That cheese pairs well with sweet condiments is no longer as big a shock as it once was, when cheese was primarily associated with savory dishes and paired with other savory (or neutral) ingredients like meats and vegetables.
Indeed, if you’ve ever assembled a charcuterie board or a cheese platter (or, you know, obsessively watched other people assembling them on TikTok because that was the only semblance of restaurant experience you got during those long lockdown months back in 2020), then you know that fresh sliced fruits, jams, and honey are perceived to be a required pairing for cheese. There’s even an entire philosophy behind correctly pairing cheese with jam and jelly, based on how sharp or mellow, sweet or savory the cheese is. Honey, considered the most versatile pairing of all the sweet condiments, is often placed at the center of the entire arrangement.
On the other hand, Savory condiments tend to be overlooked, which is a shame because it means missing out on an entirely separate rich dimension of flavors. We already discussed in our guide to building the charcuterie board that savory elements are as crucial as sweet to bring out the flavor in cured meats fully. Cheese boards are no different: adding a savory dip will only enrich the experience.
What’s the Key to Finding a Perfect Cheese and Savory Condiment Pairing?
Unlike with jams, there’s no solid philosophy behind pairing cheese with savory condiments. It usually comes down to the simple “this combination tastes good.” That’s the great thing about adding a savory sauce to your cheese board: even just one dip or chutney should be enough, regardless of how many different types of cheese you’re stacking the board with. Most people who’ve discovered the magic of serving the cheese with their favorite salsa or sauce do just that: serve it with their personal favorite, and if others dislike it, well, tough luck.
But if you’re yet undecided on which condiment works the best for the majority of cheese varieties, then here are some ground rules to keep in mind:
- Sharp on sharp doesn’t go well: don’t pair strong salty cheese with salty and spicy sauces; that kind of flavor combo will just punch out your taste receptors. Instead, stick to pairing spicy sauces with mellow creamy cheese varieties that cut through the spice, and meaty, nutty, or herby but mild sauces with sharp aged cheese to accentuate the more robust flavor.
- The combinations that work great in cooking might not work well raw: you might already have a condiment in mind you’ll be adding to your board. If you’ve only ever paired that condiment with your favorite cheese when baking, broiling, or otherwise heating the ingredients, be prepared that you may not like how they taste together when raw and cold. Melted cheese and heated sauce differ considerably in texture and flavor from their raw and cold counterparts. Be prepared that those differences may not be pleasing to you.
- The ratio still matters! As with jams, if you slather the cheese with the sauce or add too little, you’ll just be getting a mouthful of sauce or cheese. The trick is to find the proper ratio between the two, where the flavors work in tandem, with the cheese leading and the condiment highlighting its flavor. A small dollop should do.
To make things a little easier for you, we’ve compiled a list of condiments that we think go particularly well with most cheese varieties (even if we do have an opinion or a couple about which cheese works best with which condiments).
Without further ado, let’s go through which condiments would work great for your cheese board and which cheese varieties they pair with best.
Classic Pesto Sauce
Pesto sauce is one of the most versatile options to add to the cheese board. It’s herby, nutty, and already slightly cheesy (a small amount of Parmigiano Reggiano is part of the recipe). It’s got a distinct flavor that won’t get overwhelmed by more robust cheese, but it’s also mellow enough to highlight soft and mellow cheese varieties. And you can even choose if you prefer the one that’s more nutty and herby or the one that’s sweeter and spicier.
Pesto alla Genovese is the classic green pesto made with basil, pine nuts, Parmesan, and olive oil. It’s a versatile sauce that works excellently with robust Grana cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino Romano, Grana Padano) but will work well with more mellow Mozzarella or Stracciatella, as well.
Pesto alla Siciliana is made with sun-dried tomatoes that add sweetness and peppers that add spice. It’s a more robust sauce that works well with rich, buttery, and creamy types of cheese, like Taleggio, Mozzarella, Brie, Camembert, or Cambozola.
