I would say that 40 percent of my cheese sales go to people who are looking to build a cheese plate for an event—whether it be a romantic evening for two, movie night for five, or a baby shower with dozens of guests. At this time of year, the cheese plate-building intensifies, as the holiday season demands parties and appetizers galore.
There is always the option of asking your local cheese shop to build a platter for you. Many places will build a totally custom platter based on whatever specifications you require. Other places, like my shop, will have pre-set platters from which you can choose; there may be a little wiggle room on which specific items you can include (or not), but the size and number of offerings cannot be changed.
Creating your own cheese plate can be a fun and rewarding experience—unlike much of party planning, which is usually stressful. It is absolutely work, but it is creative work. And anyone can do it!
To help you do the work of building your cheese plate at home, I’ve created a brief guide for picking, preparing, and plating your ingredients. After all, the next question many of my customers ask after we’re done choosing cheeses is, “how do I cut this?”
I’ll also include a list of helpful online resources at the end, should you decide to do further research and really up your cheese plate game.
Regardless of how detailed you get, your guests will be impressed when you set down your platter and say, “I made this myself.”
- Pick the cheeses
I’ve written several posts about how to pick cheese at a cheese counter, and that advice holds up for this endeavor (see exhibit A, B, C, and D). In short, you’ll need to decide how many cheeses you will choose, which varieties, and how much of each. Cheesemongers are excellent at helping make these decisions if you aren’t sure.
There are a few methods for picking cheese and ensuring the necessary diversity on your plate: go with a brie, a hard cheese, and a blue; or a goat, a sheep, and a cow’s milk cheese; or a soft, fresh cheese, a semi-firm cheese, and a hard cheese. There are endless combinations, and you can add on as many cheeses as you need to feed the army of your guests. You just need to make sure that you aren’t choosing three cheeses that are very similar, or five cheeses that are all the same intensity of flavor.
Start with three options and build up by twos from there. For example, a soft, fresh cheese, a brie, a firm cheese, a washed-rind cheese, and a blue cheese would give you five options that offer different textures and flavors.
Depending on how many people you are feeding, you can either get more varieties of smaller cheeses or fewer cheeses in larger sizes. You’ll want to keep in mind whether or not there will be other food and how many accoutrements you’re pairing as you decide on the amounts; while leftovers are not necessarily a bad thing, you may not want to go batshit crazy and then not be able to eat everything before your refrigerator does.
Feeding five folks? Go for a trio of quarter-pound wedges. Ten to fifteen guests? Figure on five to seven quarter-pound wedges, or three half-pound wedges. Twenty-five or more attendees? Look for five to seven half-pounders if the cheese board is the main event; otherwise, go closer to one-third of a pound per cheese. Always check with your cheesemonger for a second opinion.
- Pair with accoutrements
I help a lot of customers make these decisions, and I can guarantee that your cheesemonger does, too. We don’t just know what cheeses you should pick; we can also help you make decisions on which bread, cracker, jam, honey, fruit, or variety of olives to accompany your cheeses. So, as always, do not be afraid to ask a cheesemonger for advice!
Most crackers, breads, and cured meats will go just fine with 98 percent of all cheeses you select.
That said, don’t get too carried away with strong flavors. Cheeses with fruit in them may not pair as well with overly herbaceous crackers, but crisps with fruit and nuts in them will go well with pretty much any cheese. The best crackers are going to be thin and crisp, with light seasoning—think La Panzanella, 34 Degrees, or Rustic Bakery crackers. Rain Coast Crisps are also a great option.
If you’re going the bread route, pick a good-quality baguette or loaf from a local baker, if your town has one. Just be sure to skip the pre-sliced sandwich bread.
On the meaty end, I recommend choosing for diversity just as you did with your cheese selection. Go for a salami, a ham such as Prosciutto or Jamón, and a different kind of cured meat if possible—Bresaola, Coppa, Lomo, or Mortadella. If your only options are hams and salamis, pick ones with different flavors and textures, like one Prosciutto and two different salamis, or one salami, Jamón Serrano, and Speck (smoked) or Prosciutto di Parma.
From here, you can add in olives (either a pre-mixed selection or a couple of types that look different and will add color to the plate—e.g., Castelvetranos, Kalamatas, Peppadew Peppers, and a stuffed olive), nuts (Marcona or Valencia, or almonds, hazelnuts, or walnuts), honey or honeycomb, and maybe a jam, jelly, or other preserved fruit. You don’t want to have too many options, but you do want to allow your guests to experiment with flavors and textures.
- Prepare the tools and ingredients
If you have a dedicated cheese platter, then great. If not, opt for a large plate or cutting board that’s big enough for your cheeses and accoutrements to fit comfortably. Remember that people will be cutting, stabbing, picking, or dipping into all those things in the same space.
