Situated in the American Midwest against Lakes Michigan and Superior, Wisconsin’s culinary scene is largely influenced by historical settlements and fertile farmland. It’s well-known that the Badger State is the place to go for beer and cheese, but its list of famous foods and drinks goes well beyond that.
Here are some of the best things to eat and drink in Wisconsin, in no particular order:
It’s nicknamed “America’s Dairyland”, and fans of its NFL team are called “cheeseheads”…if there’s one thing Wisconsin does best, it’s cheese. This has been the case since the early 1800s when European settlers began raising dairy cows on the fertile land and later built thousands of factories to process the cow’s milk into cheese.
Today, Wisconsinites love their cheese, eating it on its own or incorporating it into dishes.
One of the most popular of these dishes is cheese curds (affiliate link), tiny chunks of curdled milk that can be eaten plain, fried, or tossed on top of other foods. Another classic is beer cheese soup (affiliate link), a centuries-old hearty meal that’s perfect during cold Midwestern winters. Wisconsin is the birthplace of colby and brick cheeses, and likely more, given that over 600 types of cheeses are regularly produced in the state.
There’s not a corner of Wisconsin where you can’t find a variety of cheeses. To simplify your selection, consider Fromagination, an artisan cheese shop in the capital city of Madison. They offer samples of their selections and ship their products nationwide.
If you’re 21 and older, beer is an integral part of a trip to Wisconsin. The Germans who immigrated here in the early 1800s brought with them the beloved beverage of their homeland, thus earning them the credit for making beer such a prominent part of Wisconsin cuisine.
The German influence is seen in the names of many nationally-famous beer companies founded in Wisconsin, including Miller, Pabst, and Schlitz (the company is now dissolved, but once boasted the slogan of “the beer that made Milwaukee famous”).
New Glarus is a newer beer company whose products are only sold within the state, but it always tops the lists of brands locals like the most. Even if you’re not a big fan of drinking beer, you’ll still probably unknowingly enjoy it at some point —it’s used in many recipes of other Wisconsin dishes.
Milwaukee is the birthplace and home of many of the state’s top beers, making it a prime place to find your new favorite. Consider visiting Lakefront Brewery for tastings and fun tours.
Another Wisconsin staple brought over by the Germans, brats are great for any occasion: restaurant dining, cookouts at home, tailgates at Lambeau, and ballpark food at the Brewers stadium. While the sausages can be boiled, braked, or smoked, the preferred method is typically soaking them in beer before grilling them.
Bratwursts are mostly made from pork, veal, or a combination of the two. The meat is seasoned before being added to the casing.
Because brats are a favorite at sporting events and outdoor activities, they’re often eaten in a bread roll for convenience (and because the buttered rolls are a tasty added touch). While any bread will do, it’s common to use semmel rolls—hard, circular buns that are sized so that the tips of the brats poke out on either end.
The city of Sheboygan is regarded as the root from which brats spread across the state. Sly’s Midtown Saloon & Grill is a great place to try authentic Wisconsin-style brats.
Wisconsin’s love for fish fries stems from both its geographic location and the demographic of its European settlers. Years ago, Catholics did not eat meat from warm-blooded animals on Fridays, leaving religious European settlers in Wisconsin to fill up on fish every week.
The tradition of fish on Fridays was so thoroughly enjoyed that it still holds up today, decades after the Catholic Church changed its rules on meat consumption. Walleye, perch, and bluegill from the nearby lakes are cheap and plentiful, thus making them perfect for fish fries.
They’re battered—with beer, of course—before being deep-fried. Potatoes are another main component of the meal, usually in the form of French fries or potato pancakes (which are exactly what they sound like). Add in some coleslaw and a slice of bread, and you’ve got yourself a Wisconsin fish fry.
If you have all the right ingredients and supplies, you can have a fish fry at your own home. Or, you can go to Wendt’s on the Lake in Van Dyne, as their perch, haddock, and cod fish fries are commonly voted as the best around.
