Cheese curls, sometimes referred to as corn curls or cheese puffs, have been a popular American snack food since the 1950s. These crispy cheese snacks are formed from cornmeal, water, oil, and flavored coatings. Cheese curls are an extruded snack, meaning they are cooked, pressurized, and pushed out of a die that forms the particular snack shape. They are then baked (or fried, depending on the product) and flavored with oil and seasonings. Today, we eat extruded corn snacks that are ball-shaped, curly, straight, or irregularly shaped depending on the shape of the die. Flavorings added after baking or frying vary greatly and different brands have distinctive flavors. These snacks are extremely popular snacks with children. The cheese curl industry packages them so that they are an easy choice to drop into school lunches.
The invention of the cheese curl was quite serendipitous. During the 1930s, the Flakall Company that produced corn-based feed for livestock sought a way to produce feed that did not contain sharp hulls and grain dust and eventually produced a machine that broke the grain into small pieces by flaking it. The Flakall Company became successful manufacturers of flaked feed. One day as Edward Wilson was working as a flake operator at the Flakall Company, he noticed that workers poured moistened corn kernels into the machine to reduce clogging. He found that when the flaking machine ran continuously it made parts of it quite hot. The moistened cornmeal came out of the machine in puffy ribbons, hardened as it hit the air, and fell to the ground. Wilson took the ribbons home, added oil and flavor and made the first cheese curls. The company ran another flaker just for the production of Korn Kurls. By 1950, the Adams Corporation was mass-producing the Korn Kurl. There were dozens of small snack companies that followed the Adams Corporation and produced cheese curls, with many devising their special shape using innovative dies for their extruded snacks. Today, perhaps the most popular cheese snacks are produced by Frito-Lay although they did not offer any such snacks until 1980. This company offers the product in a variety of shapes and flavorings (including one that is flavored with cayenne pepper). Despite their minimal nutritional value (they are high in calories and fat and offer little fiber or protein), they are quite popular. It is estimated that 82% of Americans with families have eaten cheese curls at some point.
The cheese extrusion itself is generally made from two primary ingredients: cornmeal and water. All other ingredients are sprayed or applied to the corn curl after it leaves the extruder and is dried. The coatings vary greatly according to flavor and the manufacturer. Soybean and/or cottonseed and/or coconut oil may be sprayed on the extrusions. Then, powders such as cheddar cheese powders, acid whey powder, artificial cheese flavor, salt, and other spices are often applied over the oil.
This section will focus on the production of baked cheese curls. The process for making
The shape of the die is a critical aspect of its product because it gives the product its distinctive shape. As the dough is pushed through the dies, it looks like puffy snakes. These extruded snakes called collettes are cut to the desired length by a rotating knife.
One of the most important quality control steps in the entire process is selecting cornmeal for use. First, it must be finely ground because big grains or gritty meal result in an undesirable feel as the finished product is consumed. Cornmeal is tested for grit size by weighing 1.75 oz (50 g) of a well-mixed, representative sample of meal. Then, the test sample is transferred to the top sieve of a series of different grades of sieves. The grain is poured on top and agitated as it is put through the sieves. The grain remaining on the sieves is considered too coarse to use; this amount is weighed and the approximate usable grain is calculated and compared to specifications sent from the supplier. Next, moisture content of the grain is assessed because too-wet or too-dry cornmeal will create inferior product. (Excessive moisture will cause formation of small, heavy, hard puffs, while too-dry cornmeal will create light, long, straight puffs. Puffs that are too dry will burn in the dryer.) Moisture content is determined by weighing a 0.07-0.105 oz (2-3 g) portion of cornmeal, placing it a uncovered in the self of an oven for exactly 60 seconds, then re-weighing the samples and calculating the amount of moisture loss. The meal must not lose more than 0.2% of weight (moisture) of the cornmeal may be considered too wet for use at that point.
The equipment used in the manufacture of the extruded snacks is calibrated and checked very carefully throughout the production process. Industry and food technology manuals indicate the proper rate of feed into and through the extruder, the number of revolutions per minute at which the extruder must run, the temperature of the extruder, the pressure (measured in Atmospheres) that must be maintained in the extruder, the speed of the extruder, and the rotating speed of the knife that cuts the collettes. Human operators constantly check the extruding dies to ensure they have not plugged up. Extremely important is determining the amount of water that must be added to the cornmeal in order for it to become gelatinous. The moisture content of the product as it enters the extruder, as well as when it exits (just before the baking that crisps it up), is carefully assessed. Machinery is programmed so that the duration of the processes described above are perfectly timed in order to ensure each step is thoroughly completed.
The puffed corn snack is a recently developed manufactured product. As such, it has seen many interesting variations and improvements in the past two decades in particular. Companies are constantly seeking new flavors to spray onto the extruded cornmeal collettes. Recently, very spicy coatings have been added to one company's product and they are selling well. One company that sells extruding machines and dies advertises that they look forward to working with food manufacturers in order to develop new, unique product. Furthermore, it is possible to extrude other grains in the extruder and perhaps the snack food industry will see how well wheat or rye puffs may sell in the near future.
Herbst, Sharon Tyler. "Cornmeal," In The Food Lover's Second Edition. Barron's Educational Services, Inc.
Snack Food Association. Corn Quality Assurance Manual. Alexandria, VA: Snack Food Association, 1992.
Snack Food Association. Corn Quality Assurance Manual. Alexandria, VA: Snack Food Association, 1994.
Frito-Lay. 1998. http://www.fritolay.com/ (June 7, 1999).
Snack Food Association. http://www.snax.com/ (June 7, 1999).
Wenger Extrusion Systems. 1999. http://www.wenger.com/ (June 7, 1999).
— Nancy EV Bryk