The Best Charcuterie Board Cheeses and Meats, According to Pros
Communal eating is back! Now that gatherings have returned, we couldn't be more excited to share in grub as well as gab. Nearly every home entertaining event includes a meat and cheese appetizer these days, and since these creations are increasingly inspired by Instagram and Pinterest, they are more beautiful than ever before.
What once was a boring plate of cheese cubes and stale crackers has morphed into photo-worthy charcuterie boards and grazing tables—the hottest hosting trend as DIY-ers like Hanane Rasuli, food stylist and owner of French Boards and Bites NY, have gone pro in the absence of eating out. "I started [crafting charcuterie boards] in December 2020 as a fun way to bring people together, and it quickly turned into a full-time gig!"
She's not the only one. Charcuterie and grazing boards have become a booming business now thanks to social media, and start-up specialists like sisters Jackie Cardace and Janel Presi of Grazing Girls have a similar success story. "We're in the age of 'Instagrammable food' and charcuterie boards are just that—beautiful to look at and delicious to eat," they say of their business, which was also founded in December 2020.
"When creating boards, you need to always keep in mind the visual aspect of them," say the Grazing Girls, who have become known for dynamic and beautiful spreads that flow with color and shape. Matt Pratta, Culinary Director of Sprouts Farmers Market, adds, "Creating a board to share is the perfect opportunity to try new things, so I'd suggest staying away from standards that would typically be used in sandwiches or for everyday meals, and instead look for specialty cheeses and meats that combine different flavors."
But where does one even start? We asked these niche entertainment experts to name the best charcuterie meats and cheeses so you can build the foundation of one amazing spread the next time you have guests over or simply feel like treating yourself.
The Best Charcuterie Meats
"When creating a charcuterie board, the key with proteins is to add different levels of flavors and textures," Pratta says. "I always suggest selecting items that are salty, spicy, dry, and rich to keep the board varied."
This principle is what guides all of these entertaining experts on their picks, and that, in turn, leads to a lot of variety. They each have their favorite types of cured meats that they use as a go-to, but there are two that are unanimously agreed upon as the foundational choices: Italian dry salami and prosciutto.
Italian dry salami
Italian dry salami is a fermented and air-dried pork sausage made with Italian spices and a touch of red wine. "[It's] savory, spicy, and sweet," the Grazing Girls say, which makes for appealing and satisfying bites. This type of salami is also brighter tasting and softer than other salami, and may include veal and beef-based products. This salami category can also include soppressata, pepperoni, and the like, all of which keep well in room temperature settings and add interesting, dark hues to any spread. The star within the Italian salami category, according to the pros, is Genoa salami, which is produced in northern Italy.
"In thin slices, it's really nice to use Italian dry salami to make salami roses or a salami river," Rasuli suggests. Dry salami and hard sausages sliced into coins are also common; that shape may be easier to pick up and handle, and fits neatly on crackers. Pratta is less picky about presentation but specific on variety, making Volpi Chianti Red Wine Salame his top choice.
The rosette method is also great for prosciutto because the frail slivers can be challenging to serve. Shaping them into blossoms makes them easier to grab as a tidy package, but Rasuli opts to make ribbons out of the slices instead, for less handling. Either way, this treat has become a standard pick, enchanting cured meat lovers worldwide with its salty and savory taste and the delicate, tissue-paper-thin layer of fat that lends richness to the strong flavor.
Coppa (a pork cold cut) is another popular choice from the Grazing Girls and Rasuli. "It's similar to prosciutto," Rasuli explains. "[It's] delicately spiced, slightly smoky, and sliced as thinly as possible."
The final essential that has a consensus: dry soppressata. Like all of the Italian sausages, it's technically salami, but it's a particularly distinctive one. It's all pork and lean, and Rasuli likes to mix and match white, sweet, and spicy varieties. "It pairs well with semi-soft cheeses, particularly havarti," she says.
Rasuli's personal favorite to include for French Boards and Bites NY's orders is saucisson sec, a classic French kind of salami. Being from France herself, it's a signature addition to her boards. "Saucisson sec is one of the most famous charcuterie in France, seasoned with sea salt, pepper, and garlic. It's simple and delicious—rich, creamy, and offers a taste that will delight any palate," she says.
Another "love" of Rasuli's? Bresaola. "It's a lean cured meat, less fatty than prosciutto, and milder in flavor," she shares. "It's salty with hints of spice like garlic and pepper, with a very meaty taste." This Italian meat is usually made with beef, but can occasionally be made with horse or venison. It is leaner than many other whole muscle cured meats and, in addition to black pepper, is typically flavored with juniper and cloves.
RELATED: Quick 20-Minute Party Appetizers
Additional charcuterie meats
Pratta, on the other hand, recommends Fiorucci All-Natural Pepperoni for meat and cheese plates. And at home, he always keeps the Columbus Craft Meats Charcuterie Trio on hand, citing it as perfect for "spur-of-the-moment entertaining and over-the-top pizza toppings."
He adds of the three-variety pack: "It has Calabrese for heat and peppered salami that's fully coated; I would serve this to just about anyone!"
