Unsure of what to serve holiday guests while waiting for the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham to come out of the oven? There’s a board for that! No, we are not talking about a Costco-sad-excuse for a cheese plate here, people...we’re referring to a drool-worthy platter packed with goodies that will totally ruin everyone’s appetite before the big meal (but in the best way). Making the perfect grazing board requires a little bit of design and preparation, but the end result is so very worth it. Bonus: you don’t have to worry about your weird aunt getting drunk on an empty stomach with this on the impressive spread on the table.
We turned to the very talented Emily Bowser, a lead interior stylist for Emily Henderson and hostess extraordinaire, for step-by-step instructions to build the board of your dreams.
Emily, your boards always look amazing. You’re the Picasso of Prosciutto, the Beyonce of Brie! Where do you find your inspiration?
Emily: Charcuterie/cheese/grazing boards (hereafter referred to as "Boards") are something I do on the side because 1. Cheese and 2. I have a wood cutting board hoarding problem. I currently have a floor to ceiling gallery wall of cutting boards in my kitchen. I think, with a couple hacks, you too can make a blog worthy board.
I rarely have a super clear plan of what I'm going to do. That sentence sort of sums up my life, but what I mean to say is, I find that boards are an afterthought to whatever else is going on. Not because they should be an afterthought, but because when planning a get together (or running late for book club - again) there's normally a lot of other moving parts you have to concern yourself with. In my head I'm just like, "I'll go to the grocery store, buy a bunch of shit and throw it on a board." If you want some planned out boards, please check out @ainttooproudtomeg on insta. She is the charcuterie queen and does these meticulous themed boards that I don't think I would have the patience for, even if it was my only job. So think of this post as "the busy (or lazy) person's guide to making a gorge board that will make everyone ooooh and ahhhh.”
Emily’s Steps to Building a Board
1. The Art of It
This may seem like a weird first step to think about, but understanding that the secret to most good styling, food, clothes, interiors - it doesn't matter - is mixing up textures, shapes, sizes and having a clear color story.
Presentation starts with the foundation so start with a board, platter, basket - or all three. Because I generally overdo it and run out of space, I like to keep my crackers/toasts/bread separate from all the stuff that goes on top. Other than space, the other reason to keep them separated is that the moisture from the toppings can seep into the breads making them soggy, and keeping gluten off everything else in case that is a needed precaution.
I find a board with an edge to keep crackers etc. corralled works reasonably well, but if you need more support, a bowl or a basket works best. Let's say you're already using a rectangular wood board for the cheese etc, then a round or oval basket for the bread is going to be more interesting than using another board that looks very similar to the cheese board. Mix it up. Added points for a pretty lined napkin in the basket - another opportunity to bring in texture, print, and/or color.
Smaller vessels for holding nuts, dips or spreads will most likely be needed. Unless you are going for a very unified look, this is another place to bring in different heights, shapes and colors. A small wooden bowl of Castelvetrano olives will be much more eye catching next to a porcelain footed vessel filled to the brim with pistachios. The varying heights bring dimension and visual interest. I like to use a collection of cheese knives, small spoons, forks and tongs that I've collected over time as well - you almost have to because you will need more serving utensils than you think!
My Favorite places to find serving tools:
It is very easy for a board to start to look one bland tone. Get a cart instead of a basket, even if you aren't grabbing much, so you can spread the ingredients out on the bottom and see how they all look together. If you're doing green grapes, probably don't get all green olives and green figs and green apples. Your board will probably look sad unless you are very intentionally going for an all green thing. Variety is the spice of life! Maybe green grapes, black olives, a purple fig (or cut that green one open to expose the pretty pink inside!), and a Fiji apple.
When choosing cheeses, think about color here as well. The cheese is the star, IMHO! We will get to mixing types of cheeses - but I say, for the sake of beauty, think not only how they taste and compliment each other in that way, think about the color varying as much as possible as well because they will stand out on the board. When it comes to crackers and bread, vary those colors and textures also. White french bread next to a saltine or club cracker is not going to look very appealing.
2. Choosing the ingredients
The staples of any board for me are: Cheese, meats, fruit, veg, olives (I know, I know, they are a fruit), pickled items, nuts, spreads, bread, crackers, and herbs for garnishing. I basically just named every food group! There are two players that are foundational: Cheese and Cured Meats.
Cheeses: I usually choose at least a soft cheese like brie, a hard cheese like cheddar, and a blue cheese like Gorgonzola. If it's a bigger board, I'd add more variety in taste and texture like a smoked gouda, a crumbly feta or something with fruit or herbs infused. Whatever size board I'm doing, I try to make at least one option either a raw cheese or a goat or sheep milk cheese. Some lactose intolerant people handle those cheeses better and will appreciate the option.
