Whenever there is a platter of really good cheeses, most people dig in with gusto and share their opinions about their favorites. But while creating a cheese platter is simple, having a few simple tips in your back pocket will ensure a winning cheese course every time.
Often the presence of one really great cheese on a menu is sufficient, as it is satisfying enough to be a conversation piece on its own. The exception is when cheese is the centerpiece of your party. In that case, you will need at least three and probably five or six cheese varieties. However, most of the time, serving three cheeses is a good amount so as to not overwhelm guests with too many choices.
Choosing your cheeses: While there are no ‘wrong’ ways when it comes to serving cheese, there are several things to keep in mind when deciding which cheeses to choose for your cheese platter. Here are some ideas:
Pre/Post Dinner: Choose lighter cheeses such as an herb-coated goat cheese or fresh mozzarella for pre-dinner serve. Go one of two ways for post-dinner — serve just one rich and creamy cheese such as the easy-to-find triple-crème cheese — or go for full-flavored cheeses like Manchego, cheddar, aged gouda and/or blue cheeses.
Think of a theme. Maybe you would like to focus on cheeses of a particular country or even a specific region within the US, Spain, Italy or France; this automatically narrows the field.
Milk category: Choose one cheese made with each type of milk — cow, goat, and sheep's milk. Or choose cheeses that are all made with just one type of milk, such as sheep's milk. This is a great way to learn about the different styles of cheese within one milk category.
Cheese family: Select different cheeses within the same family of cheeses. Examples of this would be three or four styles of soft-ripened cheeses such as Brie and Camembert and any other cheeses that have a similar white downy-like rind. Or, you can select a few distinct styles of blue cheese. Doing this is a great way to learn how similar cheeses differ in flavor; or choose cheeses with different textures. Go for a soft and creamy cheese such as Brie (or a similar artisan-style cheese made in your area); a firmer style cheese such as cheddar (preferably farmhouse), Gouda or Gruyère; and a hard grating-style cheese like Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Arranging your cheese platter
Never crowd your cheese platter. If you do, you are likely to find your knuckle in one of the cheeses as you attempt to cut the one you like.
Offer a different knife with each cheese. If you cut all the cheeses with just one knife, they will start tasting like each other.
Variety: Serve slices of baguette or crackers in a separate basket or bowl.
Accompaniments to cheese: Choose plain (sourdough or French) bread or neutral crackers. Flavored breads such as those with sesame seeds or garlic and herbed crackers tend to overwhelm the flavors of the cheeses. The exception is breads containing walnuts, dried fruit or olives. These are all great with cheese. Serve before-dinner cheeses with relatively savory accompaniments such as olives, prosciutto, nuts or chutney, and after-dinner cheeses with sweet accompaniments such as jams, honey, dried fruit and toasted nuts.
Serving ways: Be sure to serve cheese at room temperature. To do this, take the cheeses out of the fridge at least one hour ahead of time. Serve the cheeses either on a platter, or more than one if needed, or plate the cheeses individually. The latter method works particularly well if you are serving cheeses after dinner.
Each person gets their own plate, and best of all you get to prepare the cheese course before your guests arrive, leaving one less last-minute thing for you to do. The plates can sit at room temperature, lightly covered, for a couple of hours without any harm to the cheese unless your kitchen is particularly warm. In that case, keep them refrigerated until an hour before serving time.