When it comes to hosting, I like to pull out all the stops for even the smallest gathering. But one thing I’ve been too timid to try is creating a cheese plate. The cheesemonger’s counter at my local gourmet grocery store is stocked with wheels, cubes, and triangles of things I can’t pronounce. I didn’t know where to begin without blowing my budget.
The only silly questions are the ones we don’t ask, so I went to Pamela Brewer, cheesemonger and founder of Affiné Fine Cheese, for guidance from a pro. Here’s what I learned about creating and serving a spread that will satisfy your guests and your wallet.
01. Understand What You’re Paying For
Brewer explains the different cheese-making priorities that affect the process, ergo the price you pay at the counter. Larger producers source milk from multiple farms with the goal of creating a “very consistent product with wide appeal,” Brewer shares.
But smaller operations, like coops and single farmsteads, prioritize processes that “highlight their milk and local terroir (natural environment), resulting in cheeses with more character and nuanced flavor.” These cheeses will often be cut on site since “the flavors and aromas of cheese degrade with exposure to air and light and begin to suffocate once wrapped in plastic.” Minimizing the time between cut and taste “preserves the integrity of the cheese and results in a more ideal eating experience.”
Does that mean you need to shell out a ton of money for a worthwhile spread? No, ma’am. You can create a crowd-pleasing plate at your local grocery store, as long as you know what to look for.
02. Know the Cheese Families
Cheese can be categorized into seven families. Here’s what to look for in each, in order from mild to strong texture and flavor intensities:
High-moisture, young, unrinded cheeses
Look for: Mozzarella, Ricotta, Feta, Chèvre
Young, but old enough to have developed a soft, edible white rind
Look for: Brie, Camembert, Humboldt Fog
“Stink bombs of the cheese world,” per Brewer. The process of washing the rind with a brine solution yields B. linens, a pungent bacteria you’ll recognize as a wet, orange exterior.
Look for: Limburger, Époisses, Taleggio
Aged for a few months, mellow milk-driven flavor, pliable texture that gets crumblier with age
Look for: Monterey Jack, Fontina, Provolone
Aged for four to twelve months, moderately sharp flavor
Look for: Cheddar, aged Gouda, Gruyère
Hard or Grating
Concentrated flavor, versatile in cooking
Look for: Pecorino Romano, Parmigiano-Reggiano, aged Asiago
Blue mold veins throughout, perhaps the most polarizing of cheeses
Look for: Stilton, Gorgonzola, Roquefort
Depending on how many guests you are expecting, choose one cheese each from three to five families so that you have a good variety. You can further diversify by mixing cow’s, sheep’s, or goat’s milk cheese. Most cheese counters offer free samples, so don’t be shy to ask for a taste before you buy.
03. Let the Season Guide Your Selections
Summer is the best time for fresh or soft-ripened cheeses, since animals are able to produce more milk. “Sheep and goats have short lactation cycles during the summer months,” says Brewer. In other seasons, these varieties are produced from frozen curd, which gives a slightly duller taste. Aged cheeses are best in winter, after milk produced in summer has had a chance to intensify. Try raw cow’s milk cheeses from the high Alps, such as Gruyère and Appenzeller, on a cold winter’s night and you’ll see what we mean by intense.
04. Serve in Your Own Style
There are tons of adorable (and pricey) cheese boards out there, but the cheese police aren’t going to cite you for not using an “official” plate. An interesting wood cutting board or this DIY marble cheese platter can showcase your selections while complementing the rest of your décor.
Three to four ounces of cheese per person is a good bet if your cheese plate is the primary dish. If cheese will be one of multiple courses, allow 1.5 to two ounces per person. To get the most out of your cheese, take it out of storage an hour or two ahead of time so it reaches room temperature. If you choose to slice some before your guests arrive, leave the rind on. Provide one knife per cheese to keep flavors true and pure.
A cheese board can serve as an appetizer or as a finishing note before dessert, as the French do. Either way, arrange the tray so that guests start with a lighter cheese (something soft-ripened, perhaps) and work up to a more intense variety, like “a blue cheese or aged Gouda, both of which have strong, concentrated flavors and a natural sweetness, which make them a fitting clincher to the cheese plate,” Brewer says.
Get creative with the other elements of your board, be it a baguette, crackers, sliced pear or grapes, salty Marcona almonds, or a dry salami. For a real conversation starter, pair contrasting flavors like a spicy blue cheese with sweet honey or dark chocolate, or reduced balsamic vinegar with a mellow mozzarella.
05. You Don’t Have to Drink Wine (But You Can if You Want To)
We often think of wine and cheese as a package deal. Brewer, however, often prefers beer. “The effervescence cleanses the palates between bites, keeping your taste buds fresh and alert. Moreover, the flavors of beer are often gentler than wine and play well with the cheese without overpowering it.” Another option is hard cider, whose “bright acidity cuts through the richness of the cheese,” Brewer notes. A local and seasonal craft brew would be a fine pairing.
If you’re not yet convinced of the joy of expanding your cheese palate, consider this: Brewer shares that tyrosine, cheese’s primary amino acid, is “one of the key metabolic building blocks of serotonin, dopamine, and other neurotransmitters. . . . [which means] cheese directly helps support our mental health!”
The moral of this story is that cheese is good for the mind and good for the body but very best when shared with good company. C’est la vie!
Photo Credit: Lauren Miller
Styling: Uptown Brie