Mustard is another versatile sauce but can be somewhat more challenging to pair than pesto. That’s because certain mustard varieties are easier to pair than others. The more mellow and sweeter the mustard, the wider the range of flavors it can be paired with:
Dijon Mustard is tangy and sharp, so it works well with mild and soft cheese: Chevre, Brie, Camembert, Mozzarella, Scamorza Bianca, etc.
Honey Mustard is an excellent balance of spices and sweetness and is likely the most versatile of the options. Pair with anything from buttery Brie to robust Gruyere to sharp Pecorino.
Bavarian Mustard is more robust and complex than honey mustard and can easily overwhelm the mellow cheese. Stick to sharp hard cheese like Cheddar, Manchego Viejo, Aged Gouda, or Gruyere.
Classic Chinese Chili Oil
Pouring a spoonful of crunchy chili oil over creamy, mellow cheese will create a magical combination. Burrata is my personal favorite, but other types of cheese with a similar flavor profile (Mozzarella, Stracciatella, Scamorza Bianca, Chevre, Ricotta, etc.) work excellently as well.
Spicy Fruit Salsa
There are so many fun dip flavors these days, and adding various fruit to classic spicy salsa has become a staple way of adding more unique flavor notes to an old classic. Make no mistake, sauces like Pineapple Salsa, Peach Salsa, and Mango Salsa are still spicy and savory, but the underlying sweetness from the fruit adds depth and complexity to the flavor profile.
These types of salsas pair excellently with an entire range of cheese, with spiciness accentuating the more mellow but rich Brie or Mozzarella, while the sweetness highlights the robust complexity in sharp cheese like Roquefort, Gorgonzola, Pecorino Romano, or Manchego Viejo.
Mango chutney is different from mango salsa! Mango is the leading element instead of tomatoes and peppers, and the flavor is robust and complex due to the heavy use of spices, which makes it an excellent pair for most types of blue cheese, from milder Danablu to sharp Roquefort, Grana cheese like Parmigiano Reggiano and Grana Padano, and aged Cheddar, Gouda, and Manchego.
Nduja is a thick, spicy, and meaty sauce from Calabria, made with pork and chilis. Robust, smoky, and complex, it’s an excellent pairing for mellow creamy cheese varieties that cut through its meaty flavor. Mozzarella, Manchego Fresco, and Scamorza Bianca all work great, but if you want something more robust, try Taleggio, Moliterno, or Scamorza Affumicata.
Spicy Pepper Jelly
The spicier the jelly (Stonewall Kitchen has an entire assembly from red to hot to ghost pepper jelly), the creamier and butterier the cheese should be to cut through that spice. Mozzarella, Chevre, Brie, Ricotta, and Taleggio are all fantastic choices.
Hummus with cheese might sound weird at first, but its rich and nutty flavor is, in theory, a repeat of another classic cheese pairing: nuts. Hummus works best with cheese of medium sharpness, like Provolone, Havarti, Moliterno, and Gruyere, but it can work with Grana Padano and Parmigiano Reggiano as well. Just stick to classic hummus without additional flavorings like garlic or peppers.
Bacon jam is smoky, meaty, and savory but also distinctly sweet. It’s a complex flavor that works fantastic with sharp cheese varieties. Cheddar is a classic, but Gruyere, Provolone, Havarti, and Moliterno all deserve a chance.
Garlic (or Onion) Jam
I’m grouping them together, but it bears to mention that roasted garlic jam is more pungent and smoky, while onion jam is sweeter. But they’re both considered some of the most versatile condiments that work excellently with any cheese with a bit of sharpness and nuttiness to it. Try pairing roasted garlic jam with smoked cheese like Gouda or Scamorza Affumicata for extra flavor.
