How to Arrange a Cheese Platter
All you need is to follow the cheesemonger's rule: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue.
A cheese board usually means a party, or at least a gathering. But in 2020, when groups of more than a few people are discouraged or expressly outlawed thanks to the ongoing pandemic, a cheese board is a cozier thing. It can be just for one as a snack-y dinner, or for a small household group. Even in these strange and difficult times, arranging a cheese platter or cheese board is an evergreen skill. We reached out to Lauren Toth, the Training and Curriculum Manager at Murray’s Cheeses, for tips on how to arrange a cheese board.
First, Pick Out Your Cheeses
If you’re making a cheese board, the star of the show is going to be the cheeses. The selection is the key to the whole board, but don’t let it intimidate you. “The rule of thumb is you want to stick to an odd number,” Toth explained. Depending on how many people are eating cheese, three or five is a good number. There’s nothing set and fasst about it—if you want to do two or four, that’s fine—but the cheese wisdom is an odd number.
Within those parameters you want to have a little bit of variety in both texture and taste. “There’s an old saying among cheesemongers: something old, something new, something stinky, and something blue.” You don’t have to include all that if it’s not to your liking, but it’s a nice, easy format for representing what could be on a plate—an aged cheese, a newer cheese, and a more adventurous one would make an excellent board. Toth likes to alternate what kinds of milk the cheeses are from, so she’ll have, say, a sheep's milk cheese, a cow’s milk cheese, and a goat’s milk cheese on the same board. Or, she suggests, you can choose by country or region. Maybe one board will be all Wisconsin cheeses, and another is all from Vermont, Spain, or Greece. And above all, if you’re actually shopping for cheese in person, ask a cheesemonger. “Cheese people are very excited to share their knowledge with you, and to make recommendations based on your taste,” Toth said.
Just One Cheese Is Still a Cheese Platter
These days, the crowd of people around a cheeseboard is probably just folks you already live with, or just yourself. That’s OK! Toth also recommends making a cheese board built around just one truly excellent cheese. Her personal favorite is Rush Creek Reserve, a grassy, gooey, seasonal cheese that comes wrapped in bark. A few other good candidates might be the Jasper Hill Harbison, or Murray’s Own Cavemaster Reserve Greensward. But if you already know you love a super-sharp cheddar, you can just try a new sharp cheddar, or an old standby like a block of 24-month-old Parmigiano Reggiano. A lovely blob of burrata? A little wheel of brie? Why not! There’s no wrong answer.
Select Some Accompaniments
Cheese and crackers is a classic combination, but you don’t have to stop there. Milder cheeses can also pair well with shortbread cookies or oat cakes. “Sweet items sometimes can surprise people on a cheese board and give people permission to go outside the box,” Toth said. As with the cheeses, Toth encourages using a variety of crackers and cracker-adjacent foods for the board. “I might do a more plain, basic straightforward one, and then throw in a more rustic cracker like Lesley Stowe’s Raincoast Crisps. Those are really great for visually building out the cheese board, they have great texture to them.”
Pickles, Jams, Olives, Honey, and Nuts
In addition to the crackers, you can fill in some of the gaps in a cheese board with smaller tasty morsels that pair well with your cheese. Pickles and olives are great candidates, since the acidity and saltiness can cut through the richness of the cheeses. Toth is a particular fan of cornichons, or small pickles, since they fit well onto a board, are easy to pick up, and keep well for a long time in the fridge. But you don’t have to stop with traditional pickles. “You can get really creative with pickles. We have a few interesting pickles at Murray’s like pickled carrots and pickled brussels sprouts. It’s unexpected and interesting to bring another pickled fruit or vegetable to the board.” Marcona almonds are another classic addition, as well as dried fruit, like Blenheim apricots, which not only give a nice textural and flavor contrast to the cheeses, they also add a pop of bright orange to the board.
Jam or honey is another nice touch. If you don’t know where to start, go with fig jam. It’s a classic for a reason. Honey is also a near-universal cheese accompaniment, and for a little extra pizazz, you can add a whole honeycomb to the board. “It’s a conversation piece,” Toth said.
Think About Real Estate
Now that you have your cheeses and other board accompaniments, you want to think about which items take up the most room. If you have a cheese board, grab that. If not, a wooden cutting board will do just fine. Put the biggest things down on the board first. Those are usually the cheeses and perhaps charcuterie if you’re using it, and the crackers or bread. At this point, Toth advises thinking about how people are going to eat the cheese. Pre-portioning cheese into chunks or wedges is a good way to prevent what Toth describes as “acts of cheese abuse,” like one guest hollowing out the center of a wheel of brie, or another hacking a wedge into an unattractive or inexplicable shape. If you care about those aesthetics, the portions are the way to go.
Fill In the Gaps
Once your cheese and crackers are down on the board, fill in the gaps with whatever else you have. Nuts, olives, and dabs of preserves can occupy territory in between the cheeses. Just add them in any order that pleases your eye and allows for access to all the things on the board.
For Social Distancing, Make Several Small Boards
In this era, one big opulent cheeseboard might not be the best thing for guests hoping to socially distance. No worries: make several small boards using the same principles as you would a big one, and station them around the room (or backyard or porch or rooftop) for guests to eat without having to clump up to pick up some slices of Manchego. It’s been a weird year, but we can still eat cheese about it.