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How to make the best charcuterie boards

In a time when we can’t have in-person celebrations, we can remind ourselves of the days communal dining by plunking down beloved ingredients onto a board.
There is a reason why charcuterie and cheese is the classic.
There is a reason why charcuterie and cheese is the classic.Ali Rosen

Once upon a time, we lived in a world where the only grazing board we considered was cheese and charcuterie. But then Instagram and Pinterest came along and upped everyone’s visual game. And then along came a pandemic that swept in a type of boredom we had never known. Somehow, in the blink of an eye, we went from nice, simple charcuterie boards to elaborate multi-layered dessert boards. Anything could be on a board: lunch, brunch, pancakes, hot chocolate — any kind of smorgasbord you could imagine.

In a time when we can’t have in-person celebrations — and goodness, can we even imagine something like a buffet right now? — we can remind ourselves of the days communal dining by plunking down beloved ingredients onto a board.

The advantages of the simpler boards are clear: Without cooking much (or anything), you can have a beautiful meal that feels festive. But where is the line between a useful board and an overzealous platter that ends up mostly uneaten.

There are a few key elements of a charcuterie board that can help plan for any kind of board. Tia Keenan, cheese expert and author of "The Art of the Cheese Plate," reminded us to understand how cheese boards evolved:

“When a caterer makes a cheese board for a party, it behooves them to add lots of extra things because the cheese is the most expensive part of the board," she told TODAY Food. "So when we're at home and we're committed to eating a piece of cheese I want people to remember that cheese is a perfect, finished ingredient.”

Cheese and charcuterie have always been such excellent standalone items because they are intended to bring enough flavor, texture and visual appeal to be the star of the plate. Then the supporting players should all add something beyond just the visual. The classic cheese board accompaniments — apple slices, nuts, dried fruits — have a purpose beyond variety. As Keenan pointed out, “There's a reason why that's the classic thing and it's because it gives you fiber, protein, dairy and sweetness, that tops it off. There's a reason why that has always worked beyond the aesthetics.”

So, when thinking about building a board beyond cheese, take the same principles with you: The first key is to gather ingredients that all have a purpose. A photo of a lush, full board is great, but the main goal of the board is for eating. Every accompaniment should fit thematically with the board. Be careful to not put things on the board that aren’t edible. One of the biggest pitfalls of a board is getting so focused on the visual that you end up wasting food that won’t get eaten but then sits out too long to be put away.

The next thing to consider is to have starring players and supporting players: Every board theme should have central elements, and the rest of the items can add color, texture and additional flavor. Spreads, jams, spices and toppings can all go a long way toward making your board beautiful while also giving more options to customize whatever you are eating.

Temperature is another big factor in boards: The whole point is that everyone can keep picking and adding a bit more to their plates. If an item needs to be piping hot to be enjoyed, it probably isn’t a great fit for a board. Boards are for grazing and a lot of items are pushed together, so you don’t want to overheat.

Lastly, remember the occasion and the audience: A board for a family with kids needs to keep in mind that the kids will grab at everything — you don’t want olives with pits they could bite into or spicy mustards that they won’t be able to identify. Holidays can be another great excuse to make a board, but just make sure it all ties together. A board for Easter might include savory items like dyed eggs or sliced lamb for sandwiches, but if you start adding decorative Peeps you’re going to have a discordant flavor profile. Keep each board cohesive and you’ll have the perfect meal setup.

The sky is now the limit when it comes to boards, but a few particular versions have proven themselves particularly noteworthy.

How to make a lunch charcuterie board

The lunch board is the ultimate grazer's paradise and can include a multitude of items, but the biggest potential pratfall is going in too many directions. It’s important to center your lunch board around a flavor profile and concept so that everyone can build a plate from anything that’s been set out.

