The pairing of flavors has been going on ever since people put food to mouth. But in recent years, the science of it has become big business, and considering the thousands of years that humans have been eating, it’s still in its infancy.
The world’s largest database for ingredients and flavors is The Foodpairing Co. located in New York City and Ghent, Belgium. The company maintains that its “data-driven evidence” helps half a million chefs and other food professionals worldwide “develop their own surprising new flavor combinations to create healthy, exciting and sustainable recipes.”
They do this by basically boiling it all down to molecular compounds and aromas that foods share. The results are often surprising.
Case in point: Would you ever put ketchup and coffee together?
For one of The Foodpairing Company’s “Impossible Challenges,” a bar in Ghent did just that and came up with a drink that apparently worked — combining espresso stout with ketchup, spicy sauces and a few other ingredients.
According to Foodpairing business developer Marie Haspeslagh, from a molecular point of view, the two ingredients share aromas; “the Jiggers cocktail bar in Ghent proves they match well in a cocktail.”
Foodpairing uses “aroma wheels” that illustrate the percentages of scents such as citrus, spicy, herbal, woody, buttery, green and malty; those are just some of the aromas related to coffee and ketchup. When aroma wheels for each ingredient are compared, both citrus and floral match up considerably.
Haspeslagh further notes that tomatoes are rich in umami. “Ketchup adds this pleasant savory taste to coffee, reducing its bitterness,” she says.
Why all this fuss about science and food?
“Foodpairing helps chefs, bartenders and pastry chefs to think out of the box, out of their comfort zone and so become more creative in combining ingredients,” explains Peter Coucquyt, who is a partner and culinary expert with the company. “With a few clicks, you can create new combinations.”
And if you don’t have them to offer, today’s consumers will seek out the competition, he said.
In their groundbreaking book, “The Flavor Bible” (Little, Brown and Co., 2008), Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg talk about the dozens of ways we experience eating. Starting with how the mouth perceives food through tastes of sweet, salty, sour, bitter and the more recently acknowledged umami (savory), the writers then discuss mouth feel, which includes temperature, texture, astringency and piquancy.
Page and Dornenburg, who are known as influential culinary historians and authorities, then address “what is perceived by the nose” and what is perceived by the heart, mind and spirit.
“We taste with our hearts as much as with our tongues,” they remark in the book. “What else could explain adult preferences for one’s mother’s dishes over those prepared by a great chef?”
The authors literally go from A-Z (achiote seeds to Moroccan cuisine to zucchini blossoms), listing hundreds of foods and cuisines and then citing the flavors and foods that match up well. Along the way, they interview many famed chefs about their own ideal matchups and what makes an outstanding combination of foods.
But science and historical precedent don’t necessarily solve all the pairing challenges for chefs.
Purple Door Ice Cream in Milwaukee has been known for its creative mashups of flavors — among them lemon cardamom and mint quark. But how do owners Lauren and Steve Schultz decide that a given pairing would work well in their ice cream?
“When we first started Purple Door, it took many trials to figure out pairings of ingredients within the ice cream,” Lauren Schultz says. “Now that we have been making ice cream for several years, it is less time-consuming (usually) to figure out pairings.”
• Inspiration comes from many sources, including:
• Flavors they have always wanted to try.
• Desserts or dishes they’ve tasted and think would translate well to an ice cream flavor.
• Visits to local food producers and food businesses to see what ingredients they offer (The Spice House, coffee roasters, Rishi Tea, Great Lakes Distillery, etc.).
• Customer suggestions: “Sometimes customers will tell us of a flavor they had in France 20 years ago, and that inspires us to try something similar.”
Schultz added that Purple Door employees also contribute ideas. “We have a wonderfully, creative team who come up with great flavor combinations.”
However, there are times when “what sounds great on paper does not translate well into ice cream (despite how much we wish it would).”
“Although it wasn’t a complete fail, the pear with blue cheese did not translate well to the masses of ice cream lovers.”
Schultz says creating successful flavor mixtures “is one of the best (and our favorite) parts of owning an ice cream business.”
There’s also research being done into food pairings that work despite their not sharing many flavors or aroma compounds in common.
“Western cuisines show a tendency to use ingredient pairs that share many flavor compounds,” says a study reported in nature.com in 2011. “By contrast, East Asian cuisines tend to avoid compound sharing ingredients.”
The authors of the study found that in North America (as well as some Western European cooking), “the more compounds are shared by two ingredients, the more likely they appear in recipes.”
But interestingly, in East Asian and Southern European cooking, “the more flavor compounds two ingredients share, the less likely they are used together.”
So the final word has yet to be written on the science of food pairing.
