Flavor Faves: The science behind our favorite food pairings

Peruse the menu at any upscale eatery, and you expect to see suggested wines or beers listed alongside the house specialties. Some restaurants cut right to the chase, pouring specially selected pinots and ports with tasting courses.

We’re often grateful for the direction and trust the flavor profiles will work together instead of fighting for attention.

We know the basic rules: Pair fruit with fruit. The redder the meat, the darker the wine should be. And dessert wines, liqueurs, and heavier, malt-forward beers are best saved for the dessert course.

But the avoidance of dining blunders aside, is there a science behind what makes flavor combinations sing or slump? Or are successful pairings largely made up of some elusive combination of luck and learned norms?

Zata Vickers, Ph.D., is a professor of food science and nutrition at the University of Minnesota. She’s spent years researching “food acceptability” and, as one of the more qualified people in the Twin Cities to speak definitively on the topic, even she remains noncommittal about precise rules to follow. But she does offer some larger perspective on where our tastes for certain foods come from.

“Wherever you go, people eat the shrubbery [and] the animals that are around them—historically, it has had more to do with survival and less to do with taste or smell,” Vickers says of the way our food cultures developed.

Over time, a sort of Darwinian phenomena prevailed. A people group that only had access to a single starch, for instance, wouldn’t thrive like a group eating a greater diversity of food with enough protein and vitamins, says Vickers. This shift toward balance and variety in the human diet has become like “food pairings” playing out on a macro scale, becoming engrained in the bedrock of our cultures. With today’s culinary globalization and the laughable variety available in stores, restaurants, and even by mail, many now have the privilege of choosing foods that don’t just nourish, but complement each other and delight the senses. Even those tendencies, Vickers says, are largely learned. “If people customarily eat things together, they get used to a flavor combination and tend to think those things go well together.”

She explains that things like coffee, sour wines—like some of the ones made from Minnesota grapes, for instance—and strong IPAs are all stronger flavors that can be off-putting at first. But people come to enjoy them because of the social benefit or the positive experience they’ve had from consuming them over time.

Preferred Food Combinations

Brooklyn-based chef Justin Warner, who won season eight of “Food Network Star” and is a regular on the network, also acknowledges the cultural aspect of certain food pairings. Though he can (and did) write a novel on the subject of food pairing protocols, Warner’s first law of pairing is quite simple. “If it grows together, it goes together,” quotes Warner. “Oregon pinot noir and Pacific salmon? Yah, bro. Sancerre and grassy goat cheese? Oi. Shepherd’s pie and porter? Crikey, that’s delicious. Fish tacos and a Tecate? Sí, guey! Of course, this isn’t always going to be 100 percent true, but it’s not a bad place to start.”

Justin Warner is the author of "Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them"

Justin Warner is the author of “Laws of Cooking: And How to Break Them”

However, Warner also believes there are essential rules of flavor that hold true across the world’s food cultures. In his book, “The Laws of Cooking: And How To Break Them,” he divvies up all possible flavors into sour, sweet, salty, rich, bitter, herbaceous, funky, spicy, smoky, sharp, and umami categories, and describes how, when paired, those flavors create layered, pleasing experiences for most diners.

“Acidity, for example, comes from many things, but the shining examples are citrus fruits and vinegars. Its foil is sweetness, and on the sweet team the star player is sugar,” explains Warner. “The reason we love eating fruits straight from the tree is that within them, there is a satisfying pairing of sweetness and acidity. Even the sweetest strawberry will have some acidity to balance it, or it would be like eating a sugar cube, which doesn’t sound fun to me.”

Then comes richness, which is usually derived from some kind of fat. “Peanut butter is rich, it’s creamy, and it’s damn good with jelly, which is acidic and sweet all at the same time. See what we are doing here? We just paired something. So now we know that pairing something slightly sweet and acidic with something rich works,” says Warner. “What is pizza, if not slightly sweet, slightly acidic tomato sauce against the richness of mozzarella?”

These “laws” extend to beverage pairings, too. For example “the bitterness of an IPA is going to be epic with a creme brulee because we’ve had the combo of bitter, sweet and rich before in chocolate bars, in coffee drinks, in collard greens,” Warner says, equating the concept to finding complementary tints on a color wheel. “You just gotta find your shade!”

Margherita pizza, Barboncino // Photo by Garrett Ziegler, Flickr

Margherita pizza, Barboncino // Photo by Garrett Ziegler, Flickr

Then there’s the pairings that go right down to the molecular level of food. Tastes and smells inform much of what humans feel and perceive each day. Though we quickly process information and label the smells and tastes of peony or pear or pizza, they’re actually made up of much more complex molecular compounds that play off one another to create an experience.

“It’s through the concentrating of these [compounds] that we can make perfumes and extracts,” Warner says. He references an online, password-protected database of individual Volatile Compounds in Food (VCF), which he’s used to develop envelope-pushing dishes that work on a subconscious, microscopic level.

“Dark chocolate and cooked cauliflower both contain limonene,” he explains, by way of example. “You can bet your bippy they are going to play nicely together even though you might be scratching your head a little. You know where else you can find limonene? Oranges. Orange and chocolate have been a thing since the ’90s! Orangey hefeweizens and dark chocolate-covered cauliflower for everyone!”

Through understanding the essential “laws” at work in flavor pairings, chefs can use the combinations our tongues and brains gravitate toward from our learned experience to explore more adventurous food combinations. The most successful restaurants tend to be the ones who expand guests’ thinking a bit and “push only gently at the boundaries of what common people think go together,” says Vickers.

Warner’s research—and resulting culinary concoctions—has been equal parts puzzling and mind-blowing. The bottom line when it comes to pairings? “Take an educated guess, and be as educated as you can be,” says Warner. “Food and beverage—and the consumption thereof—is one of many arts, but it’s the only one that you have to participate in because if you don’t, you’ll die. Might as well study up and make it fun and exciting, right?”

We couldn’t agree more.