It's time to embrace the cheesy side of life. And there’s no better way to do so than to get down with a classic cheese board, complete with all the best fixings.
Here are our favorite pointers on assembling a classic cheese plate, including how to pick the best specimens, which cheeses should make the cut, and what tricks to keep in mind when assembling (and eating) your plate.
Visit Your Local Cheesemonger
Start by visiting a reputable cheesemonger. Best is a cheese shop where whole wheels are cut to order, rather than one that sells pre-cut wedges. Second best is a shop or cheese counter that seems to have steady customers and a fairly regular turnover of cheeses so you know the wedges haven't been sitting wrapped in plastic for an unknown period of time. (Plastic can actually make cheese taste like plastic!)
What Kind of Cheese Should I Buy?
Once you’ve picked a great cheese retailer, choose your cheeses. A classic cheese plate will have representation from all of the major milk types (cow, sheep, and goat) and will showcase a range of cheese styles, such as:
- Fresh & young: Think fresh or lightly aged goat cheese, farmer's cheese, and ricotta.
- Bloomy rinded: Mushroomy and earthy, typically soft and creamy, with a fluffy white rind.
- Washed rind: Soft to semi-soft in texture, and stinky in the best possible way.
- Semi-firm: Creamy, smooth texture, and rich flavor.
- Firm & aged: Hard texture – can be crumbly – and lingering nutty umami flavor.
- Blue: Creamy texture, with a pungent aroma and a sharp, salty bite.
Pick anywhere from four to six cheeses, and be sure to hit a range of styles.
The best way to ensure quality is to speak with a trusted cheesemonger and to ask the right questions.
- What’s tasting good right now? (Cheese is a living, breathing food product, so what may have been amazing one week might be past its prime the next.)
- What’s new and interesting that’s making an impression these days?
- Can I taste? (This may be the most important question of all!)
If you don’t have the luxury of speaking to a cheesemonger, choose cheeses that look freshly wrapped. There should be no pooling of any liquid in the plastic wrap, and no graying whatsoever under the rinds of any cheeses. If a bloomy rinded cheese smells ammoniated, or if a washed-rind or blue cheese has a smell so sharp that it burns your nose, the cheese may be beyond its peak. Firm cheeses shouldn’t look dry or cracked, and fresh cheeses should be white as snow.
How Much Cheese You Should Buy per Person
If you’re serving a lot of other food, you should plan on about four ounces of cheese per person, and since most places won't sell less than four ounces of cheese, you'll likely be relegated to buying at least that quantity. In general, it never hurts to round up.
With fewer people, it's sometimes nice to have a smaller number of cheeses, say three or four, and to have larger hunks of them. For a party with six people, you could get eight ounces of three different types of cheese and probably be fine. If you're a party of two, you could choose a quarter-pound of four cheeses and have plenty for the tasting.
Storing Your Cheese Until the Party
Once you get home, unwrap any wedges that are wrapped in plastic and re-wrap them in cheese paper or parchment paper. Finish by wrapping them in a layer of plastic wrap to prevent them from drying out. The paper prevents the cheese from picking up the plastic aroma, and gives the cheese a bit of breathing room in between the layer of paper and plastic.
Setting Up Your Cheese Board
When ready to serve, pull your cheeses out of the refrigerator one-and-a-half to two hours before serving. Cheeses taste best at room temperature! Keep them wrapped so they don’t dry out.
Choose a cheese board that’s large enough to hold all of your cheeses, or divide your selections between a few smaller boards. Make sure there's enough elbow room to slice the cheeses and give them some breathing room. Set out one knife per cheese, so as not to cross-pollinate flavors.
As far as other nibbles to pair with your cheeses, there really is no limit. Nuts, dried fruit, grapes, honeys, and jams are classic choices, along with simple crackers, fruit breads, olives, and plain baguette. If you want to branch out a bit, try some chutneys and mostardas, a pressed fig cake, candied nuts, or even chocolate. In the same way that a slice of great cheese will elevate a burger, certain accompaniments will help elevate your experience of the cheese. It’s all about pairing great flavors together to increase your enjoyment of each single element. Pile these pairings onto the board in an artful way. Get creative with it!
But most of all, enjoy! Crack a great bottle of wine or purchase a special beer. So go on — dig in, settle down, and embrace your cheesiness.
Buy your cheeses: Aim for a mix of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses, as well as a mix of fresh/young, bloomy rinded, washed rind, semi-firm, firm/aged, and blue cheeses. Buy enough so that you end up with around 4 ounces of cheese per person at your party.
How To Assemble a Classic Cheese Board
What You Need
4 to 6 different kinds of cheese, 4 ounces per person
Sliced bread and crackers
Fresh or dried fruit (we used dried figs, fresh pears, and green grapes)
Toasted nuts (we used walnuts and marcona almonds)
Condiments like honey, jam, mostarda, or chutney
Cheese paper or parchment paper
A cheese board (we prefer wood, but marble and slate are also fine)
Labels for each cheese you're serving
Cheese knives for each individual cheese
1. Buy your cheeses: Aim for a mix of cow, sheep, and goat cheeses, as well as a mix of fresh/young, bloomy-rinded, washed-rind, semi-firm, firm/aged, and blue cheeses. Buy enough so that you end up with around 4 ounces of cheese per person at your party.
2. Store your cheeses at home: Unwrap any cheese wrapped in plastic and re-wrap in a layer of cheese paper (or parchment) and then another layer of plastic. Store all cheeses in the fridge until the party.
3. Let the cheeses warm before the party: Take your cheeses out of the fridge 1 1/2 to 2 hours before the party. Leave them in their wrappings so they don't dry out.
4. Arrange the cheese on cheese board: Close to the start of your party, arrange the cheeses so they each have a bit of room for slicing and scooping, and so there's room to pile some of the cheese board accompaniments all around. Use two or more boards if there's not enough room at one.
5. Pile the accompaniments around the cheeses: Arrange the bread slices or crackers, fruits, nuts, and little ramekins of condiments around the cheeses.
6. Add name tags and a knife for each cheese: Set a pile of napkins or cocktail plates nearby so guests can help themselves.
(Image credits: Lauren Volo; Alexis Buryk)