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


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