Food pairing: tips and tricks


Let’s take a break from the vegan posts (not that I am done with that topic, on the contrary…I have still to explain how to make a vegan short crust ;)) and face a subject that has been sitting in the draw for a while: food pairing.

How do we pair foods and why?

Many food pairings are “acquired” ones, namely, we learnt how to pair certain foods by following recipes and practicing. We learnt so that cream and strawberries are meant to be together, as well as orange and fennel or raising and radicchio. But what if we want to create a new pairing, how should we proceed?

If during the old good days cooks were randomly trying (or a sort of) pairing. Luckily, the evolution of science and technology has allowed approaching this matter more methodically. Food pairing, as well as color matching, is done either by analogy or by complementarity.

Food pairing by analogy

A type of food pairing is the one by analogy. Trivially, we select two foods with similar dominant tastes: sweet-sweet, sour-sour, salty-salty. A few examples are cream and egg custard or strawberry and rhubarb.

Food parings by analogy are a bit risky because they can unbalance the taste towards the dominant one. My suggestion is to apply this strategy just for preparing “parts” of a recipe: for instance a chantilly cream to garnish a cake or using strawberries and rhubarb to fill a pie.

More recently, the aromatic bouquet of many foods has been analyzed with the aim to understand what they have in common in terms of taste molecules. The idea is to achieve pairing at the molecular level, selecting the aroma’s molecules that certain foods have in common.

Food pairing by complementarity

It consists in pairing foods with almost opposite flavours: sweet-bitter, sweet-sour, sweet-salty. A few examples? Cream and strawberries or cream and chocolate. In the first pairing the (almost sickening) sweetness of cream balances the sourness of strawberries, while in the second one, cream diminishes the bitterness of cocoa.

Another complementary pairing that has become very trendy in the last few years is the sweet-salty one, as in the case of caramel with fleur de sel. As we already saw, salt is not only adding sapidity to a dish, but helps also in minimizing unpleasant flavours as the bitter one. Another example is the combination salty pistachios and white chocolate…I warn you, I might give addiction :P

Food pairing by complementarity is probably the easiest, as it is quite evident. Furthermore, this type of pairing allows a better balance of all the flavours in the final dish.

Chefs are, however, always seeking for new pairings to develop new intriguing recipes. Therefore, they didn’t simply stick to the classical 5 tastes (6 if we consider also the umami) and thanks to the aid of the science, they developed taste maps.

What’s a taste map?

Taste maps could be seen as the DNA analysis of a food. In a taste map, a food is placed in the centre and the main taste molecules radiates outwards.


A few molecules belonging to the aromatic bouquet of maple syrup


Then, we try to identify the foods that have these molecules in common and those who, instead, must be considered as complementary. For example, maple syrup contains the molecule of ciclotene, a flavour enhancer, which is also present in coffee. Try to sweeten your coffee with maple syrup, for a blast of taste! :)


Ethyl ciclotene


Taste maps also comprehend volatile aromas, namely those fragrances that are perceived first in the nose and then in the mouth. Thanks to the taste maps, it is possible to pair foods by following the red thread that binds one with another or by considering their complementarity.

And after the nerdy explanation, I will wait you for my favorite part: the practice! :) E


F. Chartier, Taste buds and molecules: the art and science of food and wine, Ed. McClelland and Stewart, 2009