Here's your guide to understanding the anatomy of the holiday season's most epic appetizer.
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In my opinion there's nothing more crowd pleasing than a nut-coated sphere of cheese. It’s the most basic party trick that exists and always brings a dose of rich nostalgia into my life. Born and raised in the South, various forms of cheese balls always showed up at holiday parties, mostly from Hickory Farm holiday boxes or the vibrant creamsicle and punch-colored Kaukauna port wine cheese ball from the grocery store. Honestly, I don’t discriminate, but making them at home is a whole new level of fun.

“It’s the perfect party food,” Vivian Howard, of The Chef and the Farmer and hit show, A Chef’s Life, tells me. And she’s absolutely correct. “When I was writing [Deep Run Roots] I almost didn’t put the [Party Magnet] cheese ball in the book because it’s so cliche, but I know people love them,” Howard says. “If you go to a party and there’s a good cheese ball people are crowded around it and it’s always eaten.” It’s the easiest trick in the book. In fact, I made a cheese ball for a friend’s party this past weekend, showed up two hours late, and it was still consumed within minutes.

“Every single Christmas Eve [a cheese ball] was on my Grandma’s dinner table,” says Elliott Moss, pitmaster at Buxton Hall Barbecue. “We ate what was left (if any) the next day,” he adds. In his cookbook, Buxton Hall Barbecue's Book of Smoke, a cheese ball is included as a nostalgic nod to his upbringing. “I always think of my Grandma Mildred Moore when I think about cheese balls, even if it’s not Christmas,” Moss says.

Here, learn the basic rules along with tips and tricks on amping up your cheese ball game. Just remember, above all else—have fun with it.

The Cheese Ball Formula

Truth be told there aren’t too many rules. It’s a cheese ball with nuts and things. That’s really it. But Howard notes an easy formula of four things to remember: baseline flavor (cream cheese and butter), crunch (from nuts), something sweet (like dried cranberries, dates or cherries) and something pronounced (like blue cheese). “Take that formula and tailor a cheese ball to your taste,” Howard adds.

My standard base is half softer substances (this includes butter, Duke’s Mayonnaise and/or cheese of similar texture) and half shredded or other fancy cheese(s) of choice. Just remember, it will taste good no matter what you do. “There’s something to be said about the traditional approach your sweet, old Southern Auntie’s take with everyone’s favorite extra sharp cheddar and a healthy amount of Duke’s mayo,” says Kaylin Fulp, chef at Union Special. Add in some spices, herbs, chopped green onion and Worcestershire sauce into the mixture and you’ve got yourself a tasty cheese ball, no doubt.

Fresh Herbs Are Important

“Herbs can be fun and impactful to the exterior, with some guardrails in place,” says Justin Laabs, R&D Manager at Tillamook. “They need to be fresh herbs, freshly minced, uniform size and applied à la minute.” Some herbs, such as rosemary, he notes, can be overpowering for a party crowd so it’s wise to know your audience. Adding herbs to the coating is also an easy way to create a beautiful, vibrant aesthetic.

Don’t Sleep on Butter

“I think butter is something that people don’t think about being important in a cheese ball,” Howard says. “You can’t have all cheese—you have to have something to carry the cheese and butter is a good choice.” And if you use all cream cheese it starts to taste like nothing but cream cheese. Plus, “you can use unsalted butter to firm up the cheese ball if your inclusions or flavorings make your cheese ball base too thin,” says Steve Marko, senior director of R&D at Tillamook.

A Beautiful Jacket of Nuts

Walnuts, pecans, almonds, peanuts, you name it. Toss those bad boys in a Ziplock bag and beat them with a rolling pin. “Growing up, pecans were always the nut in our holiday cheese balls,” relays Moss. “That’s because we all had pecan trees on our property.” As a chef, Moss prefers a mixture of nuts—pecans, cashews, pistachios and peanuts.

Marko suggests using darker nuts to provide contrast to both the visual and the flavor “Chopped pecans or hazelnuts are our favorite, but walnuts work well too,” he says. “Almonds should be lightly roasted first to bring out their color, but make sure to cool them before rolling the cheese ball in them.”

…Or A Crunchy Cheese Jacket

Cheese lovers, rejoice. Take the cheese ball jacket to next level with a crunchy cheese crust. Joe Baird, a cheese expert and spokesperson for Real California Milk, suggests grating cheese like California Dry Jack, baking it at 375 degrees for roughy 8 minutes (or until golden and crispy) on parchment paper, allowing it to cool and then crunching it up to roll a cheese ball in for even more of a tasty texture. “Baking the cheese will bring out the natural caramelized and salty notes,” says Baird.

And You Don’t Have to Stick to Just Cheddar Cheese

“Use whatever [cheese] you want,” says Fulp, who notes most all cheese is fair game. “You could use softer cheeses like goat or feta and maybe even swap them out for cream cheese in the base,” she adds. The world is legit your oyster when it comes to choosing cheeses and there’s no right or wrong when it comes to the perfect ball. “I use cheddar because it’s familiar but even cheddar can be elevated,” she says, of Union Special’s version with smoked cheddar, Gruyere and Fontina cheeses.

“Flavor cheeses should usually be medium-soft to semi-hard cheese,” notes Marko. “Think blue and Jack cheese for medium soft and cheddar, Gouda or Gruyere for semi-hard.” Marko notes a smoked cheddar (like Tillamook’s 15-month-aged hickory smoked Trask Mountain, will add a unique smokiness, while sharp cheddar will bring forth a “savory, tangy flavor with more intensity.”

FYI: “Using all-natural, full-fat cheeses such as fromage blanc and blue cheese will act as the glue for the ball without having to use cheese that contains gums or stabilizers and will provide a more robust flavor,” says Baird.

The Best Cheese Ball Hack

For the ultimate hack, grab a tub of Palmetto Cheese and cut down the steps of the mixing process. I would soften up some cream cheese and spice it up a bit,” says Moss. “Mix it up and that’s an easy cheese ball,” he notes. And really, all that’s left to do at this point is rolling the ball in nuts.

Cheese Handling Rules

Fulp’s rule of thumb? Let thy cheese ball rest for 48 hours in the refrigerator before devouring. Of course you can feast before the 48-hour mark but Fulp notes this gives everything time to settle and to allow all the flavors to set in. It’s also best, she notes, to work with room temperature cheeses when mixing ingredients in order to get a nice, creamy texture.

Don’t Be Afraid to Use Your Hands

Why? Mostly because it’s fun to get messy, Fulp notes. But there’s also a purpose behind the fondling of the cheese. “It's the best way to get everything incorporated well and the heat of your hands helps soften the cream cheese in the beginning,” she adds.

The Vehicles

Team Ritz crackers all the way but it’s fun to shake things up from time to time pending aesthetic.”If your accompaniment is crackers and you include a nut coating, think about those that have some color contrast and pair well in terms of flavor,” says Laabs. “Having uniform size and distribution is important to keep a level of refinement.”

Crackers aside, Laabs notes fruit and vegetables can also work well, plus increase the level of color contrast. “Apple and celery are pretty universal, but you could explore things like jicama or cooked and cooled purple potato coins,” he adds. “Arrangement and uniformity are also important here, but including different cuts can help add height to the plate.” Fulp always appreciates classing up the spread with a toasted bread or a baguette—or even a vibrant crudite spread and think of the cheese ball as dip.