A good grazing board contains multitudes.
People wander over from the dance floor or the living room to an exquisitely set board filled with cheeses, tinned fish, long bready crackers, fresh cut fruit, shiny olives — surveying the spread, taking bites from here and there, and chatting through the night.
At once, a grazing board is balanced yet varied, intimidating yet approachable, composed yet hectic. A good grazing board invites curiosity — acting as both a worthy topic of a conversation and the perfect place for conversation.
It may seem daunting, but building a good grazing board is easier than you might expect. All it requires is thoughtfulness, breaking down each component and teaching ourselves how to trust our palettes and build a board worth the bites.
As we add more and more options to the board, the number of possible flavor combinations grows exponentially. To simplify our thinking and quickly obtain expert-level board intuition, let’s break down the composition of grazing boards into three simple categories: flavor, preparation, and appearance.
To begin, choose two to three components you want to feature on the board. Whether you choose your favorite jam, crusty cracker, or cheese, orient yourself toward what you find delicious. Keep this simple. Opt for foods you love eating, with tastes you know well.
These are your star ingredients, the main components that the rest of your board orbits around. Now, ask yourself: what is missing? What could complement these beautiful smoked oysters? Or this nice honey? Professional chefs and sommeliers make tasting notes to think about what their food or beverage tastes like and what could complement and balance the existing flavors. We can do the same thing.
Need some help to start? Here are some adjectives we can use when creating our tasting notes: salty, sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, fatty, nutty, and funky. Anything here works, as long as it makes sense to you.
Based on your observations, ask yourself – what can balance these flavors? Follow your curiosity. Salty nuts pair well with sweet stone fruit. A glob of cottage cheese can overwhelm the palate by itself, but adding a briny element like capers or a pickle can brighten the bite up.
A good grazing board celebrates ingredients and the different forms they come in. How wide your variety of preparations determines what kind of board you will ultimately make.
Want a lot of tinned fish? Well, you have a tinned fish board. Have a lot of fresh vegetables? Crudité! Cured meats and cheeses? You have a charcuterie board!
Though flavor is the most important element to think about, preparation comes close. Variety is exciting for the grazer. The grazer wants to be delighted and surprised by new combinations that they would not normally expect in a traditionally prepared meal.
It’s impossible to talk about grazing boards without taking aesthetics into consideration. First of all, you do not need to overthink this. A basic grazing board, no matter what’s on it, will impress.
Have fun when thinking about board aesthetics. What are you serving the food on? What kind of tiny bowls and utensils do you have? What existing packaging can you incorporate into the visuals? Do you need a board at all? What if you used multiple boards? Woah.
For the food itself, the general rule of thumb is either keep elements small and mouth-sized OR have some way to break down larger ingredients. Think about a small cheese knife for segmenting or a spoon to divvy out a hummus.
For the layout of the board itself, mix around different flavors and preparations. Subtly hint possible flavor combinations. Go for heterogeneity! Mix it up!
Drawing a blank? Here are some grazing board thought-starters:
Here is a charcuterie board our long-time recipe developer and food stylist Aubrey Devin created:
It is a renaissance-painting-crowded-city-crossing of a grazing board. Shapes, textures, colors, preparations of food sprout from every inch of the board, filling the space. Here is an example of a great aspirational board, an exception to the standard.
First of all, two boards – woah. Fresh elements include cantaloupe, cherry tomatoes, figs. Olives bring in brininess; a jelly brings sweetness; various cured meats bring savory and salty notes; cacao-dusted nuts sit next to a cracked open pomegranate. The cheeses vary in taste and texture as well — a soft brie (creamy), sharp cheddar (salty), and a blue cheese (funky).
Notice, if you make a bite with, say, a toasty breadstick and the cheddar, you may taste predominantly salt. However, if you add a smear of the jam or a segment of the fig, the bite balances itself out. A briny olive may not tango with the stink of the blue cheese, so opt for the brie instead. Wrap that whole deal in prosciutto, and you have a party going. Don’t even get me started on what we would pair with those cherry tomatoes (for the record, it would be the blue cheese).
Ask yourself, what can happen here? What do I like about this? What would I personally change? Have an opinion and continuously ask yourself questions; imagine what you might do differently. Through reflection, you can discover your board-creation style. You can go out there and test your opinion against the world.
Building grazing boards is an exercise in experimentation, variety, and balance. Grazing boards celebrate the first step of cooking: mise en place, or the act of preparation. What chefs do, what home cooks do is the service of nourishment, of planning and thought. You too face a similar responsibility, only now you are letting everyone inside the kitchen.
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