What’s behind food pairing?

  • 2 min. read

In the kitchen, we are comfortable when it comes to empirical evidence. For years we have been searching for answers through observation and experience. By touching, smelling, tasting… by confirming what our senses tell us, we have been solving some basic equations. But this path is too short, and we know it. The universe that surrounds us is too big and also too mysterious not to venture further with our minds.

We need science to understand the invisible logics lying behind so many processes. We need to reason and explain phenomena not only through trial and error because the “why’s” are also important! We could understand a lot more if we managed to acquire, through an exchange with science, tools, methods, or ways of approaching reality, trusting not only in the skill we have as artisans, but also in the certainty of data, algorithms or experiments.

One explicit example to debate upon is that of food pairing. As chefs, we train our palates and, of course, our memory, to distinguish combinations of ingredients. But is that enough? It seems not, especially when we remember that taste only accounts for 20% of what we perceive when we eat something. The rest (80%) comes from aromas.

What are the patterns that determine the combinations of ingredients we use today, or the principles that transcend individual tastes and recipes? When we taste ingredients separately, let’s say a piece of fruit or a vegetable, it is “easy” to project or imagine other ingredients to combine them with. We could do this just by balancing the basic tastes and using contrasting elements. Certain research suggests the pleasure we get from some empirical based pairings is probably also a consequence of an exposure effect with which you get used to something and then start liking it.

In any case, could this just be about contrasting or balancing elements? What happens when you do not have separate ingredients to combine but complex preparations? Picture a paella or a mole -with more than 30 ingredients. They become something more than the sum of their parts. Even the smallest components of the recipe are essential to the uniqueness, complexity and richness they knead together. Traditional foods are full of examples: from a cassoulet to a shepherd´s pie. We shouldn’t forget that the flavour of a dish owes as much to the mode of preparation as to the selection of its specific ingredients.

So, we are all wondering, how do ingredients combine with each other? Is there a principle to explain how some components can combine so well together, giving us such a pleasant sensorial experience through the pairings they establish on their own or when cooked? It goes without saying that not all ingredients combine with each other in the same way. Clearly, chocolate does not go well with anchovies, though feel free to try. The same happens with Sauvignon blanc and a blue cheese, or many other examples. As we grow, or work in the kitchen, we learn what does not work. But the question remains: what does work? What needs to “match” in order to combine properly? What conditions must a pairing meet to be harmonic and pleasant to our senses?

“One hypothesis to have received considerable attention among certain chefs and food scientists over the last ten years claims that ingredients sharing flavour compounds are more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not. This food pairing assumption has been used to search for novel ingredient combinations and has prompted, for example, a number of contemporary restaurants to combine white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavour compounds, or chocolate and blue cheese, which share at least 73 flavour compounds”, claims states a paper on Scientific Report.

Is it about predicting aroma similarities by overlapping one or more volatiles?  To what extent is culture involved? Could we learn to combine ingredients that produce a similar neurological response?

Dani Lasa. Mugaritz


“The potential ingredient pairings are endless!”

Aroma, taste & texture

Bernard LahousseWhen crafting new recipes, it is important to consider following dimensions: aroma, taste & texture Aroma is the most important, but to balance out a recipe, taste and texture should also be taken into account. Ingredients pair well when they share complementary aromas. Once you selected interesting aromatic pairings, the next step is to balance taste and texture by adding contrast. Contrary to aroma, taste and texture need contrast to create a balanced dish. As eaters, we are especially sensitive to the textures of the foods we eat, and even the things we drink. Many of the dishes that pique our interest are the ones that exhibit a variety of textures, whereas dishes that lack texture (e.g. baby food purée) become boring after a few bites. We’ve identified 60 different types of textures which can be categorized into two main groups: soft textures and crispy textures. When building a recipe, it’s a good idea to include at least one contrasting texture from each of these groups for dimension.

 There are countless examples that illustrate our natural affinity for pairings that contrast soft and crispy foods, for example chips and guacamole, french fries with ketchup or mousse served with a cookie or crumble. A (soft) mousse becomes more interesting when we add something crunchy like a (crisp) cookie. The potential ingredient pairings are endless!
Bernard Lahousse


  • Shannon Borg

    Your time line is fantastic! I understand the focus is on food, but you could make the same timeline in the wine world, of course, and here is one book that bridges the two:

    Taste Buds and Molecules: The Art and Science of Food, Wine, and Flavor, by Montreal sommelier Francois Chartier – a FABulous book exploring how and why various molecular compounds in foods and wines pair together – or don’t. https://www.amazon.com/Taste-Buds-Molecules-Science-Flavor/dp/1118141849

    It should be on your list! Thank you – i’m excited to see more!

