How I Learned to Pair Flavors
Note: Unlike in How to Pair Flavors: Part 1 where I cite a lot of sources, most of what I’m going to say here in Part 2 is based on my experience alone and little tidbits gleaned from being in restaurants, both as a customer and someone working in the back of the house. It’s not gospel, but I think it works. If you have other rules you use for pairing flavors, please leave them in the comments. I would love to hear from you.
Part of learning how to pair flavors just comes from living and eating. Some foods go together and become iconic: BLT, macaroni and cheese, peanut butter and jelly, pancakes and maple syrup, peaches and cream. We learn that blue cheese is great with steak, that a buttery Hollandaise is gorgeous over asparagus or poached eggs and Canadian bacon, that hot fudge sauce on vanilla ice cream is a very good thing.
1So the first step is really to pay attention to why these iconic flavor combinations work so well together. Smoky/sweet/tangy; neutral bready/sharp, creamy cheese; salty, nutty/sweet, fruity and on it goes. There is also texture to consider. A BLT is a symphony of texture with the crisp chew of bacon, the soft bread, the juicy pop of the tomato and the wet crunch of the lettuce. While there is something to be said for soft on soft on soft, a textural contrast can play up an already delicious pairing. Maybe that’s why I prefer crunchy peanut butter to smooth.
We also learn by going out to eat and sort of internalizing the flavor profiles at our favorite Italian or Greek or Indian restaurants. Speaking in broad generalities, tomato and basil yells Italy while tomato and cilantro speaks of Mexico. Oregano and lemon is evocative of Greece while oregano and sumac evokes the Middle East. Cumin and cocoa transport us to Mexico while cumin and coriander take us to India. From my experiences eating out, I learned that mango and yogurt are perfect together in a mango lassi, that a drizzle of good balsamic is always welcome with either tomatoes or strawberries, that blue cheese and butter work magic on steak.
If you are lucky enough to grow up in a family who celebrates its cultural heritage with food, you will learn the basic building blocks of the cuisine of your People without going to restaurants. I grew up in a household where Lawry’s Seasoned Salt was about the most exotic spice blend we had, but my dad’s folks (and Auntie Ev) came from England, and I did get to experience one of the British pairing rules at Easter: lamb and mint jelly or mint sauce. It may sound weird, but lamb can be pretty fatty and have a heavy mouthfeel. The mint lightens it up with a cooling sensation and sort of…dilutes…the fattiness almost in the same way that jelly can cut the fattiness of peanut butter. Think about it. Peanut butter sticks to the roof of your mouth, but not so much peanut butter and jelly, right?
Even at the mall you can learn that butter and cinnamon pair beautifully with cream cheese frosting, that butter and popcorn are great friends, that a pickle spear is just the thing to crunch along side a soft and melty grilled cheese sandwich.
How many different ways have you seen orange and cream paired together? Creamsicles, dreamsicles, Orange Julius, Orange & Cream Life Savers, chewy caramel orange candies, orange panna cotta. How about tomatoes and cheese? Greek salad, pizza, tomato soup and grilled cheese, Caprese, BLTC sandwich, manicotti, mozzarella sticks, pizza, etc.
Over time you learn, or someone teaches you, lemon plays nicely with most fruits as does cinnamon. Walk down the candy aisle enough times and you know that chocolate and peanut butter is a perfect pairing as are chocolate and caramel, peanuts and caramel, marshmallow and chocolate, coconut and chocolate, orange and chocolate.
Start paying attention to what flavors taste good to you and see if you can figure out why. And even if you can’t figure out why, remember the combinations. If they work for you, they’re now part of your Flavor Pairing Arsenal. Or something.
Are There Some Basic Rules for Pairing Flavors?
Again, most of what I say here is going to be from my experience. I will cite any sources I consult.
I do think there are some universal rules for pairing flavors in food. Even if the flavor profiles of different cuisines vary widely, I think there are some unifying principles at work.
Pairing by Balancing Tastes
We’ve already talked about the different tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. I just read an article about food and wine pairing that also throws fat into that mix. I’m not completely sure I buy fat as a taste since there are a ton of fats–everything from beef suet to lard to olive oil and coconut oil–that all taste different to me. I should maybe do a test where I hold my nose and taste some different fats to see if they taste the same (as opposed to having the same flavor). But that’s kind of gross. No, I think fat is more of a mouthfeel than it is an actual taste. Fats carry other flavors and can help to bring out fat-soluble compounds, but right now, I’m going with fat is not a taste, although it is an important factor in pairing flavors we’ll get to in a bit.
©BrokenSphere / Wikimedia Commons
There are some cuisines in which the philosophy is to add a little of each basic taste to each dish. In each bite, you’ll get sweet, sour, salty, sour, bitter and umami. If that doesn’t make a lot of sense, consider that, in very simple terms, sweet=sugar, sour=acid, salt=well…salt, bitter=bases/alkaloids, umami=glutamate/savory/meatiness.2 Now think of hot and sour soup. It’s a little bit sweet from the lily bulbs, a little sour from the vinegar, a little salty from the soy sauce, and both bitter and umami from the mushrooms.
When you pair foods based on balancing tastes, you don’t have to go that far to have an excellent pairing though. Sweet and bitter? Orange and chocolate, cinnamon and coffee, cream and coffee, cabbage and onion. Sweet and sour? Honey and lemon, sweetened sour cream, sour cherries and cream, buttermilk pie. Umami and sweet? Teriyaki beef jerky, barbecued ribs with St. Louis-style sauce, sweet&sour pork, those little smokies in grape jelly and mustard that you get at holiday parties. Salty and sweet? Kettle corn, candied bacon (add umami to that one as well), ice cream with salted caramel sauce, milk chocolate covered pretzels or potato chips, bacon-wrapped dates (ditto, umami).
