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.
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).
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.
- 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;
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cheese-Date Ball with Almonds
Orange zest and fresh thyme give this party staple a gourmet flair. Serve with assorted crackers, toasted baguette slices, and fruit.