The real reason for the season? Cheese balls. Sign me up for cheese ball duty for any party and I’ll knock on your door with the cheesiest ball of goodness, rolled in a beautiful holiday jacket of nuts. In fact, I think I care more about the structure and design of my cheese balls than what I’m actually wearing to said party, but this year I’ve stepped it up a notch by thinking about what to drink with the magic.
Elliott Moss, pitmaster at Buxton Hall Barbecue, prefers whiskey on all accounts. “That’s because that’s what I’m going to be drinking around Christmas,” he notes. “I have also drank beer with cheese balls—or whatever is on hand really, but it’s fun to experiment with some of the fruity and the darker beers.”
Ultimately it depends on the type of cheese ball you plan on making. There’s a world of different taste profiles waiting for you—from the classic extra sharp cheese with green onions to meat-lover’s bbq ball, and even a vegan option for those dairy-free friends.
Here, 9 different cheese ball variations to consider making this year coupled with expert booze pairings from our favorite chefs and tastemakers.
The OG Ball
This is the original, quintessential, classic cheese ball we all know and grew up with in the South. You know, the one with loads of cream cheese, extra sharp cheddar cheese, Worcestershire sauce, green onions, parsley, garlic powder, pepper and nuts. That one. “The ingredients could not be more simple, but make no mistake— grating your onions for this and fully toasting the pecans makes all the difference,” says chef John Currence, of City Grocery, Big Bad Breakfast, Bourè, and Snackbar, in Oxford, Mississippi. “Though frequently eye-balled with apprehension, the cheese ball is equally frequently the first thing to disappear from a party landscape.”
Pairing suggestions: An OG cheese ball, with cheesy, nutty, herb-y flavors, is best partnered with an easy drinking situation like Miller High Life. You can always class it up with a Miller High Life “Champagne” bottle, too.
“If it were me, I'd be spreading this on a Ritz cracker and sipping on a cold Kentucky Bourbon Barrel Ale—but really any refreshing ale with a deep bourbon finish will pair particularly well, says Anthony DiBernardo, pitmaster at Swig & Swine, of his cheese ball rolled in chopped brisket burnt ends. It’s next level. “The brisket burnt ends add a delicious smoked element and some texture that elevates the regular cheese ball,” he adds.
Pairing suggestion: DiBernardo’s all about seeking out an ale with a bourbon finish, but may we also suggest a glass of Maker's Mark on the rocks or bourbon of choice, because #meatsweats.
Pimento Cheese Ball
At Hello, Sailor, chef Craig Deihl is all about a pimento cheese ball with peanuts and ham cracklins this season. “We add extra cheddar to our pimento cheese and then roll them into balls,” he adds. “The cheese balls are then rolled in ham cracklins that have been fried out really crispy and mixed with roasted peanuts and chives,” describing the flavor as pumped up with smoked paprika. “The crunchy exterior adds a nice contrast of texture along with a salt umami finish.”
Pairing suggestion: “I love to have Boulevardier during the holidays but finish with a couple dashes of something smoky Like Scotch or Woodford Reserve,” notes Deihl. “I recommend Old Overholt Rye or Rittenhouse Rye for the booze and Carpano Antica Vermouth,” which will work well with the smoky, crunchy, umami flavor profile of the cheese ball.
Don’t be afraid to glam up your cheese ball game with specialty cheeses. Vivian Howard, of The Chef and the Farmer and hit show, A Chef’s Life, dresses up the occasion with her hit Party Magnet, a cheese ball found in her book, Deep Run Roots, composed of gorgonzola dolce, chevre, european butter, pecans, cream cheese, herbs, dried fruit and nuts. It’s so popular, in fact, you can score one online at her Handy & Hot shop while quantities last. Or play around with blue cheese and dried fruits at home for a more jazzed up holiday ball.
Pairing suggestions: Howard suggests pairing with Vermouth with its rich, salty, sweet and simultaneously savory profile. In specific, check out Carpano Antica, Vermut Lacuesta, Mancino Vermouth, Vermut Pedro, Contratto Vermouth Rosso or Yzaguirre Rojo Reserva Vermouth.
