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The Introduction to the Science of Food Pairing

Written by Jaroslav Guzanic

A cuisine is a specific complex of culinary traditions and practices, combination of ingredients, often associated with a specific culture or region. Each cuisine involves food preparation in a particular style, of food and drink of particular types, to produce individually consumed items or distinct meals. A cuisine is primarily influenced by the ingredients that are available locally or through trade. Religious food laws can also exercise a strong influence on such culinary practices. Combining various ingredients serves not just to achieve a symphony of flavours, but it is to understand the chemical compounds that create how those flavours are created and how they are interconnected. Western cuisines show a tendency to use ingredient pairs that share most flavour compounds, supporting the so-called food pairing hypothesis. By contrast, East Asian cuisines tend to avoid compound sharing ingredients1. In this blog, we will dive into the science behind food pairing and provide introductory explanations to become familiar with the fundamentals of food pairing and elements of neurogastronomy. Food Pairing Hypothesis and Understanding the Principles

Although many factors such as colors, texture, temperature, and sound play an important role in food sensation, palatability is largely determined by flavour, representing a group of sensations including tastes and different molecules that stimulate taste buds. Therefore, the flavour compound (chemical) profile of the culinary ingredients is a natural starting point for a systematic search for principles that might underlie our choice of acceptable ingredient combinations2,3. A hypothesis, which over the recent years has received attention among some chefs and food scientists, states that ingredients sharing flavour compounds are more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not. Chemical compounds in foods are what give them their unique flavours. Foods made up of similar compounds taste good together because they have that chemical element in common. This food pairing hypothesis has been used to search for novel ingredient combinations and has prompted, for example, some contemporary restaurants to combine white chocolate and caviar, as they share trimethylamine and other flavour compounds, or chocolate and blue cheese that share at least seventy-three flavour compounds. Furthermore, there are many ingredients whose main role in a recipe may not be only flavouring but something else as well (e.g., eggs' role to ensure mechanical stability and texture or paprika's role to add vivid colors). Finally, the flavour of a dish owes as much to the mode of preparation as to the choice of ingredients. However, our hypothesis is that, given the large number of recipes we use in our analysis (56,498), such factors can be systematically filtered out, allowing for the discovery of patterns that may transcend specific dishes or ingredients4. Classic Food Pairings: Understanding Why They Work

One of the best ways to understand the principles of food pairing is to explore some classic examples. Classic food pairings are tried and true combinations that have stood the test of time for a reason: they work. From tomatoes and basil to chocolate and coffee, these pairings have been used for years because they share flavour molecules that complement each other. For example, tomatoes and basil both contain a high concentration of the same flavour molecule, called linalool, which is responsible for their characteristic herbaceous aroma. This is why they work so well together in dishes like bruschetta and pasta sauce. Understanding why these classic pairings work can help you identify potential pairings in your own cooking and create delicious and personalized meals.

Contrasting Flavors in Food Pairing: Balancing and Enhancing a Dish

One of the most powerful tools in food pairing is the use of contrasting flavours. Contrasting flavours can be used to balance out a dish and make it more interesting, or to enhance the main flavours. For example, the acidity in tomatoes can be balanced by the fat in cheese, making them a perfect pairing in a caprese salad. Similarly, the sweetness of a dessert can be balanced by the bitterness of a cup of coffee, making them a perfect ending to a meal or adding a few drops of tabasco in gazpacho soups to increase the acidity. On the other hand, supplementary flavours can be used to enhance the main flavours of a dish. For example, adding a squeeze of lemon to a dish with fish can enhance the fish’s natural flavours. Here are some common food pairings that share chemical compounds:

Bread / tomato / cheese

Pear / honey

Beef / garlic / bell pepper

Cheese / dates

Pork / cilantro / green bell pepper

Here are some unusual pairings that share chemical compounds:

