We all know the tried-and-true cheese board pairings. Grapes, red wine, crackers and charcuterie are time-tested accompaniments to cheeses from cheddar to blue. There's nothing wrong with these basic combinations but they can get boring. Need some fresh ideas? There's a method to create perfect pairings on your cheese board that are not only delicious, but will also make your table more interesting and leave an impression on your guests.
Sydney Willcox, a former cheesemonger and cheese educator who works for Restaurant Associates, says there are three ways to create cheese pairings that go beyond the basics. "A good pairing will take the flavors of each food and maximize that times ten," says Willcox. "You will get so much more complexity out of a good pairing than you would with a single item."
Julia Birnbaum, a cheesemonger and founder of Philly Cheese School, explains that "a good pairing creates something greater than the sum of its parts."
"In other words" she says, "it isn't just about eating two or more tasty products together; it's about combining flavors in a way which elevates each one to do something new and different than it would do alone."
The first way to make a good pairing, according to Willcox, is to focus on oppositions, like sweet and salty. "With opposition, the dominant flavors of each food can take a backseat allowing the more subtle flavors to shine through," she explains. "Contrast is a key pairing concept in both flavor and texture — a creamy cheese is wonderful with a crunchy cracker, and harder cheeses are better with chewy bread."
Another way to find something that pairs well with a cheese is to look at what goes in harmony with the cheese's flavor. "When it comes to pairing in harmony, look for a distinctive flavor note in the cheese and match that note like for like," recommends Willcox. "For example, smoked cheese with bacon or a nutty Gruyére with toasted nuts."
The most important thing to consider when creating pairings is to have fun with the process. Birnbaum draws on her nearly decade of experience working with cheese to create her pairings, but believes "the best pairings come from that spirit of play, where we are just pulling things off shelves and seeing how they taste together, and not taking anything too seriously."
A final consideration in creating cheese pairings is to make sure that the intensity of flavors match. According to Birnbaum, "the biggest pairing bummer is when one product totally overpowers the other and you can only taste that."
Looking for some unique cheese pairings to try at home? Cheese educators and experts share their suggestions.
Payday candy bar and Gouda
Molly Browne, an experienced cheese educator for Wisconsin Cheese says "the caramel notes of the [Payday] are a perfect counterpoint to the savory notes in the cheese."
"And," Brown adds, "the peanuts provide extra textural balance. The whole effect is a bit like a peanut butter cheesecake."
Chocolate covered espresso beans and aged cheddar
"An aged cheddar … is a flavor bomb," says Brown. "The flavor profile of chocolate covered espresso beans is similar — they are dark and bitter and crunchy and sweet all at once. Put these two together for a sensory experience you'll never forget."
Sour gummy worms and fresh chèvre
Birnbaum likes this combination because the soft goat cheese has a "tangy, bright flavor" that blends with the "over-the-top sweetness and astringency of the sour gummy worms" to create a surprising combination that works. Though gummies are rarely eaten with cheese, Birnbaum thinks the contrasting textures of fluffy cheese and gummies go well together. Plus, Birnbaum says, "it looks so cool on a cheese board."
Dark chocolate and blue cheese
Blue cheese with dark chocolate brownies, a double chocolate cookie or dark chocolate fudge go well together because the sweetness and slight bitter flavor of the chocolate balance the funk and salt from the blue cheese, says Willlcox. Milk chocolate won't work for this pairing, since the cheese will be overpowered by sweetness.
Sharp cheddar and hard-boiled eggs
Medium and sharp cheddar with sliced hard-boiled eggs make a great pairing because "both aged cheddar and cooked eggs have a sulfur flavor that give them each their unique flavor," says Chad Galer, a microbiologist and vice president of product research and food safety at Dairy Management Inc. "The cheesy flavors and eggs complement one another deliciously," he adds.
Feta and crispy fried bacon
Feta has a salty flavor like bacon. "They combine for an even saltier flavor punch," says Galer, "with creamy and tangy flavors of each cheese enhancing the savory and meaty flavor of the bacon."
Pickled vegetables and fresh cheese
"Feta, cottage, mascarpone [or] quark with pickled veggies — this is a great pairing idea to showcase matching like with like," says Willcox. "These cheeses have higher acidity than others, so they match in harmony with pickled vegetables, such as beets, string beans, cornichons, okra and carrots."
Peanut butter and aged cheddar
"The peanut butter and cheddar work in harmony, sharing nuttiness and toffee flavors," says Willcox. "If you use crunchy peanut butter, you can mirror the crunchy crystallization you find in aged cheddar." She also recommends putting aged cheddar on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Home chef Chantelle Malarkey likes pairing sharp cheddar and peanut butter on crackers for the same reason.
Chocolate milk and habanero cheese
"This medium-to-intense heat cheese pairs well with the sweet and mellow flavors of milk chocolate," says Galer. "The sweetness of the chocolate milk chocolate takes the edge off of the heat from the habanero cheese." Ghost Pepper Cheese and chocolate milk also go well together, but it's not for the faint of heart.
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