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Cheese Board 101

All you need to know and a little extra

Cheese can be a lot – there’s endless varieties and different tiers of quality. It’s no wonder that creating a cheese board can seem like a daunting task. Many of us grew up picking at the prepackaged orange and white rectangles of a Sam’s Club cheese platter at holiday events, not knowing there was a whole world of curated cheese boards out there. By now, maybe you’ve experienced the excitement of splurging on a beautiful cheese (yes, cheese is beautiful) plate at that one restaurant with the bonkers ambiance – just keep nodding as the waiter describes the varieties and origins of the board’s contents. Whether you understood the waiter’s monologue or not, know that quality cheese plates are deceptively easy to create, and you have the ability to create a restaurant worthy board at a fraction of the price! As long as you have the desire to delve into the pungent world of cheese, we’ll take it from here. 

1 Get the Gear?!

Don’t let cheese board envy discourage you from making a cheese spread. You don’t need one! Cheese doesn’t have to be on a wooden board or a sheet of slate to look tasty. If you have a fancy cutting board, cool. If you don’t, a large dinner plate or sheet pan will do the job. Same thing goes for cheese knives. If you don’t have ‘em, grab your butter knives. Basically, all you need is a large, flat surface that can handle a cheese spread and a knife.

2 The Hunt for Cheese

Your first step in becoming Master of Funk is to know where to find the cheese. Your best bet for quality and variety would be to visit your local cheese and wine shop (if you have one). At these shop counters, they will typically allow sampling and cut cheese to order. If you’re lucky, you’ll meet a knowledgeable cheesemonger who will help you find affordable hunks and local favorites.

Don’t have a cheese shop near you? NBD. Your ol’ reliable grocery store will do just fine! It’s difficult to speak to all grocery stores’ cheese selections, but one thing is usually consistent among stores: there’s two different cheese sections. So, follow your nose past the prepackaged deli slices and shredded cheese and park your cart in front of what is hopefully a goldmine of wheels, logs, and blocks. Unlike a cheese shop, you’ll likely need to rely on your own knowledge to help navigate you through the display. But fear not, we are talking cheese basics next!


Tips for when there’s no cheesemonger in site:

If you are finding the blocks to be large for your needs, see if a deli employee can cut them down to your desired size.

Look for the odds and ends bucket, where the small and awkward pieces hang out. You can often find chunks under a few dollars – this is a great way to try new cheeses without having to commit to a large cut!


3 The Triforce Assembles

After you’ve taken in your surroundings, it’s time to make some cheese selections. First, let’s focus on the staples, aka the crowd pleasers. For a foolproof cheese ensemble that is visually, texturally, and tastefully balanced, you will want to find one of each of the following cheese varieties: Soft Cheeses, Hard Aged Cheeses, Cheddars.

Soft Cheeses are most commonly Bries or Camemberts. These types have a white rind and a soft center. The softness is due to a generally short aging period, and the whiteness is actually mold – but it’s tasty mold that imparts flavor, so it’s cool!

Foolproof Picks:

Bent River Camembert; Triple Cream Brie

Hard Aged Cheeses come in a variety of colors, milk sources, geographic regions, and lengths of aging. Goudas, Gruyeres, Manchegos and Garrotxa style goat cheese are all examples. The longer a cheese is aged, the less moisture the cheese will contain and the harder the cheese will become. So, all in all, these guys are going to have a longer aging period than a soft cheese.

Foolproof Picks:

5 Year Aged Gouda; Spanish Garrotxa; Dutch Gouda

Cheddars can pass as a hard aged cheese. However, because of their distinct flavor, they deserve their own spotlight! Cheddars are the perfect cheese for beginners. Aged cheddars typically have an aging period between 9 months and 15 years – we recommend hunting down a 2 year aged cheddar for starters. As hard cheeses age, they begin to develop crystals within the cheese. We could explain the science and all, but what you really need to know is crystals in hard cheeses = YUM!

