Appetizers & Snacks

Cheese Plate Perfection

Build the perfect holiday cheese platter with a lush, curated combination of cheese, meats, condiments, and more.

Forget the chips, the dips, the hummus, and crudités. We know what we’re all really looking for on a holiday appetizer table—the cheese board! But too many beautiful boards fail spectacularly: inferior cheese selections, browned apple slices, wilted celery, and soggy crackers can turn a holiday spread into a haphazard mess. For your next soirée, elevate your appetizer table with an epic cheese presentation. Here’s everything you need to know.

Cheese

Here’s where you get to splurge: If your cheese board is built around grocery-store cheddar and Swiss, you’ll lose all the dramatic appeal. Shop gourmet cheese shops or specialty health food stores, and look for organic and/or grass-fed varieties. The key is to start with a variety of flavors, colors, and textures—creamy, crumbly, crunchy—within all the main ingredients.

There’s no magic number of cheeses to include, but at least three and no more than five is a sensible guideline. Some of the main players:

  • A mild, soft cheese, like a creamy Brie or goat cheese;
  • A sharp and/or hard cheese, like Asiago, Pecorino, or Grana Padano;
  • A smooth, semi-soft cheese like Havarti or Manchego;
  • A veined option, like Danish Blue or Saga;
  • Sweet cheeses or those studded with herbs, fruit, or spices;
  • And for vegan guests, a nut-based cheese alternative.

Quality cheese selections: Castello (Havarti Creamy, Double Crème Blue, Reserve Gouda); Cowgirl Creamery (Mt Tam, Chimney Rock, Wagon Wheel); Mitica (Manchego, Drunken Goat Cheese); Treeline (vegan Herb Garlic Soft French-Style, vegan Chipotle-Serrano Pepper Soft French-Style); and Miyoko’s Creamery (Vegan Roadhouse, Rustic Alpine).

Meat

Photo: Adobe Stock

Many artful cheese boards skip the meat; it’s potentially superfluous, detracts from the main event, and may be off-putting to vegetarians. If you go the cheese-and-charcuterie route:

  • Choose two quality options with varied levels of saltiness or smokiness—like prosciutto, soppressata bresaola, or spicy chorizo;
  • Keep the meats separate from cheese and other selections for vegetarian guests; Look for organic meats, or those free from chemical nitrites, nitrates, or antibiotics.
  • Quality meat selections: Gusto Small-Batch Artisanal Meats (Salami Soppressata; Applegate Natural & Organic Meats (Prosciutto), Citterio (Prosciutto Di Parma); and Niman Ranch (Uncured Summer Sausage).

Fruits and Vegetables

In general, less is more: Remember, this is a cheese board, not a crudité platter. No need to include a dip for vegetables; a condiment (see p. 39) such as spicy mustard, tapenade, or jam can double as a dip or spread. Skip ho-hum vegetables like celery and carrots, and go for more intriguing selections with vibrant colors:

  • Thinly sliced rainbow radishes;
  • Raw asparagus;
  • Mini bell peppers;
  • Sugar snap peas;
  • Purple cauliflower.

For fruits:

  • Avoid apples and pears—they brown almost immediately.
  • Use more interesting options like blackberries, kiwi fruit, or cherries.
  • Stay away from anything that will end up wilted or mushy before the night is over.

Related: How to Make Vegan Cheese

Bread and Crackers

Focus on various textures and shapes:

  • Multi-grain crackers;
  • Thinly sliced baguette;
  • Breadsticks;
  • Small pieces of rustic bread;
  • Grain-free choices like Parmesan crisps or quinoa crackers for gluten-free or Paleo guests;
  • Kale or vegetable chips for colorful, healthier selections.

Quality bread and cracker selections: Crunchmaster Multi-Seed Gluten-free Rosemary & Olive Oil crackers; Hu Kitchen Grain-Free Sea Salt Crackers, Forager Super Greens Leafy Greens Chips.