The balancing of tastes might help to explain why almost everyone loves bacon. It’s umami-meaty, salty, and sweet all at the same time. Another food that is almost universally enjoyed is caramel. And talk about balance. Actually making caramel is all about balance. The balance of the sugar with the bitterness brought about by caramelization. Add a touch of salt (or a lot for “salted caramel) and butter along with some cream and you are in business. The perfect balance of sweet-salty-bitter. Use a cultured butter (European-style), and you can add a hint of sour to that mix as well. Adding a touch of perfect caramel can help to balance out the tastes of many foods, mainly sweet but also savory.
Before I move on, here’s another reason to use salt. I bet you can guess. Just a tiny amount of salt added to a sweet ingredient helps to balance the taste. Add salt to bitter: balance. Add salt to sweet: balance. Add salt to meaty: balance. Add salt to sour: balance. Salt goes in everything. The same can be true for a bit of acid, although I don’t think acid is quite as universally useful as salt. But a squeeze of lemon juice can perk up chicken soup while a squeeze of lime brightens guacamole. And when I have added just about as much salt as I think a tomato sauce needs, I may take it the rest of the way home with a shot of lemon juice or vinegar.
Pairing by “Weight”
I don’t mean a pound of this and a pound of that. By weight, I mean the heaviness or lightness of the “feel” of the food. This is
probably definitely a more subjective method of pairing, but it is still valid. Light or delicate flavors could be overpowered by strong or heavy flavors. It’s not that you can’t use a light flavor with a heavy one, though. You just want to make sure that the flavors are in balance. A good example of this would be pears with blue cheese. Pairs are light and juicy while blue cheese is heavy, strong and pungent, and they balance each other beautifully. The key is in the proportion. You wouldn’t want a huge wedge of blue cheese with a dollop of pear butter on top. The cheese would completely overpower the pear. But in a salad, a few judicious crumbles of blue cheese can serve to snap the delicate flavor of pears into focus.
When pairing by weight, you can go complementary (heavy with heavy or light with light) such as steak and blue cheese or a delicate white fish in a light lemon sauce, respectively. You can also go the contrasting route: our friends pear and blue cheese (light and heavy), dark chocolate and orange (heavy and light) or that same steak but with Bearnaise instead of blue cheese (Beranaise is lightened with the addition of tarragon which is a bright, springtime flavor).
Pairing by Temperature (Real or Perceived) and Mouthfeel
When literally pairing by temperature, you match a hot or warm food with a cold or room temperature food. Hot fudge on vanilla ice cream, cold lettuce and tomato on a hot, juicy cheeseburger, cold lemon curd on warm gingerbread. All the tastes/flavors do go together, but adding a temperature contrast can add to the overall experience of eating the food. Also, when foods get warm, their flavor becomes more assertive because cold tends to dampen flavor. Cold foods release fewer “oderants” or flavor compounds so there is less for your nose to smell. This is part of the reason why cheese has a more complex flavor when it approaches room temperature than it does straight out of the fridge. It’s also why you make your ice cream base just a bit sweeter than you think it needs to be. The sweetness is dulled when the mixture is frozen.
When talking about temperature, there are certain foods that mimic temperature changes. Cooling mint, eucalyptus and menthol. Hot chile peppers and ginger. Even though these foods aren’t cold or hot in temperature, they activate the same receptors that receive cold and hot signals. Add in one or the other of these perceived temperatures to further enhance your food pairings. For example, a bit of chilli powder is often welcome in chocolates. And remember the mint jelly/lamb from my childhood? It’s the same thing. The mint offers a cooling counterpoint to the fatty meat. Another example? Gingerale. Gingerale is hot-seeming and sweet. And bubbly. What about putting mint in iced tea. Adding perceived cold to real cold can equal super cold, so that’s why tea with mint is so refreshing on a hot day. As to the chili pictured above, not only is it temperature-hot but it’s also perceived hot. No wonder chili can make us sweat.
I asked friends and readers to offer any rules for how to pair flavors they have, and my friend Tina shared one from her grandmother that fits nicely here: The spicier the meat, the colder the sauce served with it. Here a food that could be hot temperature-wise but is definitely spicy-hot (the meat) is paired with a sauce/dip that is very cold in temperature. Tina says it always balances the spice nicely. I’d also bet that the sauces/dips are cream based since fatty dairy can help diffuse the spicy heat of foods while water and water-based sauces do nothing but spread the heat around.
And now, since even split in three parts this post is getting unwieldy, I will leave you with this very short article that discusses the roles that astringency and fattiness play in balancing flavors.
We’ll pick this up again next Wednesday with Part 3 and a discussion of the science of food pairing based on molecular analysis as well as some excellent resources you can tap into to broaden your flavor pairing vocabulary.
Thank you so much for sticking with me today. I appreciate it. As with the first post, if you have any questions, please ask away in the comments, and if you find the information useful, please share it.
Have a lovely day.
Link to Part I, Part III
1All the photos in this post are stock photos or free to use without attribution. Exceptions: the photo of hot and sour soup is linked to the photographer’s wikimedia page per his request. The chili photo is linked directly to the photographer’s flickr page and licensed under CC 2.0, so click through. I found the photo of the BLT on Pixabay, and even though he didn’t require any attribution, I bought him a cup of coffee.
2About Taste, Science of Cooking, date unknown