Cheese Board 101: Building the Perfect Plate

November 24, 2011

So you’ve been eyeing those cheese slate collections from Brooklyn Slate Company in the Food52 Shop. Distinctive and dramatic, they have an aesthetic that turns eating cheese a cause for celebration. Naturally, your mind has drifted to the inevitable question: “Which cheeses am I going serve on those beautiful rustic surfaces at my holiday party?” Most of us are enthusiasts when it comes to cheese, but the thought of composing a balanced cheese plate is daunting. How many should I choose? Variety is important, but at what point will my tastebuds get overwhelmed? Can I mix and match different regional varieties? Which cheeses pair well with the wine I’m serving?

To calm our cheese board insecurities, we turned to our friends at Brooklyn’s famed Bedford Cheese Shop. Cheesemonger Christopher Hanawalt shared invaluable insight on how to build the perfect selection of cheeses, reassuring that cheeseboard curation is far from a rigid art. The most successful selections stem from a set of basic guidelines, but ultimately rely on a heavy dose of personal creativity.

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Variety, variety, variety. “Take advantage of the range of milk types, textures, intensities, colors and shapes that cheese come in to create a cheese board that is both visually interesting and tastes exciting and new.”

Curate by milk type. “A basic approach to creating a good range of cheeses is to get three cheeses of different milk types: a cow’s milk, a sheep’s milk, and a goat’s milk. That is the foundation for creating a great cheese plate. There is nothing more unappealing than a plate of different bries or four different aged goudas sitting on a board. Our tastebuds get bored quickly and easily, and demand to be entertained.”

Consider texture, intensity and visual appearance. “Choose some cheeses that are mild, some cheeses that are stronger, some cheeses that are soft, some cheeses that are harder and more rustic. And since half of good eating is presentation, it's important to get cheeses that simply look different from one another! Cheeses come in a veritable rainbow of hues and all sorts of weird shapes and sizes. Get crazy!”

Consider wine pairings. “For white or sparkling wines, I prefer creamy, buttery, spreadable cheeses, such as bries, or fresh chevres. Whites also pair excellently with blue cheese and more pungent cheeses. The acid of a white wine is a great way to cut the palate-coating creaminess of these cheeses. For red wines, I prefer harder, nuttier, grassier cheeses, such as pecorinos, alpine style cheeses (Comte, Gruyere, Appenzeller, etc.), or cheeses from the Pyrenees. These cheeses are able to stand up to the tannins of a red wine, which produce unique flavors in both the food and beverage. If you do want to do a creamier cheese with a red, I would recommend something earthy, spicy, and barnyard-y. Something that smells like a wet sheep lying on a bale of hay. (You’ll be pleasantly surprised!)

That said, there are definitely no rules when it comes to pairing. You should never be stressed out when it comes to eating good food especially something as special as seasonal, farmstead cheese!”


Here are Chris’ seasonal suggestions to help you navigate the stinky terrain during your next visit to the cheese shop:

Pick #1: Soft-ripened, washed rind cheese

  • Vacherin Mont D'or (from the Alps)
  • Rush Creek Reserve (Upland's Cheese in Wisconsin) 
  • Epoisses (from Burgundy, France) 

Notes: This time of year we tend to get in a lot of beautiful soft ripened, washed rind cheeses that are the product of late autumn milk. These tend to be more pungent, soft, and perfect for scooping onto crusty bread. All of these cheeses come in a round, are designed to be gooey, and can be paired with sweeter white wines or lighter reds. They lend themselves to pickles, jams, salamis, and olives excellently.

Pick #2: Firm goat’s milk cheese

  • Caprotto (a goat's milk made in a pecorino style from Italy) 
  • Garrotxa (an earthy cheese from Spain)
  • Firmer cheeses from Haystack Mountain in Colorado, primarily the Queso de Mano or Sunlight. 

Notes: Fresh goat cheeses are no longer in season during the winter, as the animals are moved from the outdoor pastures to inside for the winter. These cheeses tend to be lemony, tangy, bright, flowerly, and nutty. Because of their age, both of these cheeses pair well with a variety of wines, beers, and liquors.

Pick # 3: Sheep’s Milk or Blue Cheese

Option A -- Sheep’s Milk Cheese

  • Spanish cheeses which are more aged, such as Manchego, Zamarano, or Roncal
  • Sheep's milks from the Pyrenees 
  • French mixed milk Gabietou


OR...if you want something stronger and softer...

Option B -- Blue Cheese

  • Colston Bassett Stilton, from England 
  • Bleu D'Auvergne from France 
  • Any of the blues from Rogue River Creamery in Oregon




[Photo sources: OpenSky blog, Brooklyn Slate Co.,]

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Helen's All Night Diner
    Helen's All Night Diner
  • TheCulinaryLibrarian
  • mcs3000
  • nutcakes
  • SaucyRedhead
Weldor of palate + palette. Senior Designer @ Bon Appétit


Helen's A. December 1, 2011
Wow! These are wonderful. I'm wondering if you could do another selection highlighting cheese makers in the US? There are so many of us foodies trying to eat more locally. I've found some great things in the New England area...
alasully December 1, 2011
I love this idea! It would be great to source a list of local producers and if you have some New England favorites please pass them along to us!
TheCulinaryLibrarian November 30, 2011
I ordered one of these slates on sale from GiltTaste yesterday for a friend's Christmas gift- I'm going to print this out and wrap it with the board!
mcs3000 November 29, 2011
love this post!
nutcakes November 29, 2011
Nothing much to add, just bragging....I was able to score Kerrygold Dubliner aged Cheddar 7oz and Silver Goat herb 5.5 oz from a bargain store for $1 each (supposedly expired but in great shape.) Also Timamook Smoked Black Pepper Wite Cheddar 8ox for $1, haven't trired it yet doesn't 'expire till January 25.. Also the same week I bought Humbolt Fog (my favorite goat cheese in California), and Lighthouse Bleu Cheese wedge from Iowa (4 oz for $2.59 ea), Rougette Bavarian Red triple cream (.35 oz fir $340) and 1/2 lb of Supreme Brie for $4.70,

We have already used some for a Wine and Cheese and now excited to use more for a upcoming party. I haven't had the chance to try them all yet.
SaucyRedhead November 29, 2011
Thanks so much, mtrelawn! SOOOO helpful!
mtrelaun December 1, 2011
You're very welcome!
mtrelaun November 29, 2011
It really depends on whether the cheese is part of a buffet (1-1.5 oz per person,) served as a cocktail niblet (5 oz per,) or is part of an assortment that follows the main course (3.5 oz per.) Real Simple magazine has a formula if you don't feel like doing math:
SaucyRedhead November 28, 2011
I am pretty good at making an appetizing and interesting cheese plate, but I am often confused about portions for a large party. Does anyone have a guideline for this?