Extras

Focus on flavor contrast and visual appeal:

  • Olives are a must-have; include a variety of Castelvetrano, Kalamata, dry-cured black olives, and/or green olives stuffed with garlic or jalapeno. Pitted olives are more convenient for guests; or, set a small ramekin nearby on the table for pits.
  • Pickled vegetables—cornichons, green beans, or peppadews—add color and interest.
  • If you’re sure you don’t have guests with allergies, nuts—Marcona almonds, glazed walnuts, or toasted hazelnuts—add extra flavor and crunch.
  • Quality selections: Divina Castelvetrano Pitted Olives, Organic Roasted Red Peppers, Grilled Green Olives, Pitted Kalamata olives; Mitica Marcona Almonds, Caramelized Pecans; and Marky’s Organic Cornichons.
Photo: Adobe Stock

Condiments

Think of these as artful highlights for your cheese and bread choices:

  • Choose distinctly flavored options, and include both sweet and savory—tapenade, spicy mustard, fig spread, caramelized onion jam, Major Grey’s chutney, and/or sweet relish.
  • Include small dishes of a rich balsamic or flavored olive oil for dipping bread.

Quality condiment selections:

Divina Calabrian Peppers, Caramelized Onion Jam, and Fig Spread; Kosterina

Garlic Olive Oil and Fig Balsamic Vinegar; and Organicville Stone Ground organic mustard.

The Board

Or platter or slab—whatever you use, a beautiful cheese presentation needs an artful foundation. Here’s where bigger is better. You’ll want something with ample room to arrange a variety of offerings without looking cramped or cluttered.

Pick one that fits the tone of your gathering:

  • A board with a natural shape offers
  • a more casual, rustic feel.
  • A slab of marble adds a sleek, elegant look.
  • Black slate provides a dramatic contrast (plus you can use chalk to label cheese).

Quality board selection: FabSlabs makes a variety of cutting boards and grazing platters, made of environmentally friendly camphor laurel from Australia; the wood itself has naturally antibacterial properties, and resists the four most common food viruses—E. coli, salmonella, staph, and listeria.

Photo: Adobe Stock

Create the World’s Most Beautiful Cheese Board

Before you start assembling, have a plan. Arrange the ingredients on the counter and decide on a general design.

Option 1: Pair sweeter cheeses on one side of the plate, along with fruits, glazed nuts, and jams, and savory cheese, meats, olives, and vegetables on the other side.

Option 2: Divide your board into quarters, and make separate mini arrangements of cheese, fruit, vegetables, bread, and add-ons within each quadrant.

Option 3: Arrange your board so no two colors are adjacent. If you plan in advance, you can create a color palette—for example, choose green grapes, endive spears, kiwi fruit, sugar snap peas, and green olive tapenade for a vivid presentation.

How to Assemble Your Board

Step 1: Start with the cheese (serve at room temperature to enhance flavor and aroma), and arrange selections at equal distance from each other. Serve soft cheese in a ramekin with a small knife for spreading. Round cheeses, like mini wheels of Brie, can be served as is. Firm or hard-to-slice cheeses like blue cheese wedges can be left whole, for visual impact and easier serving—be sure to include a separate knife for each cheese.

Step 2: Slice at least some of the cheese before serving, to make it easier for guests and preserve your presentation. Overlap slices in layers to create movement and a natural separation between various elements.

Step 3: Add meat: Remember to separate it from other offerings if your guest list includes vegetarians.

Step 4: Now move on to the larger items, like clusters of fruits or vegetables.

Step 5: Fill in the remaining board with crackers, bread, and add-ons. Serve condiments in mini ramekins, and include a small knife or serving spoon.

Step 6: Tuck herbs, edible flowers, or additional nuts or fruits like figs or dried apricots into any remaining spaces to create a lush, abundant look.

Make It!

Cheese-Date Ball with Almonds

Cheese & Date Ball Recipe
Photo: Adobe Stock

Orange zest and fresh thyme give this party staple a gourmet flair. Serve with assorted crackers, toasted baguette slices, and fruit.

Get the recipe here