Depending on how many cheeses I’m putting out, I’ll either put them on my Brooklyn Slate cheese board, on my large bamboo cutting board, or on a cheese round taken from the shop. (You can ask your cheesemonger if he or she has any extra brie rounds; we save these large boxes that wheels of brie come in for platters, because we would just be throwing them out otherwise.)
Once you have your plate, assess how many tools you will need. In an ideal world, you’d have one fork, pick or knife per cheese, as well as one fork, pick, spoon, or tongs per accoutrement.
Not everyone has a zillion cheese knives hanging around their kitchen, so you can opt for one utensil for your soft, fresh cheese, one for your soft-ripened cheese(s), one for your harder cheeses, and one for your blue. (Good luck getting your guests to comply, I know.) Then you just need one tool for each preserve, one for your olives and one for your meats. The more stuff you have on your board, the more complicated things get.
Next it’s time to get your cheeses all gussied up. This is the part where most people feel least prepared. Since much of the cheese we buy is pre-cut, the act of cutting cheese seems nebulous at best when suddenly you are tasked with breaking down a triangular wedge for a crowd of twenty.
You don’t have to pre-cut the cheeses. You can leave the wedges whole and allow your guests to decide how big or a small of a slab of each cheese they want.
You can pre-cut some wedges but not all, or you can go to town and pre-cut everything. If you are cutting more than one cheese, I encourage you to go for different shapes. Cut one cheese into cubes, one into triangular slices, one into long rectangles, and so forth. You can use an almond-shaped knife to create chunks of your hardest cheese (the technique is literally called “chunking”).
- Place the cheeses
Think of this step as the foundation of your platter. After all, the cheese is the most important part, and without it, the other items are just stuff on a plate.
You will want to separate each type of cheese into its own discrete pile or area of the cheese board so that people can tell which cheese is which. If you can, alternate them by texture or for color—or circle them around the board in order of how they should be tasted (from mildest to strongest). If you are leaving some whole wedges and cutting only some of the cheeses, you can alternate wedges and pieces.
5. Plate the accoutrements
This is where your plate will really start to look like a cheese platter.
If you have specific pairings in mind, then fill in the spaces between cheeses with the things with which you’d like your loved ones to try them. For example, a tiny bowl of honey next to a wedge of blue cheese, pear wedges next to a cheddar, rosettes of salami slices next to a washed-rind, and a cupcake mold filled with cherry preserves next to a brie.
You can leave small mandarin oranges whole, if you’re placing them on your board, but you’ll want to pre-slice fruits like pears, apples, and persimmons. Be aware that apples and pears are prone to oxidize and turn brown after they’ve been cut. In the shop, we score the fruit into slices but leave it whole so that air isn’t touching the inside and guests can just pick the wedges out with no trouble when they are ready to eat.
From there, fill in any extra space with nuts, olives, and dried fruit. I like to keep my bread and crackers on a separate board (also nicely arranged), but you can absolutely fill them in on your cheese platter if there’s room and your heart so desires.
Finally, you can garnish the platter with fresh herbs, edible flowers, or even pine-branch cuttings for a festive finish.
I also use scrapbooking paper or large-leaf greens to create backgrounds for the board, and I make tags for each cheese using toothpicks and colorful paper.
- Share the love
After you’ve got everything set, all you really need to worry about is getting the platter safely to its destination. If that’s just your kitchen table, you’re done. But if you’re driving, busing, or walking anywhere with your precious cheese plate, I would recommend stabilizing it as best you can before you run out the door.
I usually take cheese plates to parties on large brie rounds from the shop. They are kind of flimsy, but they are always just big enough. Once I get the platter set, I’ll either cover the top with saran wrap or aluminum foil, and then I’ll gingerly place it into a cardboard box that is just big enough for the platter, perhaps with a baguette or some towels on the sides to keep it from sliding around. I wrap all the tools in a kitchen towel and use that bundle as padding, as well. Then all I have to worry about is keeping the box even and not dropping it anywhere.
If you have a lot of other things to take, you can try nesting boxes inside of each other, with heavier things on the bottom layers and lighter things on top. Or, if you’re driving, you can just lay everything out in the back of your car and hope that you don’t have to slam on the breaks. I drive like an old granny when I’ve got cheese babies in the back seat, and you should, too.
Once you and your plate have arrived at your destination, find out where the host wants the star attraction (because it’s going to be the cheese, duh) and set up: unveil the platter, place your tools, put out any bread or crackers that aren’t already plated, and let the feasting begin.
Hungry for more? Check out these helpful sites for further information.