The lunch board is the ultimate grazer's paradise.
The lunch board is the ultimate grazer's paradise.Ali Rosen

The easiest setup is to put out bread that can then be topped with a variety of ingredients. You want to make sure there is a base for the bread — butter, cheese, hummus or other spreads work great here. Add produce like avocados, tomatoes, carrots and radishes to give texture, flavor and an important dose of color. Prepared items like olives, soft boiled eggs, meats or pickles can be the central addition. Lastly, if you want to give opportunity for more flavor, lemons or little bowls of spice mixtures can also be included to tie everything together.

How to make a pancake charcuterie board

One of the most popular crazes in the board phenomenon is the pancake board. An exciting twist on the classic, it feels like a party on a board. The central item is, of course, the pancakes. Stack them up or fan them out in a line to make them as visually appealing as you can, then surround them with items that pair perfectly — bacon or sausage creates a perfect counterpoint. And then toppings for the pancakes can run the gamut — classic syrup and butter can pair with whipped cream, berries, honey, chocolate, peanut butter or jam.

Put pancakes on a board and it instantly becomes a party.
Put pancakes on a board and it instantly becomes a party.Ali Rosen

The only consideration with a pancake board is whether you want to keep the pancakes warm before serving. I like to fully lay out the rest of the elements of the board and then add the pancakes last so that the first bite is hot, but since they all eventually cool down anyway, and pancakes are wonderful at any temperature, it’s up to personal preference.

A bagel board is another great idea for a breakfast spread.
A bagel board is another great idea for a breakfast spread.Ali Rosen

How to make a granola charcuterie board

If you are looking to keep breakfast healthy, then a granola board can add fun personalization for the whole family in a way that doesn’t include your children bouncing off the walls. It starts with a good granola as the centerpiece and the toppings are endless from there. You can have a dairy selection — milk, yogurt, nut milks, cottage cheese — or just stick to one. If you want to get extra fancy. you can put your yogurt in a coconut so you can also scoop out fresh coconut along with your yogurt, and then add any toppings you like — berries, citrus and dried fruits can add flavor and texture. Seeds like flax or chia can give another dose of health, or, if you want a little extra sweetness, honey, maple syrup or jam can be added into the mix.

For a healthier take on a breakfast board, set out all the fixings for a granola bowl.
For a healthier take on a breakfast board, set out all the fixings for a granola bowl.Ali Rosen

How to make a dessert charcuterie board

There’s no going wrong with a dessert board. Add a bunch of delicious treats onto a tray of any kind and no one will complain, but there’s still a method to making your particular version sing. A variety of textures and flavors are still just as important even when everything is sweet. One or two baked items — like cupcakes, cake or cookies — can be the center of the board. Then little chocolate snacks like covered nuts, pretzels or bark can serve as single-bite treats. You can even add dips like melted chocolate, Nutella or peanut butter to create even more personalization. Adding some lightness with fresh fruit, candied fruit, coconut chips and sour candies can round it out.

A dessert board is always a good idea.
A dessert board is always a good idea.Ali Rosen

How to make a classic cheese charcuterie board

There is a reason why charcuterie and cheese is the classic. The creamy texture of cheese combined with the salty fattiness of cured meats is a combination that cannot go wrong. Often a cheese board will have three cheeses because of the three milks for cheese — cow, goat and sheep. You can also have variety in cheese by going for some hard and some soft or some mild and some stinky. But as Keenan noted, you want to make sure you don’t go overboard when it comes to cheese:

“You can get sensory overload pretty quickly," she said. "Having three cheeses is enough to give you variety but not so much that you're going to get mentally tired or your mouth will get confused.”

It's the classic for a reason.
It's the classic for a reason.Ali Rosen

It’s a similar thought for the charcuterie — hard salami can pair beautifully with softer prosciutto or mortadella. And then ensuring you have some additional flavor with classics like apple, grapes, jam, nuts or crackers will go a long way.

Whatever you choose to do with your boards, we all need something that feels festive while we wait for life to go back to normal. So if a board can help us along, it’s a trend worth trying!