Whether served as an elegant appetizer, a palate cleansing course between courses, an impressive tray at a holiday party, or as a sophisticated dessert the cheese plate is always a welcome sight at the table. While there is no rule book on how to put together a cheese plate this post should help give you a bit of guidance on how to best prepare an interesting and flavorful selection of cheeses for your next social event.
Any cheese plate should have some nice diversity to it in style, selection, appearance, and flavor. There are any number of ways you can go about this. Some prefer to sample different types of cheese by offering a blue, a hard cheese, and a soft cheese. On the other side of that coin you could offer three cheeses of the same type (i.e. three semi-soft). It allows your guests to try a wide array of cheeses with different tastes and textural properties.
The rules that categorize cheeses by hard or soft and so on are arbitrary; the hardness or softness of the cheese is determined by the amount of moisture present. Hard cheeses are generally gritty, sharp and salty cheeses used for grating such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino. A semi-hard cheese will be somewhat smooth in texture but have small granular particles from aging enzymes in the milk, classic Cheddar and Gouda are the most obvious examples. Fresh mozarella and Jarlsberg are what could be called semi-soft – their high moisture content keeps them soft and pliable with an easy, chewable mouthfeel and low melting point. The rule for soft cheese is basically anything spreadable is a soft cheese; most types of brie, Saint-Felicien, and Torta Del Casar are practically paste within the confines of the rind and are often sold in plastic cups as they can fall apart easily.
My favorite plates are ones where I can show the diversity of the types of milk used. Often when courting new cheese tasters I try to offer a cow, a sheep, and a simple goat cheese; it’s a comfortable baby step to introducing people to new types of dairy.
Another popular cheese plate option is to explore various countries. France, Spain, England, and America all have fantastic cheese selections to choose from, each offering diverse and intriguing options. Alternatively, you could select different cheeses from different countries and span the globe; a tour of Europe through cheese may be just the thing for a potluck or international themed dinner.
Be sure you try a sample of any cheese you are interested in before purchase. Any fine food store with a good cheese selection should allow this, if they don’t then go somewhere else. The last thing you want is a plate of cheese you later learn makes you gag.
Generally, you want to purchase about 2oz. per person. However, if you plan to serve fruit, wine, bread or other accoutrements, this may not be necessary. Go with your gut on what you think people will eat and take into consideration what course you plan to serve it as. Also, if you only have a small group then a tiny lump of cheese looks sad and lonely, so buy enough for visual presentation. Whatever you don’t use you can eat later or use in cooking.
The best advice for storing cheese is to not store cheese. Purchase them at their peak or near peak ripeness and eat them the day you buy them. Generally, the best place to put them is a cheese cave, but since most of us lack those any dark, cool, and humid place will do. If you store cheese in the fridge, consider putting it in the vegetable drawer as there is more moisture there.
Wrap hard and semi-hard cheese in wax paper or plastic wrap to keep it fresh. Be warned that long term storage in plastic wrap will lead to suffocation and spoilage. Cheeses with hard rinds, like Parmigiano-Reggiano you can cover the exposed areas with plastic wrap, leaving the rind open so that the cheese can breath. Semi-soft cheese like Havarti should be wrapped in butcher or wax paper, then wrapped in plastic wrap. Soft cheese usually comes in its own container, so just put the lid back on, or cover with plastic wrap.
Blue cheese is an entity of its own, the more exposure to air it gets the bluer it gets and thus the more flavor from the mold. While this may sound beneficial, the mold will eventually destroy the flavor of the dairy and make the cheese too harsh and spoil it. Wrap it tightly in foil and then plastic wrap and keep it away from other cheeses as the mold will spread. You may need to store blue cheese or other “smelly” cheeses like raclette in a completely separate container.
Be sure to set the cheese out early to allow it to come to room temperature, which will allow flavors and aromas to be at their most intense. While a variety of cheese boards and specialty knives are available and have a certain visual and slight practical appeal, regular knives and forks are fine. Hard cheeses, however, should be pre-cut into slices so guests do not have to try hacking off a piece themselves.
A good cheese plate often has a few accompaniments in order to best appreciate the taste of the cheese. Breads such as flatbreads, toasts, crackers, sliced baguettes, or rye are often used for their simple flavors. Various fresh and dried fruits such as apricots, plums, pears, figs, dates and apples are always winners, their sweet or tart flavors contrasting with the salt and cream of the cheese. Nuts that have been lightly toasted are another popular option as their meaty and woody flavors often reflect the textures and aromas of hard and blue cheeses. Finally, balsamic vinegar (reduced to a syrup or as is) and honey make for many perfect pairings as their strong flavor profiles are able to stand up to the smelliest of cheeses.
When it comes to pairing cheese with wine it can get a bit tricky. There are no set rules and each year the same brands of cheese and wine will vary so no set pairing for any cheese exists. I do suggest trying to match your wine to your cheese if possible. Trying Spanish cheeses? Go for a Spanish wine. Any sommelier or cheesemonger should be able to help you with your selections. There are also plenty of books and websites that will be able to give you suggestions.
Still, feel free to mix it up and have fun. I’ve had a delicious port with blue cheese before. Glasses of Pinot Blanc with an overwhelmingly stinky Taleggio is a match made in heaven. Two Buck Chuck goes great with goaty goudas. Lastly, I’m a fan of skipping wine altogether and using locally crafted beers.
This little guide is set to act as just that, a guide. There is no set standard to developing a cheese plate. Rather it should reflect your tastes, the event or meal it is accompanying, and be something that those partaking in it will enjoy and remember. A cheese plate doesn’t have to be formal, but it should be fun; set it up as you like with cheeses you enjoy eating.