Ask a Monger: How to Build the Perfect Cheese Board

Zingerman's Deli staff holding a cheesemonger board with a variety of cheese and pairings, how to build cheese board

Dreaming of a DIY or a made-to-order cheese board?

The Deli’s mongers can guide you through the Deli’s epic cheese case, dole out pairing and portioning advice, and build made-to-order boards.

Whether you’re treating yourself to a mini cheese board to accompany your Thursday night Netflix or putting together a snack plate of Spanish Manchego, Pascualino and Jamón Ibérico for your Spanish literature class, the Deli can show you how to build the perfect cheese board.

If you’d prefer to pick up a pre-made board, the Deli’s mongers can create a Pinterest-worthy appetizer spread or a ready-to-eat Monger Board, which features rotating products, the Deli can do that too – all you have to do is ask!

To put together this guide on building the perfect cheeseboard, we talked to Sean Hartwig, Zingerman’s Delicatessen specialty foods manager and cheesemonger, for expert guidance.

Find Inspiration from our Pre-Assembled Cheese and Meat monger boards!

Meet Sean, Resident Cheese Board Expert

Sean Hartwig is Zingerman’s Delicatessen specialty foods manager (with an extensive knowledge of cheese). Sean shares his love and enthusiasm for traditional foods with everyone he meets. His love of flavor is palpable when you meet him, and this love is a common thread throughout the Deli’s retail staff

“As a cheesemonger, you get to meet a lot of people who want to talk about what you like. When we taste cheese, we’re celebrating traditional food, which is now a luxury food. I think we all relate to these foods and flavors – it’s an innate appreciation for the simplicity of traditional foods,” Sean said.

Sean has studied traditional foodways, both formally and informally, across the globe. He earned his university degree in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and lived and studied in the French Basque Pyrenees.

His wanderlust and love of learning have served Sean well in his role as the Deli for over eight years.

Zingerman's Deli Cheesemonger behind a mountain of cheese in the retail cheese area, how to build cheeseboard
*photo taken pre-covid pandemic

The Deli’s Cheesemonger Team

Consider the Deli’s cheesemongers your team of cheese coaches, supporting you and sharing guidance and wisdom as you discover products you’ll love. The Deli’s cheesemongers are here to guide you to delicious victory.

“Our job as cheesemongers is to make people feel comfortable. We’re here to take care of them. We’re excited about cheese and excited to help our guests find cheese they love. We’re emotional support cheesemongers,” Sean said.

Here are Sean’s top tips – use these as your cheeseboard assembly playbook the next time you’re on a mission to design a delectable cheese board.

Step 1: Plan Your Cheese Board

To plan your cheese board, Sean recommends first identifying the Who, What, Where and Why of your cheese board. The following questions will inform the conversation you have with your monger, and will influence how you put the final product together.


  • Who are you making the cheese and charcuterie board for?
  • What is the occasion?
  • Where are you serving it?
  • What season is it?
  • What is your budget?
  • How much cheese is appropriate for the occasion?
  • Do you have an image of what the board will look like?

“Knowing the answers to these questions is also an important step for us, as cheesemongers, to clearly understand what the cheeseboard looks like in your mind, and what’s actually possible. It’s like going to a hair salon – many times people have an expectation that might be unrealistic financially or otherwise, and expectations need to be recalibrated,” Sean said.

Once you get clear on the purpose of your cheese board, and clarify your expectations for the spread, it’s time to move on to one of the more technical aspects of designing a cheese board: portioning.

Zingerman's Deli Cheese Display counter, stacks of cheese, how to build cheeseboard

Step 2: Portion Your Cheeses

Working with the Deli’s cheesemongers can help guide portioning decisions when you’re at the deli, but to build your cheese know-how, here are some of Sean’s rules of thumb.

As a general rule, it’s smart to plan for 1-2 oz of each cheese per person. From there, your cheesemonger can give you an idea of how different amounts of cheese appear when sliced, and how much different portions will cost. To help you visualize how much product is recommended per cheeseboard, your Deli monger can hold up each piece of cheese, show you how thick they’d recommend slicing it, to determine how large of a wedge that would yield.

Step 3: Design And Build Your Layout

As you design your cheese board, let your tastes guide you. If you don’t know what you like just yet, don’t worry – it’s a cheesemonger’s job to understand what you like to guide your selections and can help you balance flavors and textures on a cheese board.

“If a guest is buying to share with other people, we like to make sure they’re picking things they like. If you serve things you’re personally excited about, you’ll convey that excitement to your guests,” said Sean.

