If you ask me, the most important aspect of throwing any cocktail or dinner party host to know is how to make a cheese plate. And not just any cheese plate, but knowing how to put one together that looks fancy, even when it’s made with affordable supermarket ingredients.
Because we don’t all happen to have Murray’s Cheese Shop in our hoods (mmm…) I’ve put together this simple primer on how to make an elegant, people-pleasing cheese platter without the help of a top cheesemonger and definitely without spending a ton of money.
1. Start with a variety of cheeses. As in, a variety.
You want to make sure that your cheese plate selection offers a variety of textures and flavors and yes, you can find that in even basic supermarkets these days. I like this cheese plate guide at BuzzFeed which gets it exactly right. You want something sharp, something nutty, something creamy, something fresh, and something funky.
Easy supermarket choices include:
- SHARP: Sharp cheddar – the sharper the better.
- NUTTY: An aged gouda – look for an orange hue that indicates longer aging; or try Jarlsberg or Gruyere instead of swiss.
- CREAMY: Brie – even cheap brie is tasty. The higher the percentage of fat on the label, the richer it will be.
- FRESH: Goat cheese, feta or fresh mozzarella – look for a bright white cheese that hasn’t aged at all.
- FUNKY: Blue cheese – a stinky, marbled variety like Roquefort or Stilton not only tastes good, it offers nice contrast. Note: Don’t get blue cheese crumbles in a tub!
I also like to throw in a wild card: a tasty cheese ball. If you like the sound of this, please don’t cheat and buy a flavored cheese. Generally speaking, flavored cheeses—especially the ones available at the supermarket—are not a good idea. But tasty homemade cheese ball recipes like these from from How Sweet It Is can be is a very, very good idea.
Bacon, blue cheese, and pistachio. Caramelized onion, Gruyere, and roasted cashews. Pineapple, toasted almond, and goat cheese. See? Very good.
2. Add carbs. The good kind.
The second most important element of any cheese plate is the bread and crackers. Just like with the cheese, you want to offer a variety, but try crackers that don’t offer too much flavor on their own; ideally you want to taste the cheese, not the “everything bagel sweet honey-raisin crackers with rosemary.” Plain water crackers are classic and available at any supermarket.
While in the cracker aisle, also look for a second cracker that provides some visual contrast: rye, pumpernickel, or something with nuts, seeds or dried fruit baked. For a milder cheese, like a chevre, try something like these whole grain crackers that Gabby of Design Mom uses on her beautiful cheese board.
Breadsticks can also be great because they add height. And, of course, there is always fresh bread. Most supermarkets sell fresh baguettes or Italian loaves. If there is no fresh bakery at your market, look for a par-baked loaf that you can finish in your home oven.
3. Include some fresh fruit, include some dried fruit.
Fruit pairs beautifully with cheese and also makes your plate look gorgeous. When putting together her perfect cheese platter, Karen at Honestly Yum uses fruit to fill the spaces. Grapes are particularly good for that, but you’ll also want to include bright, seasonal fruits, too.
Instead of regular slices of apples and pears (not that those are bad at all) look for persimmons, halved figs, split open pomegranates, or even clementines which are delicious and give a great pop of color.
If you want to get fancy, try these spectacular sugared apples from Andrea Pimental of Bakin’ Bit. She recently threw a holiday dinner party with Jordan of Oh Happy Day and added these sparkly bites to individual cheese plates. To make them, you just dip apples in beaten egg white and then superfine sugar.
Also, don’t just rely on fresh fruit. The sweet flavor of dried fruit like raisins, figs, and apricots goes beautifully with cheese. They also add texture to the plate and make a good snack that people can nosh on all night without filling up on just bread and cheese.
4. Spreads are a must.
Traditional cheese plate spreads like fig chutney and quince paste are’t always available at mainstream supermarkets, but that doesn’t mean you should skip spreads entirely. If you can find a high quality apricot or fig jam, go for it. Otherwise, take a cue from this quick and easy cheese board from Spoon Fork Bacon and add just a little bit of honey in a pretty jar with a small spoon. Honey plus a good cheese is one of the tastiest combos around.
Experiment with spreads though–maybe you prefer something more savory like a black olive spread or a red pepper spread. It’s all good.
Related: Our favorite cocktail foods to have on hand for easy entertaining
5. Crunchy things are good, too.
Crackers are crunchy, I know, but now I’m talking about nuts and, well, I felt weird about writing, “Nuts are good, too.” In bold, no less. But they are. On a fancy cheese plate, I might add candied nuts or Spanish Marcona almonds (so expensive and so so good) but, honestly, good old fashioned salted nuts are just as delicious. Just look at this lovely cheese plate from Hapa Nom Nom—a little ramekin of mixed nuts fit right in.
6. Briny, salty snacks make the crowd happy.
We’ve covered sweet, so now we need salty. Olives are a cheese plate staple and, if you love them as much as I do, put them front and center the way that Design Mom does on her elegant cheese plate shown here. (Wow, do we want to go to her place for dinner one night!) Most supermarkets have fresh olives that you can buy in bulk, or look for jarred green spanish olives or black cured olives.
Whatever you do, avoid olives in a can! If you ask me, those are only acceptable on nachos.
If you’re not a fan of olives, cornichons make a great alternative. They are small, sour gherkin pickles and even though they sound French and fancy, they are widely available in mainstream supermarkets from brands like Maille. Or stock up next time you’re in a gourmet store like BKLYN Larder–you can never have too many pantry staples like these on hand for when guests pop by unexpectedly.
7. Last, but never least: Add meat.
You don’t really have to add meat to your cheese plate, but if you do partake, it sure is nice. It rounds out a cheese plate and also makes it more like a meal in itself.
(Or am I the only one who can eat the contents of a cheese plate for dinner?)
In our round up of favorite cocktail party foods, I mentioned that I often prefer more affordable and easily accessible dry cured salamis to fancy cured meats. Look for a whole dried salami in the cheese area of your supermarket that you can cut into thick slices or, if nothing else, have the deli counter slice up the best quality sandwich salami or pepperoni. You can also go for better brands like Applegate Farms which offer options like pepperoni, salami and pancetta that are all delicious, natural, and nitrate-free.
Layer folded pieces on your board like on this lovely cheese plate at 100 Layer Cakelet, then sit back and watch your friends gobble them up just as fast as they would expensive prosciutto. Or better, gobble them up right along with your guests. You won’t be able to resist.
We’ve got more party recipes in our archives. ‘Tis the season!