Fine-dining veteran John Winterman wants you to level up your party presentation while staying under budget.

By John Winterman
Updated December 23, 2019
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For a simple product that has been sustaining folks for almost 7,000 years, cheese has an undeserved reputation of being complicated, fussy, and expensive. It needn’t be any of these things. Any host can put together an over-the-top cheese board with grocery store items, paired with a little thought and creativity—all while not depleting their already-taxed holiday finances. I like to have fun when choosing cheese by thinking more about shapes, colors, and textures, and less about price. The anticipated wow factor comes from a few unexpected elements.

Sarah Crowder

Finding condiments that pair well with certain types of cheeses, or complementary foods that taste better when eaten with cheese, doesn't have to be difficult. Cheese is often accompanied by a variety of foods to enhance its flavor and, let’s face it, gives us an excuse to eat more cheese. Here are assembly ideas and a short guide to finding foods that pair well with cheese based on what you have stocked in your own pantry with a few tips on how to fancify your presentation.

Set up your board

Preparing your cheese board for presentation takes a bit of planning, whether it’s a simple starter or a full party spread. I organize all my cheese and condiments on the counter to stay focused. Chopping, shaping, and slicing come first along with subdividing ingredients. A generously-sized cutting board or chopping block is all you need for your presentation; tiers and trays are nice but unnecessary, and the wooden cutting board adds an element of rusticity.

Larger pieces and quantities are placed first and then fill in the gaps: almonds here, apricots there, a row of cornichon or cocktail onions leading to the next item and so on. There should be an appearance of effortlessness, as though the condiments fell from the sky and landed on your board. I shy away from specific pairing recommendations and instead grab a cocktail and have fun with my guests while trying various flavor combinations.

Sarah Crowder

Take a hit of acid

Balsamic vinegar pairs well with hard aged cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, or aged goudas. Drizzle balsamic vinegar over cheese for a nice hit of sweet acidity. I like to dress arugula with balsamic vinegar and olive oil which adds a peppery layer to accompany cheese.

It's a labor of loaf

I like a crusty baguette, but any sourdough or slice of rye will pair well with cheese as long as the flavor of the bread does not overwhelm the cheese. Crusty breads can be partially sliced, “one, two, and through,” to give your guests a generous portion they can tear themselves. Rye breads are classic with cheddars or gouda. Pumpernickel pairs well with Jarlsberg. There are nearly unlimited pairing options for bread and cheese, so have fun with experimenting; there is no “right” answer.

Sarah Crowder

Get cracker-ing

Crackers are the most traditional pairing for cheese, great for snacks, one-bite appetizers, and large cheese platters. This is when I face the cheese plates of Christmas Past and put out Sociables, Carr’s Water Crackers, and—wait for it—Doritos (original flavor only). Carr’s were what I aspired to eat when I was a broke college student. These snacks from my youth have an umami value that I have not found replicated since. Simply layer slices of cheese on top of the cracker with a little mustard or cornichon, or stack different crackers and chips and turn your guests loose.

Gather your must-adds

Store-bought packages of salami or prosciutto or pepperoni only need be opened and served. Fan salami out like a deck of cards. Try pairing chorizo with Manchego cheese, and drape and fold prosciutto with wedges of Parmigiano-Reggiano and a bowl of red grapes.

Mustards are popular accompaniments for cheese. Horseradish, honey and fruit are just some flavors added to mustards which add a delicious complexity to cheese. English mustard provides the perfect amount of spice to strong cheddars, while French mustard pairs well with more delicate cheeses.

Sarah Crowder

Get a little nutty

This is the time to clean out the back of your cupboard for those dried apricots, raisins, and cans of party nuts. Dried fruit and nuts are classic cheese board accompaniments. The sweetness of fruit offers a balance to the saltiness of many cheeses. Specifically, soft cheeses such as Brie pair well with dried apricots, which I slice into batons to create visual interest on the cheese board. Almonds enhance the flavor of Asiago cheese, while walnuts pair well with soft cheeses. Experiment with different fruits and nuts to find your favorite flavor combinations.

Oh honey

Honey comes in many varieties and have the flavors of lavender, wildflowers, truffles, and even chilies, which is all well and good but I find your basic bear-shaped squeeze bottle works just as well, if not better. Honey lends sweetness to the natural saltiness of both mild and pungent cheeses. Strong blue cheeses like roquefort, gorgonzola, and stilton as well as soft goat cheeses are enriched by a generous drizzle of honey.

Sarah Crowder

Get ready for this

Jams and jellies range from everyday fruits such as grape, strawberry, or apricot to lesser seen varieties such as blackberry or currant. Fig preserves pair well with stronger cheeses such as blue cheese while raspberry preserves offer the perfect sweet and tart balance to fresh cheeses. Citrus marmalades are great when matched with pungent washed rind cheeses such as port salut. Take two small spoons and fashion your preserves into a simple quenelle and people will take notice.

Get in a pickle—or two

Olives add a nice mix of acidity and saltiness to cheese. Mild and meaty olives, pair well with dry aged cheeses, while spicy olives pair well with fresh young cheeses such as mozzarella, ricotta or goat cheese. It takes time but slicing olives through is another visual effect that is the difference between a smart presentation and just dropping something into a bowl.

I use cornichons or pickles almost as cheese board “roadblock” separating cheese of differing styles. Cornichons invariably end up on every cheese board I make simply for their versatility and puckery pleasure.

Herbs add a nice savory note, especially if you serve the cheese after a main course. Arugula is a spicy foil to fresh goat milk cheeses, celery (and celery leaves) commingle nicely with blue cheese, and parsley (drizzled with olive oil) adds dimension to soft-ripened cheese like brie and camembert.