Foolproof Picks:

Prairie Breeze; Double Gloucester Cotswold

4 Next Level Funk

Have you been waiting for us to bring up the dark horses of the cheese world, the ones that smell like feet? Or maybe you’re feeling adventurous? Then add a 4th cheese to your board! A Washed Rind cheese or a Blue will keep things interesting.

Washed Rind Cheeses are washed (duh) with saltwater, wine, or beer. This process kills off unwanted mold and promotes the growth of a tasty bacteria that helps give these cheeses their interesting flavors and smells. Taleggio is a common one – good for both cooking and eating!

Foolproof Picks:

Taleggio DOP

Blue Cheeses are simply misunderstood. Many associate Blue cheese with the crumbly bits on undesirable salads. Iconic Blues, like the Stilton from England or St. Pete’s Blue from Minnesota, are must tries for those interested in understanding why there is so much to love about the funk. Blue cheese, unlike other cheeses, have culture (aka blue stuff) added to the milk while the cheese is being formed. This addition results in the veiny blue tunnels running through the cheese. When I add a Blue to a cheese board that I’m bringing to a dinner party and its arrival is greeted by comments of disgust, all I do is smile ‘cause rest assured there will be more for me.

Foolproof Picks:

St. Pete’s Blue; English Stilton


More cheesy tips:

Shoot for 4 oz of cheese per person

Don’t have more types of cheeses than guests

If you can’t find the exact cheese you’re after, substitute with something similar – or take it as a good reason to try something new!


 

5 Meet the Boards

Even with the guidelines and suggestions above, it’s quite possible you’re still feeling overwhelmed. So, we thought it may be helpful if we laid out three example boards, varied by both price and ‘theme.’ The first of which is the Trader Joe’s cheese board. 

Trader Joe’s Cheese Board $

Triple Cream Brie

Dutch Gouda

Double Gloucester Cotswold

Die-hards of this grocery store chain will be happy to know that they, too, can create a quality cheese board and it won’t cost a fortune. But beware! Trader Joe’s is notorious for gimmicky takes on classics. Stiltons with dried apricots and Brie with mushrooms – these blends would make cheese purists gasp! No, we’re not here to judge. The recommended TJ’s Cotswold actually does incorporate onions and chives, and the result is a notably unique cheddar. However, we would suggest to first try the cheeses in their purest form. 

Midwest Cheese Board $$

Prairie Breeze Cheddar

St. Pete’s Blue

Bent River Camembert

Although our Trader Joe’s board is arguably the most accessible, we’re hoping some of you will be able to recreate this next cheese board which houses favorites from the Midwest. Sure, there’s a slight jump in price, but you’ll experience a huge jump in quality! These notable cheeses are recognized nationally and made in our neck of the woods. Bent River is a decadent Camembert from Minneapolis, MN. St. Pete’s is a creamy Blue that is aged in the sandstone caves of Faribault, MN. And then there’s Prairie Breeze from Milton, IA – eating this cheese will clear your skin, cure your seasonal depression and balance your checkbook. We love Prairie Breeze; it’s easily our favorite cheddar.

Heavy Hitters Cheese Board $$$

5 Year Aged Gouda

English Stilton

Taleggio DOP

Spanish Garrotxa

Last, but certainly not least, we’ve assembled a Heavy Hitters board. These iconic cheeses of the world have long, rich histories throughout Europe. You’re not going to find these imported hunks in your bargain bucket, but you can’t go wrong with any of our suggestions. If you do decide to splurge, sometimes it helps to remind yourself what you would be paying for an equivalent cheese board in a trendy restaurant. YOLO.

