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.
This post is adapted and updated from an article originally posted on Cool Mom Picks
Related: 10 terrific money-saving tips for hosting a wonderful holiday dinner on a budget
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 Like a sharp cheddar – the sharper the better.
- NUTTY Like an aged gouda – look for an orange hue that indicates longer aging; or try Jarlsberg or Gruyere instead of Swiss.
- CREAMY Like Brie – even cheap Brie is tasty. The higher the percentage of fat on the label, the richer it will be, and nearly every supermarket carries it these days.
- FRESH Like goat cheese, feta or fresh mozzarella – look for a bright white cheese that hasn’t aged at all.
- FUNKY Like blue cheese – a stinky, marbled variety like Roquefort or Stilton not only tastes good, it offers nice contrast, or find a good domestic variety from Wisconsin or Vermont. Just be sure not to get blue cheese crumbles in a tub! You’ll do way better with a whole chunk of any blue cheese at all.
2. Add a crowd-pleasing cheese ball
I like to throw in a wild card into my cheese plate: 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 the 3 varieties shown here from from How Sweet It Is, can be is a very, very good idea.
She’s got easy recipes for cheese balls featuring bacon, blue cheese, and pistachio. Caramelized onion, Gruyere, and roasted cashews. Pineapple, toasted almond, and goat cheese.
See? Very good.
Related: 5 brilliant food bar ideas ideas for last minute entertaining
3. 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.”
I recommend plain water crackers. They’re classic and available at any supermarket.
While in the cracker aisle, also look for a second cracker that provides some visual contrast like rye, pumpernickel, or something with nuts, seeds or dried fruit baked in.
To accompany a milder cheese, like a chevre (goat cheese), try something like the whole grain crackers above, that Gabby of Design Mom uses on her own beautiful cheese boards. (Such a great post for more secrets and tips!)
Breadsticks can also be a great addition because they add height, which means more visual interest. And, of course, there is always fresh bread.
Most supermarkets sell fresh baguettes or Italian loaves but if there is no fresh bakery at your market, look for a par-baked loaf that you can finish in your home oven.
4. 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 this spectacular sugared apples recipe from Andrea Pimental of Bakin’ Bit. She threw a holiday dinner party with Jordan Ferney of Oh Happy Day (so you know it was doubly fabulous) and added these sparkly bites to make up individual cheese plates for the guests. The recipe is as easy as dipping apples in beaten egg white and then superfine sugar.
See? All supermarket ingredients!
Also, be sure you don’t just rely on fresh fruit for a cheese plate. The sweetness of dried fruit like raisins, figs, and apricots goes beautifully with cheese. They also add texture to the plate, and make a good snack for guests can nosh on all night without filling up on just bread and cheese.
Related: 11 brilliant food and drink summer party hacks for easy weekend entertaining.
5. Spreads are a must.
Traditional cheese plate spreads like fig chutney and quince paste aren’t more readily available at mainstream supermarkets, but not always. So try a high quality apricot or fig jam if you see one. Otherwise, take a cue from this Honey Brûlée Brie from Spoon Fork Bacon and add just a little bit of good quality honey to a brie wheel.
Honey plus a good cheese is one of the tastiest combos around! It even negates the need for bread — just a slice of thick Gouda drizzled with honey is perfection.
Feel free to experiment with spreads though — maybe you prefer more savory options like a black olive spread, a seeded mustard, or a red pepper spread. And there’s always pesto. It’s all good.
Related: Our favorite cocktail foods to have on hand for easy entertaining
6. Crunchy things are great too.
Crackers are crunchy, I know, but now I’m talking about nuts and, well, I felt weird about how, “nuts are good, too” might sound. 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 cashews or almonds are perfectly delicious. Just look at this lovely homemade cheese plate from Hapa Nom Nom who offers some wonderful cheese plate tips herself. See how a little ramekin of mixed nuts fits right in? Just grab some from the supermarket and you’re set.
7. Briny, salty snacks make a 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 choice, just 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 from a local gourmet store when you see them–you can never have too many pantry staples like these on hand for when guests pop by unexpectedly. Besides, they last a really long time — even 1-2 years past the expiration date on the label.
Related: The truth about expiration dates on food
8. Last, but never least: Add meat.
If you’re a vegetarian, skip this step.
In fact, you don’t really have to add meat to your cheese plate at all, but if you do partake, it sure is nice. It rounds out a cheese plate and also makes your plate more like a meal in itself — a smart idea for “heavy apps” style entertaining, or even buffet tables.
(Or am I the only one who can eat the contents of a cheese plate for dinner and call it a night?)
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, sopressata and pancetta that are all delicious, natural, and nitrate-free. They’re also increasingly available in even big grocery chains, making it good for supermarket cheese plate shoppers.
You can layer folded pieces of thin meats on your board like on this lovely cheese plate at 100 Layer Cakelet (above), then sit back and watch your friends gobble them up just as fast as they might expensive prosciutto.
Or better, gobble it all up right along with your guests. You won’t be able to resist.
Top image: Lindsay Moe via Unsplash