Another aspect of designing your cheeseboard is choosing from what’s available. At the Deli, 60 percent of stock is imported and 40 percent is domestic, with a focus on seasonal, traditionally-made items. Ask your cheesemonger what special seasonal items are available – they’ll jump at the chance to show you through the case’s bloomiest rinds, our spectrum of blue’s, crop of cloth-bound cheddars and our luscious stock of washed-rind beauties.

Step 4: Serve Your Cheese Board

As you prepare to serve your cheese board, two elements must be considered: preparing the cheese and presenting the cheese. Good preparation will ensure you serve your cheese at its ideal temperature and give you a chance to decide to pre-cut or to serve with cheese knives.

Good presentation will ensure you’re serving a beautiful display that will impress your guests (and yourself), add a focal point to your event, and give your cheese a worthy stage to stand on!

Prepare the Cheese

To prepare your cheese, meat and other accompaniments, bring it to room temperature and determine if you will pre-cut the items you’re serving.

“A lot of our guests ask, ‘How long should I leave cheese out to warm up?’ We recommend removing your cheese from the refrigerator, leaving time to come up to room temperature. We do this because many cheeses, especially brie or other soft cheeses, will display and taste differently once they’re not refrigerated,” said Sean.

What does this look like in practice? First, remove your cheese from the refrigerator a half an hour to an hour before you plan to serve it. Place the cheese on a surface that’s different than your serving platter, cover it loosely to ensure your cheese rinds don’t dry out. Please note: size and density of cheese, will affect the amount of time it takes to come up to room temperature.

When it comes to cutting your cheese, you can choose to pre-cut all of your cheese selections, leave all the cutting to your guests, or you can meet halfway and cut a few slices of your products, leaving a knife to invite your guests to continue.

Now your cheese is at room temperature and you’ve decided your game plan for slicing – how do you make it look nice? Don’t worry, Sean has you covered.

Zingerman's Cheese board with a variety of cheese and pairings on a wooden board

Present the Cheese

First, please forget the idea that creating a beautiful, bountiful cheese and meat board is complicated – it’s not. You can do this!

To get you started, here’s a taste of Sean’s wisdom, including a few rules of thumb that can guide you on your quest to design a beautiful, appetizing and crowd-pleasing board.

“I think there’s a demystification around this type of thing that needs to happen. We’re enthusiasts – not snobs. As professionals, the goal isn’t to upsell, it’s to make sure people understand and appreciate what they learn at the counter. We want to lower the pressure around making beautiful trays. Building beautiful cheese boards is not a function of knowing how things will go, it’s just practice.”

The goal of the presentation of your cheeseboard should be making it look bountiful, which is not always about loading on more product. A bountiful board can be created with creativity, by choosing a smaller dish, or by stacking products vertically and adding accoutrements like olives, crackers, dried fruits, nuts, preserves and honey.

Your board can be similar one of the olive wood boards we sell at the Deli, a slab of marble, or it can be on a simple wood cutting board. It can be a sprawling display of cheese and meat, or it can be an elegant display of two minimal selections. It’s up to you – you’re the boss! The function of a larger board is grazing and snacking, while a more streamlined selection focuses on tasting the products.

Now that you’ve got a plan for your presentation, we’ll show you how to kick it up a notch.

Step 5: Mix Up Your Cheese Board

Adding wildcard products and instructional elements to a spread can score extra points both in aiding your guests’ tasting experience, and in shaking up a traditional cheese board.

Why don’t you…

  • Create signage for your cheese boards! Include country of origin, name, ingredients, etc.
  • Ask a Deli cheesemonger to photocopy cheese labels for your display
  • Add things to create different heights, stack your cheese, incorporate candles
  • Design your cheeseboard around a theme
  • Offer wine pairings for different sides of your display
  • Add chocolate with warm spices (chocolate + chili) to your board
  • Grind spices to coat soft cheeses in – balancing creaminess with smoky heat
  • Add pots of spices to your display and invite your guests to play with them
  • Add fermented foods like kimchi, quick pickles (an easy DIY!) or kombuchas

Step 6: Enjoy Your Cheese Board!

We hope you take a journey like Sean’s, following your tastes and curiosities to your perfect cheeseboard. Remember, when you serve cheese you’re excited about, your guests will feel your excitement and eagerly taste their way through your selections. Trust your tastes!

If you’ve decided you’d prefer to leave board construction to the professionals, the Deli offers pre-assembled cheese, meat and fishmonger boards, featuring rotating products.

Visit Sean and his team of cheesemongers for a DIY or made-to-order board today!


Want to Share A Board with Friends at the Deli?
See Our Pre-Assembled Cheese and Meat monger boards!