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Welcome to How to Pair Flavors, Part 3. Learning what flavors go together can be a lifelong study, but this series of post will hopefully help you along your way to understanding what flavors go well together and why.
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Flavor Pairing: The Science…?
While a lot of flavor pairing is sort of intuitive (gee, some hot fudge sauce would taste awesome on this ice cream sundae), many flavor pairings might seem surprising, but somehow they just work. That’s because they share common volatile molecules. Molecularly, when foods share many of the same compounds, they often taste very good together. This is the (much simplified by me) science behind the Belgian company FoodPairing. In short, Foodpairing helps you pair foods based on flavor and aroma similarity and then suggests pairings based on a generated algorithm. For a more detailed explanation of how Foodpairing works, see their article on The Science Behind Foodpairing.
The food pairing theory waters do get muddied up a with the development of a flavor network1 by a group from Cambridge University that analyzed a bunch of recipes from the cuisines of North America, Western Europe, East Asia and Latin America. This network shows that there are many more shared compounds in North American cuisine as compared to East Asian cuisine. The group’s conclusion was that the theory of food pairing does not necessarily generalize across cultures. (Flavor Pairings: The Science of Flavor) If you’d like to play around with an interactive version of the flavor network, your wish is my command: Visit The Flavor Connection.
Indian food, one of my all time favorite cuisines, appears to be the cuisine with the least amount of overlap in flavor compounds. Reports of this started popping up at the beginning of March of this year, and most of the headlines were some variation of “Why Indian Food Tastes So Awesome.” Here’s “Scientists Have Figured Out What Makes Indian Food Taste So Delicious” from The Washington Post, March 3, 2015. (This article also references the interactive chart linked above).
I grew up in the US with a decidedly American palate, but the first time I tasted Indian food, I fell in love. So, even though I’m culturally programmed to enjoy food combinations that share a lot of the same flavor compounds, I also think food that doesn’t have much overlap in flavor compounds is fantastic. And I would bet that a lot of you guys are the same. So, can both theories–foods that share flavor compounds go together and foods that don’t share flavor compounds go together–be true? I think it’s possible that they can with a caveat. Indian cuisine makes use of a melange of spices that not only taste wonderful but can bring a dish made of individual ingredients with few-to-no overlapping flavor compounds into harmony. Maybe the rule should be that foods that share many of the same flavor compounds taste good together, but the judicious use of spices can also “force” ingredients with no common flavor elements to play nicely together.
Photo by Arnold Gatilau, licensed under Creative Commons license 2.0 Click photo to go to flickr
Thomas Keller, arguably one of the most influential chefs in America, wrote a wonderful piece on pairing flavors for Esquire magazine back in 2013. What I love about this particular article is that he simplifies flavor pairing, making the concept approachable and easy to understand. Leave it to a guy with an incredibly sophisticated palate to bring it back to basics. Flavor pairing is all about learning what goes with what and can be a very personal exercise that is informed both by your background and your experiences. The article is short (3 paragraphs) and it ends with six almost universally loved pairings that should get your creative juices flowing.
What Is the Best Way to Pair Flavors?
I think the best way to pair flavors, or learn to pair flavors, is to go partly by your intuition and partly with the science or the experience of others. Our own experiences only take us so far, especially if we have not traveled extensively or frequented a ton of “ethnic” restaurants where we live. How do you expand your flavor pairing horizons without jetting off to the four corners of the world?
There are plenty of online resources for learning to pair flavors. If you want to go the strictly scientific way, you can sign up for free Foodpairing account that gives you access to a limited (but still substantial) number of foods and beverages for pairing purposes. There is plenty there to get you started, but be aware they will gently suggest you upgrade to a paid account to gain access to more ingredients.
To get an overview of what herbs pair well with what foods, use this chart2 for Pairing and Combining Fresh-Grown Herbs at Home (of course the rules hold true if you buy these fresh herbs rather than growing them, too). For spice and food pairings, Spice Advice has also put together a chart** of pairings for quite a few commonly available spices here: Spice Usage Tips. I also have used this flavor pairing chart from Nouveau Raw when I was developing my fig jam with vanilla and black pepper: Flavor Profiles That Pair Well in Recipes. This chart considers many main fruit and vegetable ingredients as well as the herbs and spices that pair well with them. Do your own searches to find pairing information for specific ingredients and cuisines.
