Build the Cheese Plate of Your Dreams by Avoiding These 6 Common Mistakes

It’s always the right time for a cheese plate, but with the holiday and entertaining season close upon us, we’ve got fromage even more on our mind than usual. And pulling a cheese plate together is easy: All you have to do is chunk up some cheddar into cubes and a unwrap a brick of blue, toss it on a cutting board and scatter Triscuits around everything. Wrong. Don’t do that. From the wrong knives to overly fussy pairings, there are a lot of ways to screw up a cheese plate. Here’s how not to.

1. I Can Figure This Out on My Own!

Hey, we get it: Talking to a cheesemonger can be intimidating. From unfamiliar vocabulary (Bloomy! Grassy! Lactic!) to countries of origin (French! British! Italian!), hearing cheese nerds chat about the stuff can seem like listening to a different language. But that’s precisely why you should reach out to your cheesemonger, says Bon Appétit senior web editor and serious cheese aficionado Carey Polis. “No question is too dumb,” she assures us.

Begin the conversation—yup, it’s going to be a conversation—by telling the cheesemonger why you need the cheese (Is it a formal party? A casual get-together?), how many people will be eating it, and what you know you already like—and don’t like. “Even if you’ve only ever had American cheese singles, tell them that. And tell them what you like about them.” It’s the cheesemonger’s job to help you navigate this exotic, sometimes stinky world, so let them take the lead—but help steer them in the right direction for your needs and preferences.

2. Ooh, Ranch-Flavored Cheddar

There’s a time and a place for flavored cheese, but it’s not on a cheese plate, Polis says. It’s…actually, there’s never a time or a place for flavored cheese. Additions like herbs and Buffalo seasoning distract from the cheese’s actual flavor, which can be anything from subtly sweet to downright funky. And in a situation where flavor nuances matter (like in, say, a cheese plate), you don’t want anything standing between you and the fromage.

3. Imma Make It Rain Cheese

If one cheese is good, then 11 or 12 cheeses are great, right? No way, Comté. Just ask head cheese maker and American Cheese Society certified cheese professional Veronica Pedraza and apprentice cheese maker Julia Lowry at Meadowood Farms in Cazenovia, N.Y. They say you really don’t need more than four different types—five, if you’ve got a crowd. You don’t want to overwhelm anyone’s palate, and besides, who has a board big enough to hold all that? When choosing your cheeses, go for a textural variety. (Polis likes to include a soft, bloomy rind; a semi-hard cheese; and a harder, aged one.) Pedraza also recommends choosing cheeses made from different milk: Go for goat-, sheep-, and cow-milk cheeses, and don’t forget about blends.

4. I’ll Keep This Baby in the Fridge

Well, yes. Food safety is important. But as Pedraza notes, cheese is a preserved food. There’s actually no need to refrigerate hard, aged cheese. That said, your cheese will last longer in a fridge, so if it’s currently chilling out, be sure to set it on the counter one hour before you plan on eating it. Room-temperature cheese reveals flavor subtleties better than cold cheese does—and is more enjoyable to eat.

5. So I’ll Just Stick a Knife in this Thing…

This is a big one: Cut your cheese before you put it on the cutting board. That’s right. No more sticking a knife in a wedge and calling it a day. Pedraza and Lowry are pulling for the official end to DIY cheese cutting: “Your cheeseboard should not look like a massacre at the end of the night,” Pedraza says. To keep things tidy, cut the cheese on a separate board in advance (but not so far ahead that it dries out) and arrange it on your serving tray. Great. So now how do you cut it? For softer and/or crumbly cheeses, like chèvre and blue, use a wire: It won’t get gummed up with sticky bits, and will result in cleaner cuts.

For other wedges, bricks, and rounds, you’ll want to maintain the integrity of the original brick—so cut it according to the shape of the wedge. Not sure how to go about it? See point number one and talk to your cheesemonger. One thing’s for sure: No cubes allowed (“This isn’t your kid’s after-school snack,” Pedraza says). Go for wedges and strips that can be eaten in one or two bites—but don’t go too thin. Skimpy pieces of cheese can “sweat” and become translucent-looking; that’s fat leaving your precious cheese, resulting in a dry and less-awesome bite.

6. This Raspberry Jam Is Delicious; I’ll Pour It All Over the Cheese

Never, never, never pour, dump, or drizzle a jam, compote, chutney, or other accompaniment onto the cheese. “I want to taste the cheese. Then I want to taste the jam. Then I want to put them together,” Pedraza says. Remember that you’re serving a cheese plate, and you should enjoy all of the nuances that cheese has to offer. Don’t go crazy with the pairings—one bread or cracker, one in-season fruit, one jam or compote, and one or two savory options, like pickles, salami, or mustard, ought to do it. Pedraza also likes to use honeycomb on her plates. “It’s visually striking, and people eat with their eyes first,” she says. Lastly, don’t be too rigid: Give your guests the option of mixing and matching as they see fit.

Build the Cheese Plate

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