Cheese plates are sophisticated and crowd pleasing, and even the most culinary challenged individuals can easily succeed with a little preparation. The most important part of this endeavor is obviously the cheese itself, and if you can manage to pick out at least a couple good varieties, the rest of it comes together pretty naturally. Cheese plates are a great way to flex your culinary creativity-fruits, nuts, bread, charcuterie, and condiments like mustard and honey are all possibilities, and arranging them is half the fun (the other half is eating it!) Since the possibilities are pretty endless, I put together a compilation of cheese plates I’ve made over time, as well as my general method for choosing and arranging components. Remember, this is all about you and what you like-if it tastes good to you, you did it right.
Saucy Note: My early introduction to cheese came from a very dear family friend-I call her Mashik Anu, which is Hungarian for “other mother.” I asked her where she learned about cheese, and I thought her response was perfect to share and send you on your way with confidence.
“Each cheese plate takes on its own personality depending on the cheeses, crackers, fruit, nuts, salami, etc. Even the platter shape and color inspire me. I learn with each cheese plate, and am still learning and teaching myself. I get ideas from pretty photos and cookbooks, but I also like to create on the fly and personalize to people and the occasion!”-MA
The biggest determining factor for your cheese plate is going to be the cheese counter at your grocery store. Some stores, like mine for instance, have a beautiful cheese section, curated by a knowledgeable and friendly cheese person. Other stores might not be as bountiful, but you can still usually find some good stuff. Handmade and artisan cheese makers are also pretty easy to find these days, and the higher prices are almost always worth the quality. Boutique stores are also a great place to learn about specialty cheeses, since they will often slice you a sample and are usually happy to discuss your options if they aren’t too busy.
Saucy Note: Value the people you buy food from-Shake and I are on a first name basis with the cheese manager, our butcher, and our wine supplier. The more you get to know each other, the more they can help guide you towards things you’ll like, things you’ll want to try, and the best deals for your money. It also makes errands a lot more fun when each stop is friendly and helpful.
I usually like to serve cheese at a ratio of 2 cheeses for every 3 people, although that is variable depending on sales, cheese wedge size, and how much cheese I feel like eating (a cheese plate makes a decadent but easy weekend lunch that pairs graciously with a bottle of wine, any color. Fresh fruit juice with sparkling water is also delicious if you want a non-alcoholic option.) I usually end up serving at least 3 cheeses if there are more than 4 people though. Because I can.
When picking out cheese, I start with texture. I always buy at least one firmer cheese-aged gouda, smoked cheddar, or fresh cheese curds are a good place to start.
Saucy Note: Beecher’s Smoked Flagship cheese is our house favorite for firm cheese-the flavor is more refined than your standard mild cheese, and everybody loves it. Beecher’s is a Seattle staple, so it is pretty easy to find throughout most of the Pacific Northwest, and they have an online store that ships nationally. There is also a store in New York now. I can’t recommend their cheeses enough-No Woman is another of my personal favorites if you like something with a little more flavor, since it is seasoned with Caribbean jerk.
For my second cheese, I usually choose something soft and creamy. Varieties like Brie and Camembert are very easy to find, although the options go far beyond that if you’re adventurous. Shake and I love Délice de Bourgogne, which is creamier than Brie (like butter made of cheese) with just a hint of acidity that makes it impossible to stop eating. Another excellent choice is Fromager d’Affinois, which is milder and more similar to Brie than the Délice. The classic version is wonderful, and there is also a garlic herb version that is delicious and makes for a nice pop of color on your plate (it is quite green!)
If you are not a soft cheese person (they exist!) choose another firm or semi-firm cheese with a different flavor profile than your first choice. Cheddar and gouda are easy to find in smoked, aged, and flavored varieties, or you can try a goat or sheep’s milk cheese. Manchego is an aged Spanish sheep’s milk cheese with a distinctive, almost crunchy texture (aged gouda has a similar enchanting quality.) My favorite goat cheese is Midnight Moon, made in the Netherlands by Cypress Grove Cheese, or Drunken Goat Cheese, which is made by soaking a wheel of goat cheese in wine.
Saucy Note: Another of my favorite cheese sources is Mt. Townsend Creamery in Port Townsend, WA. Their Seastack cheese is a great semi-soft cheese, and their New Moon is a luxurious semi-firm cheese they call “Washington Jack.” They also ship nationally, so branch out and try something new-they have plenty more varieties for you to explore on their website.
Moving on to the third selection-anyone up for blue cheese? Although it is not universally popular, the right blue cheese can curry favor with most anyone. I am not personally fond of most blues because I find them overpowering (blue cheese dressing can get right out) but there are many milder options that I love. By all means go for the Stilton if you like it-otherwise I recommend trying something like Cambozola Black Label (a mild, somewhat creamy cheese with just a hint of blue) or Saint Agur Blue, which does not have as strong of a bite as traditional blue, but still retains the characteristic rich veining and nuanced flavor. If you really can’t stomach the idea of blue cheese, opt for a strongly flavored firm cheese (truffle, jalapeno, black pepper, etc.)