My Best Recommendation: The Flavor Bible
Savory Grape Bread with Lemon, Goat Cheese and Sea Salt, a pairing I came up with after consulting The Flavor Bible
One of the most useful flavor pairing guides I know is The Flavor Bible3 (2008) by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. There is now a companion book called The Vegetarian Flavor Bible4 (2014) by Karen Page with photographs by Andrew Dornenburg. These books are not cookbooks. There are a few recipes scattered throughout, but by and large, The Flavor Bible gives us a little bit of excellent information about “The Language of Food” as relates to flavor and “Communicating Via the Language of Food.” The Vegetarian Flavor Bible contains short chapters on “Vegetarianism Throughout the Ages” and “Creating a New, Compassionate Cuisine.” The bulk of both books (over 300 pages in The Flavor Bible) are given over to “The Charts” which delve deep into “flavor matchmaking.” The idea here is that you can look up whatever inspires you to start cooking, be it a main seasonal ingredient, a spice, a cuisine, a cooking method or just a desire to spread your culinary wings a bit, and start there. You can look up “autumn” for a start, or you can look up “bell peppers,” or “black pepper” and find pairing insights from herbs to spices to preferred cooking methods or even pairings to avoid. It boggles my mind, but Page and Dornenburg pretty much traveled all of North America interviewing dozens of amazing chefs and cooks, looked at a squizillion recipes online and perused heaven only knows how many menus to compile a dizzying alphabetical listing of almost every ingredient and cuisine imaginable along with all the pairings from tried and true almost universal ones (strawberry and balsamic, peach and nutmeg, beef and blue cheese, etc) down to intriguing pairings they maybe only heard of a time or two but whose exclusion would have been a huge oversight.
I don’t own The Vegetarian Flavor Bible, but I can 100% vouch for the usefulness and comprehensive reach of The Flavor Bible. You may find yourself starting by relying heavily on it and then later, once you are more comfortable and familiar with flavor pairing, you might only turn to the book to find an unexpected element to breathe new life into an old standard. No matter how you use these books, I can almost guarantee that, whether you’re a novice cook with a very elementary knowledge of pairing or an expert gourmet with a well-developed palate, you will be able to bring more balance, complexity and sophistication to your cooking and baking. As much as I love this book (and would probably love the companion volume as well), not all books are for all people. Read on to find out whether or not The Flavor Bible is going to be a good fit for you.
People Who Will Not Like The Flavor Bible or The Vegetarian Flavor Bible
As I’ve said, I don’t have the vegetarian version of this book. I do know that it is set up the same way The Flavor Bible is though. Since I love The Flavor Bible and the way it delivers information, I’m making the assumption that I would also like The Vegetarian Flavor Bible.
- If you are looking for a cookbook, keep looking. Neither of these books is going to delve deeply, if at all, into the cooking process or how to prepare dishes.
- If you do not already have a good handle on the basics of cooking, these books will not help you. To give you an example, this is all the information given for “Cabbage–In General” before the list of possible pairings: Season: autumn-winter Botanical relatives: broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collard greens, kale, kohlrabi Function: cooling Weight: medium Volume: moderate Techniques: boil, braise, raw, saute, steam, stir-fry —The Flavor Bible, p89 For someone who is already a chef or an experienced cook, this information is all they need. Others may need more guidance.
- If you want an explanation of why chefs decided on each particular flavor pairing, you will be sorely disappointed. There are a few sidebars and notes scattered throughout the books that do elaborate a bit on certain pairings, but this is the exception and not the rule. If you want to find out the “whys” behind the pairings, prepare to Google “Why do X and Y taste good together?” or something along those lines.
- If you are keen to explore Asian and Indian flavor pairings, move along. While there are some “exotic” pairings in The Flavor Bible (and I assume the vegetarian version as well), these lists were compiled by interviewing North American chefs, and remember what we learned about the differences between pairing in the west and the east: the western palate appreciates foods with a lot of shared flavor compounds while the Asian and Indian appreciate pairings with very few overlapping flavor compounds.
- One last thing: By all accounts, do not purchase the kindle versions. Buy the physical book/s.
In conclusion, we all have the ability to pair flavors. Anyone who has intuitively spread peanut butter on an apple slice or crumbled some feta cheese to go with watermelon or think a Monte Cristo sandwich is a thing of perfect beauty already knows how to pair flavors. Nobody is born knowing how to pair All The Flavors, and it’s not a race. Use your own experiences, both from eating at home and eating out, and pay attention. To further expand your horizons, there are plenty of resources available, both online (free and paid) as well as comprehensive books. Keep learning. Keep eating. Keep cooking. Your flavor pairing vocabulary will expand, I promise.
And that, my friends, is how to pair flavors.
I’d really love to hear from you! What are your favorite flavor pairings? Where are you on your flavor pairing “journey?” What other sorts of WCIDFYW (What Can I Do For You Wednesday)/Fundamental Friday posts would you like to see?
Thanks for spending some time with me today. If you found this post to be informative, I’d appreciate your sharing! I have convenient buttons both on computer and mobile to do just that.
Have a lovely day.
1Link to the original food network article, Flavor Network and the Principles of Food Pairing from the journal Nature.
2Other spice and herb food pairing charts are available–tons of them. These are just the two I chose to link to for this post.