The Spice Ball
At Edmund’s Oast, chef Bob Cook’s hyped spicy pimento cheese ball is a staple on the happy hour menu. The chili-spiked cheese ball sits in a pool of sorghum syrup, offering hints of both sweet and spicy, simultaneously. And really, it’s the easiest way to dial up the flavor power of a cheese ball. Add in chili flakes, a few dashes of hot sauce or even reach for Spicewalla’s cayenne chili pepper in your spice cabinet and crank it up a notch in the heat department. “For something like this spicy cheese ball something in the clean, round malty world works really well to help balance out that chili,” says Brandon Plyler, Advanced Cicerone and beer educator at Edmund’s Oast.
Pairing suggestions: An amber lager is a great idea to pair with the nutty, spicy and sweet components of this cheese ball. “Right now we have an Amber Lager (County Fair) that we brewed here in the pub,” says Plyler. “The toasty and light caramel flavors that the grain (malt) provide work well with spicy foods and are low enough in alcohol (5.5%) help refresh the palate in between bites.”
Imagine a cheese ball composed of tangy chevre rolled in an ungodly amount of fresh, vibrant herbs. You’ve already got the formula down pat by now so you know the basic rules, but there’s nothing more palatable than an herbaceous cheese ball front and center at a party. And Aimee Fields, partner at Botanist & Barrel and also North Carolina's first certified pommelier, is all about throwing back a crisp, dry cider in this scenario.
Pairing suggestion: To match against a tangy, creamy, herbaceous cheese ball, Fields notes trying the Botanist and Barrel Farmhouse ‘Seriously Dry’ cider. “It’s a bright citrusy cider that has just the right amount of funk to match with the earthiness of the cheese,” she adds. “Soft, natural bubbles and mouth watering acidity cuts through each tangy bite leaving you wanting more.”
Sweeten up a cheese ball with crumbled cookies, cookie butter or even cookie dough for the ultimate, sweet holiday treat. Cream cheese will always be a crucial component but now you get the best of all worlds in one bite. If presented at a party it’s most prized companion is sparkling wine—but truly, sparkling wine will match just about anything on your spread.
Pairing suggestions: Champagne is always a good idea but there are some stellar sparkling wines that will do the trick. This holiday season turn to beauties such as Roederer Estate Brut , Bisol Prosecco Crede and Anna de Codorníu Blanc de Blancs Reserva, all around the $20 or under mark.
There’s something heartwarming about indulging in port wine cheese during the holiday. You know, the bright pink and orange cheese in a tub that looks more like sherbert than cheese? Yeah, that one. And there’s a pre-made cheese ball that’s superb for last-minute party situations. No one will judge you because it’s still a cheese ball. It’s also boozy and bright, so own it.
Pairing suggestions: Emilie Kapp, sommelier and owner of Chestnut Street Inn, in Asheville, suggests keeping it simple and popping into Trader Joe’s for a bottle of Evaton Porto Morgado Ruby to match its tangy, creamy, boozy profile. It’s a win-win situation. A port spritz (port plus a little fizz action) is a great makeshift cocktail pairing as well.
If you’ve had the pleasure of dining at Fiction Kitchen in Raleigh and witnessed Caroline Morrison’s outstanding vegan cheese (including pimento cheese!), you know there’s hope in satisfying a cheese ball craving without sacrificing taste. Cashew cheese is an obvious choice and once you’ve got an applaudable textured vegan cheese, add all the other fixin’s into the ball and roll it in nuts. Trust us, a good vegan cheese ball can be every bit as satisfying a traditional dairy version.
Pairing suggestions: “If you are into vegan cheese balls, you can't go wrong with a crisp Sauvignon Blanc,” says Malek Amrani, Level 3 Sommelier and founder of The Vice Wines. We also personally suggest sipping on a hazy, juicy IPA (like Burial Beer Co.’s Hawkbill) or funky natural wine alongside your creamy, nutty, tangy ball of dairy-free goodness.