I love putting together a good cheese board. Like a flower arrangement or assembling a scrapbook of Joshua Jackson’s best poses, there’s an art to it. I put together a cheese board any time a party I’m hosting exceeds ten people, because they’re a perfect way to give guests an opportunity to graze and socialize while you’re prepping other food, pouring drinks and taking coats. Plus, who doesn’t love cheese?
It’s not hard to put together a party-perfect cheese board, as long as you follow a simple formula that I’ve created below. I actually stock many of these items in my pantry so that I can pull a cheese board together on a moment’s notice.
Tip 1: Start with the Cheese: 1 (Hard) + 1 (Soft) + 1 (Blue/Quirky)
Of course, the cheese board should be really, at the end of the day, be all about the cheese. If you can, skip the grocery store and head for a specialty cheese market (although for large quantities of decent cheeses, Costco is my go-to). My formula is always to buy one hard cheese (like a Spanish manchego, an aged Parmesan or really sharp cheddar), one soft cheese (a triple-cream like this one is a crowd pleaser, but so is a nice goat cheese), and one blue cheese or other cheese with a funky flavor profile (like this cheese that’s bathed in Balsamic vinegar or this ash-covered truffled cheese).
As for quantity, I generally try to calculate about 4 ounces of cheese total (not per type of cheese) per guest if I’m making a lighter meal (like brunch) or 2-3 ounces if the cheese board is just part of a much larger meal (like a pig roast).
If you’re looking for specific recommendations, here’s a list of my favorites:
Beecher’s Handmade Cheeses Flagship Cheddar (Seattle, Washington USA)
Beemster Classic (aged 18 months) (Netherlands)
Port Salut (France)
Pure Luck Dairy Chevre (Dripping Springs, Texas USA)
Delice de Bourgogne (France)
Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam (Petaluma, California USA)
Gorgonzola Dolce (Italy)
Castello Creamy Blue (Denmark)
Humboldt Fog (Arcata, California, USA)
Marin French Truffle Brie (California, USA)
Sartori Balsamic Cheese (USA)
Tip 2: Add Carbs (at least two kinds)
It’s important that the cheese have a vehicle in order to travel to your mouth. Baguettes are an easy addition to any cheese board; they’re affordable and don’t get in the way of the flavors of the cheeses you’re serving. Just make sure you’re buying them the same day you plan on using them. Since baguettes don’t contain fat like other breads, they become stale very quickly, and no one likes a sad, stale baguette.
As for crackers, I always make sure I have at least two boxes in my pantry. Giving your guests the option of crackers is like saying, “Hey, I like you enough that I want you to eat ALL of the carbs.” It’s just nice to have more than bread, especially for guests who might not want to fill up on your cheese board. Right now I’m addicted to Misura whole-wheat crackers — they’re thick and substantial and savory enough to be eaten on their own. I’m not sure that they’re widely available, though, so I’d recommend having a variety of Carr’s crackers on hand.
Tip 3: Garnish, Garnish,Garnish: Add Nuts, Seeds and Fruits
Cheeses are rich business, so you need other snacks to balance out the decadent flavors on your cheese board. I usually do this with nuts, seeds and/or fruits. The garnishes are the easiest to keep on hand in your pantry, and can be really anything. I’ve garnished my cheese boards with almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin seeds, dried cranberries, apricots and raisins. I also try to have a sweet, fruity compote or honey as well. Hard cheeses, especially really salty, nutty ones, do great with a little honey or sour cherry compote drizzled on top. For fresh fruit options, try grapes or thin slices of apples or pears.
Tip 4: Make it an Occasion with Nice Tableware
A few years ago I invested in a good set of appetizer plates (right now, these round ones from Crate and Barrel are my favorites, but I also love these, these and these). Even if you can’t afford a full set of nice dishes, at least having a few nice appetizer plates makes any dinner party feel fancier).
Small appetizer forks and cloth napkins are also a nice touch, and I also keep a few of these tiny bodega glasses on hand for tasting wines. The bodega glasses are also great if you have a lot of guests and not enough table space. To avoid spending more time refilling glasses, invest in a couple of good pitchers and keep them on the table for guests to top up on their own.
I also have two fabric bread baskets for keeping sliced baguettes and crackers readily available. I love the fabric ones because they fold for easy storage and are easy to throw in the laundry.
Tip 5: Meat Up
Cured meats aren’t a must for the perfect cheese board, but they can’t hurt, either. For holidays, I keep a cheese board out while we’re prepping other dishes, and it’s on these occasions that having a cured meat plate helps ward off hangry family members from peering into the oven before it’s time. These days, places like Trader Joe’s and Costco stock cured meat variety packs that make it incredibly easy — just peel back the packaging, arrange the slices on a nice plate, and you’re good to go.
If you’re looking for something a little more customized, I try to include a spicy cured meat, a fatty, luxurious one (like prosciutto) and a pate (which can be homemade, like my chicken liver mousse here).
Okay, so writing about all of these cheeses and meats is now making me rethink dinner tonight. Maybe we need to just have a cheese and meat night. With wine, too. Mmm…