As the nature.com study acknowledged, scientific analysis can’t account for artistic creativity.
One local testament to that creativity is Bavette La Boucherie’s Karen Bell, who has lived in Chicago, San Francisco, Paris, Madrid and Caracas, Venezuela. She changes her menu frequently “and a bit more spontaneously,” she says. Rather than turn to scientific research for her pairings, she “starts with an ingredient or two — thinking about them and what would pair well with it.”
Bell says she often goes in different directions before narrowing it down.
“I think subconsciously I am searching out a balanced dish, so a lot of times the dish will have salty, sour and sweet components.”
A glance at a recent Bavette menu showed several carefully contrived creations, with four to eight ingredients in most every dish. Wild mushrooms and asparagus with polenta, poached egg, pine nut relish and Parmesan was one. A peach, radish and corn salad with bacon vinaigrette, granola and goat cheese was another.
“The whole time I have been involved in food has been research, from formal training and school to every restaurant where I’ve worked and eaten, and every place that I have lived and visited,” Bell says.
To have some fun and experiment with the science of food pairings myself, I searched for some suggested combinations on various websites.
Molecular gastronomy, defined at molecularrecipes.com as a blending of “physics and chemistry to transform the tastes and textures of food,” has received a lot of buzz in recent years. It’s produced such oddities as caviar made of olive oil, hot gelatins, smoke and foams.
“Molecular profiling” was developed for food pairing around the turn of the millennium and, according to the website, has spawned “odd combinations like coffee and garlic, mandarin and thyme, cucumber and violet, salmon and licorice, banana and parsley, oyster and passion fruit.”
The recipes on the site are all beautifully produced with eye-popping photos, but most require special kitchen tools and/or techniques. Yet the site is worth checking out. Even if you lack the equipment or the recipes seem too complex, you can find great ideas for food pairings just by browsing.
For this story, I looked elsewhere for less-daunting recipes for home cooks.
Because it’s fall, pumpkin pairings came to mind. The Foodpairing Company’s pumpkin Foodpairing tool (similar to the aroma wheels but focused on flavors) shows a compound matchup with sesame seed, buckwheat honey, guava and raspberry. Other pumpkin matchups are Gruyere, black tea and melon.
To test their ideas, I found a recipe for a pumpkin soup with Gruyere and replaced the fennel seeds with sesame seeds.
RECIPE: Pumpkin Soup with Gruyere
With the holidays ahead, Foodpairing’s cranberry aroma wheel also caught my eye. The wheel shows that the berry balances well with both coriander and fennel.
A recipe search led me to a cranberry spice tea and a cranberry sage buttermilk biscuit, the latter showing an herb that is also on the Foodpairing’s cranberry tool.
RECIPE: Cranberry Coriander Fennel Tea
Food pairing sources
When my kids were little, one of them had inventive ways of pairing foods, according to sudden whim. One morning stands out in my memory, when she poured her orange juice on a bowl of cereal, added Jell-O and then attempted to eat the entire thing with a pickle fork.
Here are some resources for food pairing ideas, which may inspire you to be as creative as a kid … even with utensils.
Food pairing science: foodpairing.com. The Foodpairing Co. is dedicated to using “scientific techniques such as data analysis and machine learning to create algorithms calculating how well foods and drinks match,” according to its website. They do this mainly through aromas, by which we “taste” up to 80% of our food. Consider this a reference to hundreds of food pairings along with recipes and research about the science behind mixing flavors and aromas.
The classics: informationisbeautiful.net. Data journalist and information designer David McCandless, a London based author behind Information is Beautiful worked with Willow Tyrer to come up with hundreds of pairing wheels of their own, calling it Taste Buds, Complementary Flavors. These are more historically used pairings, rather than unusual or unfamiliar.
Molecular gastronomy:molecularrecipes.com. Transformation of food is achieved using various equipment and cooking techniques such as cryofiltration, edible transparent film and reverse spherification. The result is amazingly intricate and magical food designs.
Pinterest: I found that Googling “food pairings” wasn’t as helpful as a Pinterest search for food/flavor combinations. Numerous charts and diagrams pop up on Pinterest focused on foods, while Google mainly turns up food/beverage pairings.
Those Pinterest charts relate to foods with herbs, spices and cheeses, as well as pairing of individual foods, ranging from salad ingredient combos to “25 Weird Combinations” (pancakes with hot sauce, anyone?).
How taste works: blog.foodpairing.com (click on “science”). And to find out more about how we actually taste food, check out Columbia researcher Charles Zuker’s 2016 report to culinary and scientific experts about the brain’s role in taste. This site also has recipes.