Toscano with Black Pepper (Trader Joe's)
Chèvre with Honey Goat’s Milk Cheese (Trader Joe's)
Jarlsberg Swiss (can find it almost anywhere, but Costco sells it CHEAP)
Kerrygold Dubliner Irish Cheddar Cheese - Grass fed (can find most places)
Humboldt Fog - goat milk (Whole Foods)
When it comes to how to display the cheese, you can slice, crumble or leave whole. Lay out in a pattern or more haphazardly for an organic feel. Some cheeses can be cut out of their rind, sliced or crumbled and laid back in the form of the rind. Be creative with layout and try to do something a little different with each cheese.
Cured Meats: I choose meats based mostly off of how pretty they look when folded and cut.
Soppressata: slice up about half the log and leave the rest
Prosciutto: buy it already sliced and roll it up
Salami: (personal fave is Columbus Peppered Salami) buy already sliced, fold it in half and then in half again, making a triangle-ish shape, put the pointy sides all together, uneven side up
Other Ingredient Options:
Balance the board with sweetness: Honey (don't forget a cute dipper!), jams, fruit
Pickled things: cornichons are a must in my book, carrots or homemade pickled cucumbers for a fancier feast
Mustard. The grainy kind - great with cheddar and pretty on a board.
Olives - be sure to have empty bowls for pits!
Nuts and Dried fruit. My go tos are TJ's salt and pepper pistachios, TJ's rosemary or truffle marcona almonds, candied walnuts. TJ's also has a smattering of pretty dried and candied fruit.
Fresh Vegetables: my faves include snap peas, rainbow carrots with tops still attached, endive (sliced), peppers (sliced) and baby tomatoes in all the colors I can find.
Dips: Hummus for the vegetables, and tapenade (TJ's has a great one)
Herbs like rosemary, thyme, lavender, dill, basil, and edible flowers (generally can be found at Whole Foods in the fresh herb section), put them everywhere! I love using rosemary to help separate foods from each other.
Fruit for Visual Impact: A pomegranate cut in half, a whole tiny pumpkin, an orange with leaves still attached.
3. Prep and Assembly
If you are traveling with a board and need it ready to go upon arrival, keep in mind it always takes longer than you think. I've had an hour to do a rather large one for an event, and was basically grabbing every person I could find and making them help me to finish in time. I still had slippers on when people were walking in the door!
Ahead of time...
Clean veg/fruit and slice if necessary, place back in fridge
Fold/roll/cut meat, place back in fridge
Fill small dishes with liquid-y or small things (mustard, jams, nuts, olives)
Make labels for cheeses (and other things if you want - I usually never do)
Closer to leaving...
Lay out sheets of plastic wrap (I know, I KNOW. If you have other suggestions, @ ME!) large enough so that when you put the board on top, it can wrap around the whole thing. (I mean, I guess you could use a straight up bed sheet? Do they make an ENORMOUS beeswax wrap?)
Place board on wrap
Disperse cheese, the star of the show, on the board. I keep cheese in it's wrapping until I arrive.
Place small dishes of dips, jams, mustard, olives etc.
Place decorative food (orange with a leaf attached, etc.)
Take meat, veg, fruit, nuts, (everything left) and literally start throwing it all on a board, separating the colors. Put way more on there than you think can logically fit. Go for it! Have fun!
Finishing touches: herbs, edible flowers. Keep in mind that opening a few snap peas, for example, or slicing some of the baby tomatoes (but not all) gives an organic feel to the board.
When you are finished, wrap the plastic wrap (or giant beeswax wrap? or strip your sheets?) all the way around and secure.
Place board in car, if you're worried about heat, a towel on top with a couple bags of ice dispersed should do the trick
Don't forget: refilling ingredients, all the bread and crackers and serving utensils, a cutting board and knife if you think you may need it for bread and cheese. Ask the host about fridge space, or consider bringing a small cooler.
Drive like your grandmother is in the back seat!
Cut bread and cheese at the location to keep as fresh as possible.
Tricks of the Trade
Allergies/intolerances: celiac, gluten intolerance, vegetarians, vegans, lactose intolerant or milk allergy; it helps if you can find out ahead of time. I generally have some extra of everything on the side for refilling that, in a pinch, I can make work as a separate (not as beautiful) board for anyone with restrictions. I have done 2 separate boards, one for cheese and meat, and another of fruit and veg. In that case, I would make sure the meat and cheese aren't touching, but again, have some extra cheese on the side if a vegetarian is too grossed out by meat being anywhere near their food. I ALWAYS have a gluten free cracker option and keep it separate from the bread. Celiacs: partake in the board at your own risk!
If you only have time to stop at one store: Trader Joe's. They don't have the best produce all the time, but their choices of cheese, meats, nuts, dried fruit, tapenade, and crackers are hard to beat, both money and taste-wise.
Drinks: Make someone else bring them! Wine or dirty martinis are my favorite pairing.
Plates vs. Napkins: I mean, I prefer standing over the board and using it as my plate. I wish I was kidding...a plate is a good idea if dips are involved.
If you're not hosting, it's good to check with the host to see if they need you to provide something.
Hopefully you feel a little more comfortable dipping your toes into boards (ew?). Remember: cheese is the star, vary your colors, get creative with shapes and textures and, if all else fails, throw some herbs on it. Pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy it anyway because in the end, it's going to taste amazing!