking Ovens of Brittany restaurant-bakery in Madison, morning buns are so lushly delicious they once caused a journalist to declare: “Only one other thing is better in the morning than a morning bun.” The legendary pastry was born when a baker sprinkled cinnamon sugar onto croissant dough, rolled and cut the dough into oversize rounds, baked these until high and golden, then tumbled the warm buns in more cinnamon-sugar. The city was addicted at first whiff. The Ovens organization — which grew to seven restaurants, in part because of the pastry’s popularity — is gone today, but the morning bun lives on at bakeries around the state. For the real McCoy, in all its flaky, cinnamon-y glory, visit Lazy Jane’s Cafe on Madison’s east side.

Go to: Lazy Jane's Cafe and Bakery

Norwegian Meatballs

Wooden booths, tin ceilings and a bakery case full of homemade specialties give Schubert’s a cozy, old-fashioned feel. Located on Main Street in downtown Mt. Horeb — one of many Norwegian-American enclaves in Wisconsin — the restaurant includes Norwegian specialties like crispy rosette pastries and tender lefse (potato crepes) on its mostly Americana menu. Don’t miss their Norwegian meatballs, served with real mashed potatoes and homemade gravy. Around the state, Norwegian meatballs are also a favorite at church suppers and Syttende Mai (May 17) events, which celebrate Norway’s Constitution Day.

Go to: Schubert's

Cornish Pasties

When Cornish miners came to southwestern Wisconsin in the early 19th century to work the newly opened lead mines there, they brought a taste for pasties with them. Cornish wives filled the hearty, hand-held pies with almost anything — meat, fish, fowl, vegetables, even cooked fruit. Today, at area festivals and restaurants like The Walker House, the customary pasty features beef and potatoes. But you'll still hear a bit of old folklore repeated about how people with Cornish blood have great virtue, since, as is said, the devil is afraid to come near them for fear that he'll be put into a pasty. The turnovers have a presence in northern Wisconsin, too, where Cornish miners also immigrated, and where other ethnic groups took to pasties so enthusiastically that the pies gained a regional identity.

Go to: The Walker House

Butter Burgers

Imagine a pat of butter melting atop a grilled rib eye and you’ll get the appeal of the Kroll’s East burger style. It starts with a hand-formed Black Angus beef patty that is charcoal-grilled, accented with condiment choices and crowned with real Wisconsin butter. Tucked inside a toasted hard roll, the sandwich is crusty on the outside and bathed in buttery juices on the inside. No wonder Kroll’s burgers have been a Green Bay favorite since the place opened in 1935. A rival Kroll’s across town (with different owners) and plenty of other hamburger joints in Wisconsin also do their own variations of the butter burger.

Go to: Kroll's East

Smoked-Fish Chowder

Smoked fish is a Wisconsin tradition that dates to native peoples who preserved their catch by slow-cooking it over a smoldering flame. Woodsy-sweet, as delicious as secret good news, the delicacy is available in several varieties, including whitefish and lake trout from the Great Lakes and rainbow trout raised by inland fish farmers. It’s typically eaten plain with crackers or in a cream-cheese spread, and it becomes positively epicurean in the smoked whitefish chowder cooked up at the Island Cafe and Bread Company, a farm-to-table cafe and European style bakery on Lake Michigan’s tiny Washington Island.

Go to: Island Cafe and Bread Company

Wild Rice

Native to the region and about as nutritious as a food can get, wild rice has been vital to the diet and culture of indigenous tribes in the Wisconsin area for centuries. (One tribe, the Menominee, even took its name from an Indian term for the grain, manomin.) True wild rice — hand-harvested and deeply flavorful — has long faced threats such as development, mining and industrially grown paddy rice. But tribal initiatives like the Native Food Network are working to protect and promote this important gourmet grain; the NFN’s Native Market and Gallery sells wild rice and other native foodstuffs online, as well as via a mobile farmers market and from a storefront in Madison.

Chicken Booyah

Like the celebrated Door County fish boil dinner, booyah is a much-loved Great Lakes tradition that may be related to the one-pot, outdoor meals the region’s first peoples prepared. They likely shared their soupy, wild-foods concoctions with fur traders, who used some form of bouilli — a French root word for soups — to describe it. In northeastern Wisconsin the name became “booyah,” and the preparation a long-simmered, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink stew of chicken and vegetables that is ladled up at church picnics, taverns and family reunions. Or visit The Booyah Shed, a mobile restaurant that serves a mean booyah at the Green Bay Farmers Market and other community venues.