Building a beautiful charcuterie board is truly an art form. Thick wedges of cheese mingle with salami shaped like a rose. They're intertwined with sweet and savory pairings such as cornichons, apple butter, and fresh fruit, and are garnished with fresh herbs and edible flowers. I started making charcuterie boards (or as I call them, cheese plates, because charcuterie only really refers to a board with cured meat) in 2014. The internet was much different back then, and you could really only find inspiration for cheese and charcuterie boards by searching Pinterest for hours. Each plate I found was so beautifully crafted — just by glancing at the detail made me wonder if I could ever replicate that myself at home. With a lot of practice and some handy tips, I was able to create my own distinct style of charcuterie boards with a method to break down each step in the process. I call this, Cheese By Numbers.
Cheese By Numbers is a similar idea to the fun paint-by-numbers maps you might have seen as a kid. Here, each section of the charcuterie board is associated with a number. Organizing these sections into steps makes it much easier to see the creation come to life. But let's start with a solid foundation to build upon!
Base and bowls
I always like using a flat surface to build my charcuterie board. Whether that's a wooden board, a porcelain plate, or even an entire kitchen island, you can work with any surface you want. Personally, I like using plates with a small lip around the edge such as these, so items don't roll off in transit. You also want to select a few ramekins or bowls for any dips, jams, or items in brine, such as pickled vegetables.
To determine the board size, consider the type of gathering taking place. Are you hosting or attending a wine and cheese soiree where the charcuterie board is the only food provided? Or is this just a small appetizer before a big dinner? In my first cookbook, That Cheese Plate Will Change Your Life, I created a handy guide to determining the best board size based on the number of people being served. Keep in mind that these numbers are based on the idea that the cheese board is the main attraction, so scale down as needed:
- 8" in diameter - 2 to 4 people
- 10" in diameter - 4 to 6 people
- 12" in diameter - 6 to 8 people
- 15" in diameter - 8 to 12 people
I also like to select a shallow bowl or plate for crackers or bread. We'll put a few crunchy items on the plate to get the guests started, but the rest can be served on the side for easy access.
The "cheese by numbers" method
The Cheese By Numbers method consists of six steps and sections. Cheese, meat, produce, crunch, dip and garnish. This covers all of the items that should belong on a charcuterie board. Build your board in this order and your plate will come together beautifully!
Step 1: Cheese
Pick 3 to 5 types of cheese. You want a variety of milks (cow's, sheep, goat) and textures (hard, soft, bloomy, blue) on the board. You can also get creative with it, and add a cheesy dip like my Warm Blue Cheese Dip or start decadent with Baked Camembert with Balsamic Roasted Grapes. Make sure each cheese you pick has thoughtful accompaniments on the board as we move into the next steps.
That Cheese Tip: I always like to pre-cut my hard cheese while leaving soft cheeses such as Brie whole. This way, it's easy for the guests to graze versus having to break apart a giant wedge of cheddar. Pull the cheese from the refrigerator 45 minutes before serving so it can get to room temperature — this brings out the maximum flavor and texture of each.
Step 2: Meat
"Charcuterie" is a French term for cured or aged pork products. In recent years, this term has become synonymous with all types of salumi and deli meats alike. I like to pick 1 to 2 meats for my board. For something on the mild side, I like genoa salami, sweet soppressata and prosciutto. For a bit of a kick, I love using salami calabrese or chorizo. Consider the type of cheese on the plate and pair similar intensities. For example, prosciutto has a delicate texture and slightly sweet taste, which would pair nicely with fresh mozzarella cheese. However, it's not all about opposite attraction. Prosciutto is considerably salty, just like an aged Parmigiano Reggiano — a great match! Salami can be salty, herbaceous, mild, strong, and spicy. I like pairing a spicy salami such as chorizo or calabrese with something that can hold up to the heat, like a sharp cheddar or a smoky aged gouda. You can also include sautéed chicken sausage, roasted turkey, or smoked salmon.
That Cheese Tip: Fold your meat! I coined the term "salami river," which refers to a food styling method I love to use. Take each slice of salami and fold it into quarters. Stack them to create a line that spans the entire cheese board. Add a bit of a curve to make it into a "river". Not only is this a fun detail on the plate, it also serves a purpose. Many packaged meats come stuck together, so by folding each individual slice, it's easier for the guests to serve themselves.
Step 3: Produce
This is where we add color and flavor pairings to the board! Produce covers everything from fresh fruits and vegetables to dried fruits to pickled and grilled vegetables. The colors of fruits and vegetables really make the plate pop, so "paint with your produce". Just like pairing meat and cheese, consider what types of cheese are on your board before selecting your produce. Juicy fruits like berries pair great with fresh goat cheese, while cornichons and olives stand up to sharper and more pungent cheeses such as French blues. Add fresh cucumber slices to your cheese board to provide a refreshing palate cleanser between bites.
That Cheese Tip: Create "produce ponds" while building your charcuterie board by making small mounds of fruits and vegetables around the plate and fill up about 75% of the blank spaces. I always like to arrange the produce pairing next to the cheese it will taste the best with.
Step 4: Crunch
Crunch covers everything from crackers and bread to candied nuts and dark chocolate. Fill in the rest of the gaps on the cheese board with crunchy snacks to make the board appear full and abundant.
That Cheese Tip: Stick with mild crackers, like sourdough, water crackers or flatbread. Intense garlic or rosemary crackers can overpower the nuances in the cheese and meats.
Step 5: Dips and jams
This is an important step to highlight different cheese pairings — the flavor profiles of jams, chutneys, and mustards can create an entirely new flavor depending on the cheese it's enjoyed with. I like to use a sweet fig jam with a pungent blue, or a light honey with a buttery camembert. In this case opposites do attract, so pair sweet and salty side-by-side.
That Cheese Tip: Try making our own jam, like a rosemary and caramelized onion fig jam!
Step 6: Garnish
Turn your simple appetizer into a work of art! I love to add fresh herbs to the plate, like big sprigs of fresh rosemary and thyme; these aromas remind me of a warm holiday dinner and add a pop of greenery.
That Cheese Tip: I also love to add edible flowers. Some of my favorites include violas, zinnias, rose petals, cornflowers and flowering herbs. You can find these at farmers' markets or even online, like Gourmet Sweet Botanicals.
Now that you've built your charcuterie board, it's time to serve it! Grab a good set of cheese knives for cutting and spreading:
- The Spreader: This looks like a small butter knife. It's perfect for spreading brie or soft goat cheese.
- The Fork-Tipped Spear: I like to use this knife to cut semi-hard cheese like gruyere or fontina. You can use the fork tip to easily pick up the slices, too!
- The Spade: This is a small, sharp knife perfect for cutting hard cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano.
Include a pair of tongs, spoons for the dips, small plates, and napkins for serving, too.. In my new book, "That Cheese Plate Wants To Party" (out April 11, 2023), I dive deep into tablescape settings. My number one tip? Match the plate to the table to tie the scene together. Does your plate have colors of red, green, and yellow? Buy a bouquet of flowers with those same colors, or even match your linens to create a cohesive theme.
Last but not least, queue up a fun playlist to set the mood. I love matching my playlist vibe to the cheese plate itself. Having a gathering in a dimly lit room with candles? Put on some soothing jazz or a song that makes you feel warm inside.
Now, it's time to enjoy your beautiful creation with your loved ones! Charcuterie boards are the perfect way to bring everyone together through delicious food and artistic touches.