The Best Charcuterie Cheeses
When making your cheese selections, it's important to have a mix of hard and soft cheeses and to mix salty and sweet options. As the Grazing Girls say, "It's all about layering those flavors!" That includes dressing the cheeses up with fig spread or honey, which they incorporate into their boards.
This is why must-have cheeses, per the pros, encompass a spectrum of flavors, textures, finishes, and aesthetics, all of which come together for a sophisticated experience. There are three cheeses that get the collective green light from our entire panel of pros: Brie, aged cheddar, and Gouda.
"Brie has a delicate and natural texture with a melting, creamy body and slightly nutty aroma," Rasuli notes. "It's creamy, rich, and buttery, with a bloomy rind," the Grazing Girls add. If you don't know where to start, Pratta recommends the St. Rocco Triple Crème Brie, which is particularly rich and luxurious. "[It's] creamy and classic," he states.
Gouda is one of the Netherlands' most famous exports and national treasures—sweet, creamy, semi-hard, and among the most popular cheeses worldwide. In fact, it's so popular that it's often requested by Cardace, Presi, and Rasuli's clients specifically. It comes in a wide variety—smoked, with flavors added in like truffle—but Pratta's go-to is the 18-month matured Vintage Lot-18 by Artikaas, a six-generation cheesemaker.
Most familiar to us Americans is cheddar, which some of the pros prefer aged. "It gets a firm but crumbly texture as it ages, and develops earthy tones," Rasuli says. It also gets sharper with time. The Grazing Girls prefer white cheddar for its bold bite, and Pratta likes Beehive Cheese's Queen Bee Porcini Cheddar, where the "cheddar is amped up with the addition of porcini mushroom dust, adding an earthy, sweet taste."
RELATED: Here's Your Cheese Party Checklist
The next tier of cheeses the experts default to includes manchego and goat cheese. "Manchego is a mainstay in my home, and Sprouts offers a fantastic three-month aged one that's a crowd-pleaser and a great starting point for people new to the cheese game. It's fruity and balanced with a semi-soft texture, and pairs so well with sweet and savory accompaniments," Pratta raves of this cheese.
Goat cheese, meanwhile, is amazing for filling in any blanks, as it comes in plenty of different varieties. Creamy, soft, and slightly tangy, sweet flavors often do much to smooth out the strength of this cheese's characteristic flavor. Rasuli often chooses honey goat cheese and Pratta likes the Chavrie Cranberry and Orange Peel—a particularly good pick for holiday boards.
Additional charcuterie cheeses
Of course, you can't finish a cheese board without crowd-pleasing, more familiar varieties. But that doesn't mean you can't level them up. Go for smoother but still bold Gorgonzola instead of blue cheese, for instance, for a splash of color and strong flavor. This isn't a staple, but it is a frequent special ask from Rasuli's customers.
More neutrally, the Grazing Girls love Grana Padano or well-aged Parmigiano Reggiano for their "delicious crystals,"—a tasting sensation that feels like sparkles on the tongue. As a New York-based company, where locals love their mozzarella, the sisters also get rave reviews of their uniquely presented burrata.
"It's firm on the outside, creamy on the inside, and has such a subtle flavor with only a light tang. We typically add a balsamic injector into them," they say, which creates drama and adds flavor to the otherwise mild but luxurious cheese. To prevent it from becoming melty, put it on the board last and, as the Grazing Girls do, "sit it on a nice bed of arugula; this adds a layer of protection and flavor."
Another fun wild card with a sweet acidic touch are cheeses with wine in them. Rasuli's clients, who share geography with the Grazing Girls, often request Sartori Merlot Bellavitano, which is one of the sisters' favorites. "It's nutty, rich, yeasty, and creamy," they say, with berry and plum notes that make it memorable.
And of course, make sure to add your own cheesy favorites. "I love the Beaufort," shares Rasuli. One of the noble Alpine cheeses from the Haute-Savoie region of France, it's produced exclusively using unpasteurized milk from natural pasture-grazed cows. "It has a uniquely grassy, flowery aroma with a firm buttery taste that melts in your mouth!"
How to Make Your Charcuterie Board Stand Out
To make an incredible meat and cheese plate or grazing board, the most important thing is to honor the occasion and the palates of your guests. That means being selective about quality and open to trying new things—the perfect opportunity provided by the sharing nature of this kind of appetizer. Establish a foundation with these expert picks, then throw in a wild card. You never know what will be a surprise hit, after all!
In general, though, simply "steer clear of anything low quality," advise the Grazing Girls. "That includes meats and cheeses purchased at local chain supermarkets that don't have a specialty cheese section." If you really want to make sure you nail it, buy smaller quantities of everything and do a taste test before building your board, just like the Grazing Girls often do. "High-quality cheeses should melt in your mouth," they say.
RELATED: The Stress-Free Holiday Party Plan
Another thing to avoid is obligation. With so much variety, there's no need to work in meats and cheeses you don't like just because you feel you should. For instance, while Pratta enjoys Somerdale Wensleydale—cheese made with chocolate and orange—Rasuli avoids it. "I just don't like how it tastes," she confesses. That's also why she stays away from boudin noir, aka blood sausage. "The idea of blood sausage makes me uncomfortable," she adds.
Finally, have fun with it! Experiment, taste, compare, and explore with your guests. With these picks as your core features, you can bet no one will be bored with your board.