Cheese isn’t the only dairy food for which Wisconsin is famous. Though the invention of frozen custard occurred in New York in the 1910s, it became a hit in Wisconsin when brewers began to sell it to replace their income during Prohibition. Today, because of its high concentration of frozen custard shops, Milwaukee has earned the unofficial nickname of “frozen custard capital of the world”.
Frozen custard is made from milk, cream, sugar, and egg yolks; the eggs are what differentiate the dessert from ice cream and make it richer and creamier. Originally, the frozen custard was either chocolate or vanilla, but a variety of flavors have since emerged. Choose toppings such as nuts, chocolate syrup, and caramel sauce, and you’ve got a customized, delicious dessert.
Kopp’s Frozen Custard is a terrific place to try the treat, as it was Elsa Kopp who strayed away from just chocolate and vanilla and introduced the first new custard flavors in the 1960s. Kopp’s has locations in Greenfield, Glendale, and Brookfield, and offers over a dozen regular flavors.
Another popular dessert in Wisconsin, kringles have been the official state pastry since 2013. They were introduced to the state by immigrants—Danish this time—in the mid-1800s and have been loved by Wisconsinites ever since. Repeatedly folding the dough until there are over 30 layers is no easy task, but when the result is as good as a kringle, it’s well worth the time and effort.
Once the butter and flour have been properly worked, the mixture is refrigerated until it forms a delicate and flaky dough. It’s then filled with fruits and nuts, and shaped to form the kringle’s classic oval shape. The pastry is baked until golden brown, then iced. Finally, it’s ready to be placed on the holiday dinner table for everyone to grab a piece (or two).
Racine, Wisconsin is where many of these Danish families set up their bakeries and homes. To get an authentic taste of this historic dessert, try Racine Danish Kringles. You can find them online too. Also based out of Racine, O&H sells a few different flavors on Amazon, including the popular almond kringle and pecan. (affiliate links).
It may seem odd that one of Wisconsin’s most famous foods is typically served only once a year, but that just goes to show how iconic it is. Cream puffs have been sold at the Wisconsin State Fair since 1924 and are fairgoers’ favorite food.
Not only does the Fair sell an average of 400,000 cream puffs during its annual two-week run, but the organization set the Guinness World Record in 2011 for baking the largest one in history, weighing in at 125 pounds!
To make a cream puff, dough is baked until it’s golden brown and has a light, airy texture. Fresh Wisconsin whipping cream is sweetened with sugar and whipped until it’s almost stiff. Then, the pastry is split in half, and the sweet cream is sandwiched between the two pieces.
Flavors like chocolate and strawberry can be incorporated into the cream, and the Wisconsin State Fair sometimes sells specialty holiday flavors throughout the year. There are online recipes to guide you in making your own cream puffs, but if you can, it pays to visit the Wisconsin State Fair in West Allis in August and try the originals.
While the world still struggles to identify who invented the hamburger, nobody argues with Wisconsin’s claim of inventing the butter burger. At the 1885 fair in Seymour, Wisconsin, Charlie Nagreen sold meat patty sandwiches that had been fried in butter.
Decades later in the 1930s, Kenneth “Solly” Salmon began selling hamburgers cooked with a pat of butter, thus popularizing the butter burger and turning it into the delicacy we recognize today.
Chefs and foodies alike in America’s Dairyland tend to believe you can never have too much butter on a butter burger. Usually, butter is placed atop the patty as it grills, and then also added to the finished sandwich. It’s not uncommon to coat the buns before toasting them too. Napkins are used to measure how good a butter burger is—the more napkins you use, the better it is.
Solly’s Grille in Milwaukee has remained a family business since its creation. For a butter burger that can’t be beat, Solly’s is the place to go. And for those outside the state, Culver’s is a national fast-food chain from Wisconsin that sells butter burgers.
A trip to Wisconsin means trying foods and drinks rooted in the state’s history and inspired by the cultures of those who settled the land. Whether you’re a beer and brats person or someone with a sweet tooth, there’s a delicious dish waiting for you in the Badger State.