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Tips for Making the Perfect Charcuterie Board

The Perfect Accompaniment to any Gathering

Is there anything more striking and sure to impress your guests than a well-crafted charcuterie board? I think not! Charcuterie boards have become the "go-to" party fare due to their vibrant colors, dynamic flavors, and dramatic visual appeal. They are truly a culinary feast for the senses and the presentation is fun yet classy.  The best part of charcuterie boards is that you can make them seasonal. At our Thanksgiving celebration my mom included sugar coated cranberries and rosemary...beautiful! A charcuterie board will wow your guests during any special occasion. Here are a few tips to make a smashing spread that will leave everyone talking.

Provide Choices for All Palates

The ultimate charcuterie board has something for everyone! Think a wide variety of flavors and textures and a diverse selection of offerings. Think well beyond just cheeses and meat and include seasonal fruit, seasoned nuts, different spreads and jams, pickled foods and much more. You want your guests to be able to pick from a diverse selection including items they are familiar with as well as something unexpected. Choose crackers with different flavors and textures and a wide variety of cheeses. Providing a wide array of options ensures that there’s something for everyone to choose from.

Choose Savory, Sweet and add a little Heat

There are so many sweet options that pair magnificently with cheeses. Think honey with blue cheese, quince paste with manchego, or apricot jam with brie. Dried fruit is an amazing addition to any board...apricots, cherries, mango. Grilled fruits can also be a way to add a unique touch to your creation. Also, don't forget the heat! Try a habanero jack, spicy raspberry jam, or pepper jelly on your board to spice things up!

Add a Variety of Tastes and Textures

The key to a good board is to include a variety of tastes and textures in your meat and cheese selections. Include a selection of harder cheeses (aged Cheddars, Manchego, Piave, Gouda, Flavored Jack, Manchego) and cheeses that are soft, crumbly, or creamy (blue cheese, Brie, Jasper Hill washed rind, Taleggio, Cranberry goat cheese, etc.). For the meats include both hard salamis as well as sliced salamis which can be rolled and meats such as prosciutto, jamón, mortadella, and spicy coppa. Adding in a pate, mousse or rillette is also sure to impress your guests. Balance is key. Be sure to ask for the rich, salty meats to be sliced as thinly as possible and for your soft meats, add one large dollop right next to the bread or crackers.


Think Seasonal!

Charcuterie boards are an excellent way to showcase seasonal bounty. In the fall and winter include fruits such as pomegranate, figs, persimmons and even cranberries. In the summer include cherries and stone fruits. Berries are a great addition pretty much all year round and work beautifully to fill in space and add color. In late summer, when the cherry tomatoes are at their sweetest, these are a wonderful addition and pair perfectly with some fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese.

Bring on the Brine

Briny elements are always a hit and cut the richness of the meats and cheeses perfectly! Olives, cornichons, or any pickled vegetables really add a pop of flavor to any board. Hit up the olive bar at your local Whole Foods and include a selection of olives. Castelvetrano olives are Italy's most ubiquitous snack olive. They have a Kermit-green hue, meaty, buttery flesh, and a mild flavor. Consider serving them with sheep's milk cheese. Nyon olives are those little black olives with wrinkles that are frequently dressed with herbs such as thyme. These petite, jet-black olives from the south of France are heart-stopping. First dry cured, then aged in brine, the plump, wrinkly olives are meaty, just-a-bit bitter, and packed with aromatic flavor. Cornichons are the perfect petit pickle to include on your board and are the perfect accompaniment to pates and terrines. Caper berries are another wonderful element to add to your platter and add a fun visual element as well. 


Choosing Your Board

Be sure to choose a board that fits the size of your party. Laying out everything in advance can help you visualize the end result. If you don't have a cheese board already think of options like a large platter, cutting board or pizza peel. A standard size cutting board or platter for charcuterie is about 9×13 inches but can be as large as 12×18 inches—even your entire tabletop or counter. Hard and non-porous woods are best should you choose to purchase a board. Woods such as maple, cherry, olive, acacia, beech, birch, and teak will not leave messy stains or keep scars from knives or serving utensils. Other materials that work well are slate, marble, pewter or bamboo. 

Start with Small Dishes and Bowls

Start with small dishes such as ramekins, tins, jars and small bowls to house your jams, mustards, dips, nuts and briny elements. Place them around the board strategically so that you may continue to fill it in with the meats and cheeses. These bowls perform double duty since they are also wonderful pieces to lean light crackers or bread against. 

Assembling the Board

Once the small dishes are placed around the board start assembling the rest. Start from the center and work outwards ensuring that you place items that pair well together near one another. After placing your vessels, add any large produce (think bunches of grapes) as well as your cheeses. The best charcuterie boards have items and ingredients that are easy to pick up and don’t involve excessive cutting or extra work once they leave the table. If you have larger wedges or rounds of harder cheeses cube them, or slice them so guests can grab and go. For softer and more crumbly cheeses, consider keeping the block whole for a neat and beautiful appearance with a serving knife nearby. Your meats can be sliced diagonally for a nice touch and then rolled up or folded for easy access. For both meats and cheeses, you can fan them out or stack them delicately to create the ultimate showcase. Also think about symmetry. If you add crackers on the left, also add some to the right. 


Fill in the Gaps with Fruit and Garnishes

A tightly-packed board provides more visual punch. Save your fruits for last and fill in the final gaps on your board with fresh berries, nuts and dried fruits. Tucking in a few fresh herbs under bowls helps fill up the space and add a “pop” of color on your board. Adding in some thinly sliced green cucumber, thinly sliced orange persimmons, loose pomegranate seeds or sugared cranberries are all great visual additions to your board.

Choosing your Breads and Crackers

Last but not least, your bread and crackers selections will provide the foundation for your guests to layer their meats and cheeses on. Start with plain, neutral-flavored crackers, pita or pretzel thins, crostini, and/or sliced baguettes—both soft and crispy options—then add in some flavor. There are several unique cracker variations to choose from at the store, from cranberry hazelnut to spicy ranch. Consider providing gluten-free options for your guests as well, such as rice crackers. Toast baguettes for wonderful accompaniments to your pates and spreads. Choose several different types of bread as well: olive breads, nut breads or a hearty cranberry wheat.

The Finishing Touches

Labels or miniature signs are a great way to let your guests know what they are eating, especially if you are using specialty cheeses with unique or strong flavors. They can also add a lovely touch of décor to your display. Toothpicks are a must to avoid messy fingers and are great for retrieving olives and pickles out of jars. Choose your knives carefully. Using a knife that is specifically made for soft cheeses will leave less of a mess behind and make it easier for guests to serve themselves. Have enough knives for all of the different cheeses and use decorative forks for the meats. Last but not least consider some pink sea salt, freshly cracked pepper, glasses full of high quality bread sticks and high-quality olive oil for your finishing touches.

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