Aioli (Classic or Flavored)
Aioli has a creamy, rich texture and robust flavor, which makes it a nigh-ideal dip for most types of cheese, from mellow to sharp. And aioli makes it easy to experiment with different flavor combinations since there are multiple options on the market. Terrapin Ridge Farms, for example, has up to a dozen unique flavors like Sriracha Horseradish, Harissa, Bacon, and Truffle.
Farmhouse chutney is a relish-like condiment made with a combination of various fruits, vegetables, and spices, with apples being the primary leading ingredient. It’s more tart and zesty than mango chutney, but there’s also a distinct sweetness there. It’s a great pairing for rich and moderately sharp cheese varieties like Gorgonzola Dolce, Danablu, Taleggio, Emmental, and Gouda.
No, I’m not talking about the paste or nut butter. I’m talking about the condiment that’s basically pesto made with pistachios, down to the addition of Parmigiano Reggiano. And same as classic green basil Pesto, it works with any cheese you can think of (though Grana cheese would likely be considered the best pairing).
Tapenade is a thick dip made with mashed olives, capers, herbs, and spices. Robust but decidedly not sharp, it’s an ideal pairing for most blue cheese varieties, Grana cheese, and Aged European-style cheese.
The earthy and mushroomy truffle sauce goes best with mellow and creamy to moderately sharp types of cheese. The best options are Mozzarella, Scamorza, Provolone, Taleggio, and Emmental. Try to avoid pairing it with strong and aged cheeses, as there’s a chance the truffle flavor will get overpowered.
Final Thoughts (and Friendly Advice) About Adding Savory Condiments to the Cheese Board:
Mixing and matching different types of cheese with various savory condiments is likely the safest culinary experiment you can conduct in your kitchen. If you’re not a big risk taker and leaving the comfort zone is hard for you, this is how you start. After all, you’ve likely already tasted cheese paired with various sauces, dips, and chutneys hundreds of times throughout your life. The only thing you’ll be changing is that the cheese will be raw and bite-sized.
Pairing savory sauces and dips with cheese is arguably easier than pairing it with sweet fruit preserves like jams and marmalades. The dissonance of the flavor pairing between the sweet and savory makes it an ordeal: finding the right flavor profiles to mesh and bring out the best in each other can be hard when most of us haven’t grown up pairing cheese other than cream cheese with sweets.
Putting a dollop of blueberry jam on a slice of Parmigiano Reggiano is going to be odd at first for those of us who’ve associated cheese with sandwiches, pizza, and pasta, for most of our lives. On the other hand, savory sauces must feel like a natural pairing. We always pair cheese with ingredients like meat (fresh or cured), tomatoes, peppers, and greens. Hell, plenty of sauces and dips contain cheese. If shredding Parmigiano over salads, pizza, and pasta works like magic every time, then why shouldn’t it work when paired with the same ingredients in a sauce form? Only this time, cheese is unilaterally the star of the show, with the condiment playing second fiddle and accentuating its flavor instead of working in tandem.
What I’m trying to say here is that pairing cheese with savory condiments is something you already do and have been doing for years if you’re a person who’s a cheese lover or, at least, a regular consumer. And I have a strong suspicion that you are both since you’re reading this article in the first place.
You already know that cheese is great with pepper, tomato, basil, mustard, etc., because you’ve likely slathered at least one of these sauces on your bread before piling up your cheese for the sandwich. Cheese and savory condiments are as safe a pairing as it gets. Assembling a cheese board and adding a bowl with a salsa dip should feel more natural than adding a bowl of jam.
All you need to do now is to let yourself experiment with flavors.
There are so many fun dip flavors out there that can bring out the deep nutty or sweet, sharp and savory, or mellow and creamy flavors in your favorite cheese. You don’t need to worry about balancing sweetness, saltiness, and acidity as you need to do with jams. Salsas, sauces, and chutneys aren’t going to taste jarring with cheese if you mess up; they’re already tried and tested. They work.
But unless you start experimenting and give yourself the space and time to try new combinations, you won’t be able to find the pairings that work best for you.