Chocolate / blue cheese

Mushrooms / chicken / strawberry

Beef / soybean / peanut butter / coffee

Orange / basil / okra

Cranberry / avocado / lard

Ideal Pairing: Things to Consider and Try

When you are pairing foods at home, the most important thing to think about is balance. Ideally, a balanced dish will incorporate at least three or four of the five tastes — sweet, sour, bitter, salty and umami (savoury) — even if it’s just a squirt of lemon (sour) or a drizzle of honey (sweet). An interesting fact to add is that around 80% of our flavour experience is determined by our sense of smell, while taste and touch account for only 20% of the overall eating experience5. Food pairing is an art that requires not only knowledge of the principles and science behind it, but also willingness to experiment and try new things. First, do not be afraid to try new combinations, even if they seem unusual. Second, use contrasting and complementary flavours to balance and enhance your dishes. Third, keep the combinations simple, not trying to combine more than three main ingredients together. Fourth, trust your taste buds. Food pairing is also a very personal thing, and what works for one person may not work for another.

Here are tips on how to balance out and contrast your meals:

If your dish is FATTY balance with acid.

In guacamole, lime juice cuts through the fat of the avocado. On a pulled pork sandwich, a vinegary BBQ sauce or a simple mustard vinaigrette with citrus juice adds a tangy finish. If your dish SALTY add more sweetness.

Think bacon and tomato, coconut milk in curry, add more pumpkin chunks or a drizzle of honey on roasted sweet potatoes. It really does not have to be too sweet to provide a nice balance.

If your dish is SWEET add salt or spice.

There is a reason many desserts include a teaspoon of sea salt or a pinch of cayenne pepper: those contrasting flavours help cut the sweetness so your tongue can taste the ingredients more fully. You can sprinkle a little of salt on watermelon or smoked paprika on mango or pineapple, for instance. If your dish is SOFT balance with something crunchy.

Texture is very important, too. Everyone has different taste buds and preferences. Adding a handful of nuts to a salad or peanut butter on a stick of celery or herbed rye crumble on a soup is what you may be looking for and want to try. Having multiple textures in your dishes stimulates more of your brain cells, which can lead to a lot more enjoyable dining experience.

If your dish is SPICY balance it with starch or dairy.

Spicy foods need fat and/or carbs as a counterpoint to their intense heat. It is why you add a splash of cream to a peppery tomato sauce or serve a spicy stir-fry on a bed of rice.

Experiment with Food Pairing: Put your Knowledge into Practice and Personalize your Cooking

While understanding the principles of food pairing is important, it is also important to remember that there are practically, no limits in exploring and trying out new combinations and flavour networks. The beauty of food pairing is that there are endless possibilities and combinations to explore. Sometimes, the most unexpected pairings can lead to the most delicious results. For example, pairing chocolate with sea salt may sound strange, but the combination of sweet and savoury can be incredibly satisfying. The same goes for pairing sweet fruits with savoury meats or cheese. It is about understanding the basic algorithm of flavour networks. Gaining food pairing skills and consistent learning may positively impact you're not only the final taste, but also the entire satisfying cooking experience and help personalize your recipes. In Summary

In this introductory article, we have explored the fascinating world of food combinations and how it can be used to elevate your meals to a next level. The importance of experimentation and not being afraid to break the rules has also been stressed. In conclusion, food pairing is not just about matching ingredients, however, it is primarily about understanding the chemical compounds that create those flavours and how they are related with each other. In the next article, we will describe the aroma connections and flavour networks in a more depth including more statistics, graphs, and evidence-based details to better understand the interconnection of ingredients and food compounds. Moreover, a set of examples of food examples and recipe deep-dives will be incorporated, as well as a couple of recommendations how to apply the food pairing in customizing recipes.


1. This, H. Molecular gastronomy: exploring the science of flavour (Columbia University Press, 2005). 2. Shankaer, M. U. & Levitan, C. A. Grape expectations: the role of cognitive influences in color-flavor interactions. Conscious Cogn. 19, 380–390 (2010). 3. Zampini, M. & Spence, C. The role of auditory cues in modulating the perceived crispness and staleness of potato chips. Journal of Sensory Studies 19, 347–363 (2005). 4. Newman, M. E. J., Barabási, A.-L. & Watts, D. J. The structure and dynamics of networks (Princeton University Press, 2006). 5. Caldarelli, G. Scale-free networks: complex webs in nature and technology (Oxford University Press, USA, 2007).

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