How To Pair Flavors in Food, Part I
I have had this post on my mind for some time, now. Thanks to friend, neighbor and reader Roberta for asking:
“How do you know what flavors will go together?” I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. I’d even broaden this to ask why some flavors go so well together while others don’t. I’m going to try to answer these huge questions in
two three parts in a series called How to Pair Flavors. Catchy, right? In part one, we’ll look at the relationship between taste and flavor. In part two, we’ll talk about how I pair flavors without using any outside help such as websites or books. How I learned to pair flavors. In part three, we’ll delve into the science of flavor pairing and check out a site that avows that it can pair flavors based on the chemical analysis of foods. We’ll also take a look at my favorite flavor pairing book, The Flavor Bible, and talk about how that book is set up and how to use it to bring an added depth and dimension to your cooking and baking experiments.
Now that you know the game plan, let’s get started.1
The Difference Between Taste and Flavor
Did your science teacher ever have you do the exercise where you hold your nose and bite into both an apple and an potato? The idea is that you’re not supposed to be able to tell the difference between them when blindfolded and pinching your nose shut. The more exact truth is you can still perceive a difference in taste, but you cannot experience the aroma of either food with your nose held shut, so you can’t experience the full flavor of the food. Put simply, flavor = taste + aroma (plus how the brain processes these stimuli to come up with “how something tastes.” That alone might help to explain all the varied food preferences out there: Tonya hates broccoli. Russell cannot stand carrots, etc.)
I found a really excellent article over at CulinaryLore (great site) that addresses taste, aroma and flavor in an accessible way while still sharing a lot of the science. For an in-depth discussion of taste and flavor, read Apples and Potatoes Taste the Same with Your Nose Plugged: Fascinating Fact?
It’s interesting that, while I know the sense of smell helps to inform our sense of taste, I never really thought about the distinct difference between taste and flavor until I went to Richmond to tour the Sabra factory. While there, Sabra’s executive chef, MaryDawn Wright, led us in a hummus tasting. She directed us to first hold our noses, roll the hummus around on our tongues to help identify all the tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami) and then to let go of our noses and experience the full flavor as the aromas (which are made of tiny, airborne molecules) headed up our nasal passages and hit our sensory receptors in our olfactory system. With our noses pinched shut, we could still taste the hummus and probably could even identify it as hummus, but there was a marked difference when we let go of our noses. The taste was enhanced by the aromas and we were able to experience the full flavor of the hummus.
The Importance of Aroma in Experiencing Flavor
Who hasn’t walked into a home where someone is baking bread and hasn’t inhaled deeply and felt a sense of happy contentment and that all is right with the world? Or breathed in the heady aroma of soup simmering on the stove and thought of their aunt who always made the best soup? Or maybe caught a whiff of a particular cologne and were immediately transported to your grandfather’s home even though he has been dead for years? Our sense of smell, more so than any of our other senses, has the uncanny ability to transport us in time and place. A specific aroma can trigger vivid memories of specific events. The sense of smell is all wrapped up in memories, emotions and associations. That’s not just poetic speech either. In the simplest of terms, the brain processes smells in the olfactory bulb which is closely connected to the areas of the brain that process/store emotions (amygdala) and memories (hippocampus). (Why Smells Can Trigger Strong Memories, Mercola.com, August 6, 2015)
To further complicate matters of taste and flavor, our perception is also influenced by other sensory factors: how the food looks, its mouthfeel, temperature and texture all play a part in our perception of flavor. For an excellent discussion of these sensory interactions, please read Interactions in Flavor on the site Tasting Science (it’s short. I promise.)
For the longest time, it was thought that people could taste for distinct tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now umami2 has joined the other four for a grand total of five tastes. There are only so many ways one can combine five tastes, even considering you may only be looking at two or three tastes at a time. On the other hand, while nobody has been able to scientifically prove exactly how many smells the human nose can detect, the prevailing wisdom maintains the answer is in the thousands.3
Does Any of This Matter When it Comes to Pairing Flavors?
What do we know so far? Flavor = Taste + Aroma. Yes, it does matter. You have to take into account not only taste: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami but also the way aromas inform the taste. That’s why cooks are forever smelling food as they add ingredients. I’m sure you’ve seen people waving their hands over a steaming pot of something delicious bubbling on the stove, inviting the aromas in, as it were. As an aside, tempting aromas also stimulate the salivary glands, and you can’t taste anything with a dry tongue. A “mouthwatering scent” is just that. It triggers the brain to activate saliva production so the food will dissolve in your mouth so you can taste it. No saliva, no dissolving. No dissolving, no tasting.
Back to Flavor Pairings: coming up with harmonious flavor pairings must take into account not only balancing tastes–something sweet with something salty, for instance–but also making sure that the aromas of the different flavors–say marinara sauce and grated Pecorino Romano, for example–blend well. Pairing nicely contrasting textures and temperatures also has a role to play, as alluded to in the article Interactions in Flavor.
While successful flavor pairing sounds like a daunting task, in Part II of what has become a Ginormous Post, I’ll share with you how you can start to hone your flavor pairing skills, no equipment necessary. Stay tuned for Part II of How to Pair Flavors tomorrow.
Until then, thank you for taking the time to read today. Since this isn’t a recipe post, I don’t have any of my own photos to share, and that unfortunately tends to make the entire post less share-worthy. If you find this information on the nature of flavor helpful, I do hope you share it. And if you have any questions at all about flavor pairing, please ask them in the comments and I will address them in one of the next two parts.
Thanks again, and have a lovely day.
1Since this is an informational post, I used free stock images or images available for use thanks to a Creative Commons license. Please click the photos for attribution. The potato image is a free stock image and is not linked, but I did buy the photographer a cup of coffee via a PayPal donation.
2There still seems to be some question among lay people about umami, but it has been scientifically documented as being the taste of MSG and other glutamates
3The Smell Report, SIRC, date unknown
How Many Different Smells Can the Human Nose Actually Detect?, Gizmodo, 7/07/2015