6 Name a more iconic duo. I’ll wait…

While you’re out, be sure to grab a few of these tried and true pairings to tuck around your cheeses. Impress your friends by saying things like, “Oh, Hailey, try the blue with those dried cranberries.” Make sure you use their actual names, though – not Hailey. Unless their name is Hailey …

Brie            \    Fresh Grapes

Gouda        \    Apple Slices

Cheddar    \    Almonds

Blue           \    Dried Cranberries


Final tips before cutting and assembling:

Let your cheeses sit out 30-60 minutes, prior to cutting and serving. Room temperature cheese is best

Rinds are the harder outer shells found on some cheese varieties, and generally they can be eaten. However, we wouldn’t advise chomping down on the waxy outside of a 5 Year Gouda. When in doubt, use the Google

If you discover your cheese has dark mold spots, it’s probably still salvageable. Just cut around the offensive areas. If the whole chunk of cheese seems ‘weird,’ it’s not worth risking. Chuck it in the bin

Save the parchment wrappings your cheeses came in to re-wrap leftovers. Don’t use plastic wrap if you can help it – Let your cheese breath!


 

7 Let’s cut the cheese! *audible groan from the audience*

So, you’ve brought your cheese picks home, you even followed our hot tip above and let them warm to room temperature before excitedly unwrapping them, and you’re ready to slice and dice the – HOLD UP! Before you start, take a look at your cheeses. Some of them might not need to be maimed, depending on the hardness of the cheese.

Soft cheeses  (Bries, Cammaberts, Blues and Washed Rinds) don’t need to be chopped, leave the cutting of these cheeses for its pursuers. Just remember to have a small knife nearby or on the board. If you find it difficult to access the cheesy goodness of a rind-covered soft cheese, you can remove the ‘lid.’ Also, we would suggest cutting smaller rounds into individual bite-size wedges to ensure one person doesn’t eat it all!

Hard cheeses  (Cheddars, Goudas and Garrotxas), on the other hand, will require your knife skills. For an aesthetically pleasing board, try to cut your hard cheeses into a variety of shapes – cubes, matchsticks, wedges etc. When doing so, keep in mind that these cuts should be individually portioned. Nobody likes to be the person reaching across a board to saw down a chunk of Gruyere. 

8 The Do’s and Don’ts of Finishing Touches

Whether you’re making a plate for a weeknight dinner for two or trying to impress your friends at their housewarming shindig, cheese offerings can easily scale to the situation at hand. Whatever the size or event, don’t forget the final touches! I mean, you’ve made it this far… Here’s our Do’s and Don’ts for a Foolproof Cheese Board!

Don’t  forget the toasted bread. Cut a loaf of French bread into thin ovals – toss in olive oil on a sheet pan, then broil ‘til golden on the outside with a bit of chew at the center.

Do  go to your grocery store’s olive bar. Sample a few, then purchase a small container of your fave for your final spread.

Don’t  be afraid to look like a total nerd when you label all of the cheeses with toothpick name flags. It’s what Ikea would do!

Do  upgrade your nut game from almonds to Marcona Almonds (aka fancy ass almonds). If you’re feeling real extra, toss in olive oil+salt+some aromatic herbs (rosemary/thyme) and toast to perfection, before plating.

Don’t  overdo it on the non-edible garnishes. Try sticking to decor that you intend for people to eat. But if you must shove a sprig of thyme between the crackers and Manchego, we can’t physically stop you.

Do  shake your apple slices in lemon juice and a splash of water to preserve their youthful looks. If you have a few extra minutes before serving, remove almost all of the juice from the bag and toss them with a tablespoon of honey. *chef kiss*

Don’t  overthink the placement of items. Cheeses want breathing room, place them first. Then let your clusters of nuts or fruit naturally ‘fall’ in the surrounding spaces. The goal is an organic ensemble, not a rigid construct. 

Don’t  add the crackers until the last minute! You don’t want them getting moist – especially if the board is being transported to its final resting place!

9 Apéritif

Holy crap, we did it. We made it through the Fools’ Gold crash-course in all things Cheese Board. Despite its length, don’t let this article overwhelm you! This 101 has a lot of information, and you can pick and choose what cheeses or tidbits you want to pursue. If you do take a stab at a cheese board creation, we’d love to see the fruits of your labor; share your masterpiece with us on the ‘gram! Also, be sure to check out this volume’s Hidden Gems article, where we give a shout-out to the ultimate cheese knife! And the answer is: yes, a whole lot of cheese was harmed in the making of this article.

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