If you’re serving 4 or more cheeses, there really are no rules. Repeat the steps above, or take advantage of a big spread and try something unusual-at my grocery store, they have a little bin filled with pieces that cost about $5, so I like to dig through there and see if I can find anything new. Cheese soaked in wine or bourbon tends to be quite palatable to artisan-cheese newbies, and I also really like coffee rubbed cheese rinds. Large cheese plates are also a great place to compare flavors-learn the distinction between aged and smoked Gouda, or Irish cheddar versus sharp white. Taleggio is a superb Italian cheese-it is their version of Brie, but is firmer and milder with a nutty, buttery flavor. Sometimes I even serve a small block of high quality Parmesan-the sharp, crumbly bite is a nice palate cleanser between some of the creamier options. As long as you have variety, you can’t really go wrong.
Saucy Note: The one category I tend to avoid is the aptly named “stinky cheese.” I have yet to find one I like, and most of them actually smell like feet. If you have any tips or comments on how to enjoy stinky cheese, I would love to hear them.
Alright, now that I’ve completely overloaded you with wonderful cheese options (don’t worry, I’m going to put together some groupings at the end to help you along) let’s get down to the rest of the cheese plate. While there is nothing wrong with eating cheese off the cutting board with a knife, a little effort goes a long way in creating a nice presentation and well-rounded flavor assortment.
At the bare minimum, I like to serve some sort of cheese vehicle (bread rounds, crackers, apple slices) and a complementary condiment (stone-ground mustard and honey are my top picks.) If you’re feeling more ambitious than that, start adding other elements, keeping flavor and texture balance in mind. Cheese is savory, so that is the foundation of your flavor choices-build from there by adding sweet, salty, and acidic notes. Texture is also important-brittle crackers create a crumbly mess when paired with hard cheese, but the buttery texture of a triple crème will help hold the whole thing together. The soft texture of fig or pear is better coupled with a toothier cheese or crostini, whereas apple slices are usually an excellent choice with brie or other creamy cheeses. Play around to see what you like-I’m just giving you ideas, not telling you how to live your life.
Honey adds a sweet note, which lends itself nicely to salty extras like salami or prosciutto. Most jams also pair nicely with cheese; if you have a good market, you might even be able to find traditional quince paste, a thick, fragrant jelly. Quince is a fruit related to apples and pears, but it is usually cooked before consumption. Sweet condiments go with most any cheese, but honey mustard is also a nice middle ground if you only want to serve one condiment and can’t decide between sweet and sour.
The acidic hit of mustard plays nicely with fruit or sweet crackers (Effie’s Homemade Tea Biscuits sells oatcakes that are sublime.) Grapes, figs, berries, pears, and apples are all great with cheese, but make sure you buy what’s in season, unless you like dropping 15$ for 10 raspberries. I tend to like stone ground and Dijon mustards the best-the higher quality the better. Grey Poupon is a classic I can’t live without, and Maille mustard makes all my other favorites-Old Style and Honey Dijon are at the top of the list.
Marcona almonds are another worthwhile luxury-they are a Spanish almond that is a little meatier than the usual California kind, and they often come decadently toasted with olive oil and salt. They are much easier to find in stores than they used to be, and they are also easy to order online. They gleam like salty gemstones piled around your cheeseboard, and are also excellent cooked in rice if you have leftovers.
Once you have the necessary edible ingredients, you need some sort of attractive platter or cheese board. There are plenty of options for purchase in all sizes, materials, and price ranges, but I find myself using a wooden cutting board as often as an actual cheese plate (I said there was nothing wrong with it.) I’ve seen cheese boards in restaurants that were served on parchment paper wrapped around books, so get crazy. As long as you can clean it, get after it.
Some sort of small knife or other serving utensil is also necessary. A full-size knife will work, but make sure it has a place to rest-I’ve chased more than one rogue butter knife across my kitchen floor after it flipped off a too small cheese plate. There are lots of inexpensive cheese knife options if you want a set though.
Time to arrange everything!! Cheese first-however many pieces you have, space them out and place them at complementary angles. Add bread or crackers next, followed by fruit and/or charcuterie. Condiments can be spooned into small bowls or ramekins, or used to decorate the cheese plate itself-drizzle honey in spirals under fruit or use the back of a spoon to spread mustard across the plate. I use the almonds to fill in gaps at the end, since they go with everything and look pretty sprinkled about.
If you have a lot of cheese, or just don’t like to explain things to your guests, I suggest making little flags labeled with each type of cheese (tape, white paper, and toothpicks work great) and sticking them in their respective wedges.
I hope you feel equipped to tackle the cheese plate now, but if you still feel a little lost, the following are some of my favorite and most frequent combinations. Use them as guides, take them verbatim, or mix and match until you find your favorites.
Delice de Bourgogne
Beecher’s Smoked Flagship
Cambozola Black Label
Crostini Saucy Note: Crostini is a fancy word for toasted bread-thinly slice fresh or leftover baguette and toast in 300° oven or toaster oven on medium (keep an eye on it, it cooks quickly.) Brush the bread with olive oil or melted butter before toasting if you like.
Saucy Note: Charcuterie is the French word for various forms of cured meats.
Aged English Cheddar
New Moon (Mt. Townshend Creamery)
3 oz. prosciutto
2 smoked sausages, sliced Saucy Note: Our butcher sells a huge variety of handmade sausages, so we are a little spoiled. If you are not as fortunate, there are still plenty of good options at the grocery store-Aiden’s is a good precooked brand with lots of flavors, and Johnsonville makes a pretty good bratwurst if you’re willing to smoke or grill it yourself.
3 oz sliced salami
Stone Ground Mustard
Saint Agur Blue
Seastack (Mt. Townshend Creamery)
Beecher’s Cheese Curds