    • Brainy Tongue

      Thank you Shannon. You are right, there is much to include on the time line. In fact, we see it as something that is “alive”. Ee hope to keep feeding it.

  • Josep de Haro

    Josep de Haro Licer (ENT-Doctor, Sensory Science Spanish Society member and Spanish Olfactory Net)

    First of all: Congratulations!!! A brainy Tongue is a smart idea. It sugests no boundaries, no limits; i hope it will be that!
    I’d like to comment some aspects.
    I start with:

    a)- We would have to have a basic definitions about words like Taste, Aroma, Flavor,Perfum, Fragance and Essence. We habitually use these Words in interchangeably way. I’m working olfactory and taste disorders every day in my hospital, where the most of the patients make a mistakes when they explain us their smell sense loss telling us: “ I lost my taste”, I can’t enjoy meals; but when we ask them: are you able to feel salty, sweet , sour, acid and bitter taste in yours meals?, they answer “ yes, I’am able to”! Then they realice there are differences between taste and smell sense.
    This example show us we need to arrange some meanings from some sensory words.
    We ought to set specifyc meaning words in order to understanding a right sense.
    And all over the world, generally, use smell-word to describe odours and taste-word to describe mouth perceptions (sweet, salty, acid, etc.).
    It is also used Flavor-word so as to describing odours ingested by meals and mouth and tongue perceptions provided by meals as well. Flavor = Smell + Taste
    We have three differents forms to express the odour’s world:
    -Aroma. We have to use this word for describing odours from meals
    -Parfume (scent), for describing odours from plants, flowers, woods, and other materials, usually not edibles.
    -Fragances, for describing odours neither used in meals, nor scents (cologne, parfumes, etc.) but used in detergents, floors’ cleaner, air fresheners, etc.
    Sometimes we use these differents words in “wrong” place to indicate specials qualities; for instance, when we are eating a orange with strong swseet aroma and we say: “ this orange seems to be perfumed!”, or, yuck! this soft driink smells like floors’cleaner!.

    b)- We would also have to know our Flavor system, not only is built by smell and taste senses but by touch sense as well.
    Our nose has a Olfactory Nerve sensors (smell sense) and Trigeminal Nerve sensors (touch sense: stinging, pain, cold, heat, tickling sensation …et cetera. ). Good smell sense depends on olfactory and touch nerves. If one of them fail, we will have olfactory smel l disorders.
    Nevertheless our nose, not only process smell and touch sensings it process hormons (no sexual and sexual) as well, which we can found in the air or we put inside the nose.

    c)-The tongue only taste five tastes (al least) and touch like the nose.
    d)-There is a third level of complexity. When we are eating, the nose and tongue works together, to the point that odors and touchs inside nose and taste and touch inside mouth match in order to build a Flavor sensation. Any disorder inside nose affect on taste function (and viceversa).

    e)-The fourth level is the Trans-sensorial function. Our senses are interconnected, for exemple, a blind people process the flavor different from not blind people, or deaf people from not deaf, and so on…
    A brainy Tongue entail all previously explained because our tongue Works depending others senses, like the rest of our senses.

    f)-Any disorder (sensory or not sensory) in our brain have an effect on building Flavor.

    g)-Finally 3 differents scenarios bear the weight of all: Nature (quality of environment), Nurture (quality of diet) and Culture (quality of education)

    I understand that this differents preamble subjects have been deal with or they will be.

    My questions are:

    1-What guidance will have this gastronomic brain event?

    The most part, Will it be restrict to the tonge, mouth field, and brain taste regions?

    2- Will it deal with how differents smells, like “Fragances” (odors inside restaurant), “Perfums” (silverware) and “Aromas” (foods) make easier or difficult tonge taste?

    3- Will it make mention to the people personal quality of taste before eating (restaurant dining room), without genetic profile? (“Food People Pairing”) by test-taste and aroma-test?

    4-It has been thought about how diferent kinds of personality imply different kinds of flavor perceptions?

    5-What about disabled people?
    What about people suffering swallowing disorders?
    What about people which instead of eat they “gulp down”?
    Or ofactory disorders (anosmic people)?

    6-How to teach children to take pleasure in eating?

  • Vicente Lovera

    Congratulations on the brilliant subject! I was thinking to myself this week about the so-called “health benefits” of foods/drinks, wondering if those alleged benefits would be the same for foods that we like or dislike.

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