8 Minute Read: How to pair foods and flavours

Kieren Caldwell
Jamie Robinson is consulting chef for Smoke and Flame Foods.

What makes chocolate go with chilli and beetroot, but not with onion?  Some flavour combinations are tried and tested, as old as the tales of spice merchants and the seven seas themselves. 

But, as the world opens up and becomes more connected, the appliance of science can help unravel new, exciting and complimentary flavour profiles which can take your meals to the next level.  Let us tell you how...

Spice Blend

This article (and Michelin Star menus worldwide) are all thanks to people like Barnard Lahousse, Francois Benize and Heston Blumenthal.  Their pioneering work laid the foundations which form the basis of modern cuisine and, we’re not ashamed to admit, our spice blends and rubs.

In this article we unlock the science, and art, of flavour pairing.  Not only that, we make it understandable to someone who doesn’t have an degree in Molecular Chemistry! 

Your flavours need spicing up

So yes, cumin and coriander go together.  Chilli and garlic too.  But these tried and tested combinations lead to stagnation and similarity – this is why many of us get bored of our own cooking and those oh-so-standard spice blends and dry rubs.  Open your cupboards and your taste buds to something new and impress your friends whilst you’re at it.  We’ll show you how… but you’ll need to read for approximately 6 more minutes to understand the theory.

First, some foundation knowledge – why do foods taste differently?

Your food gives off something called “Volatile Organic Compounds”, (just think of these as ‘something that gives off a smell’ – we’ll call them ‘Compounds’ from now on) which are the building blocks of the odour that you smell or the flavour that you taste.  

To identify these compounds you’ll need a Gas Chromatography Mass Spectrometry machine and they cost about £15,000.

Gas Chromotography machine

Except you don’t…

Thankfully, there are books and databases which list them.  Use these, don’t buy a Gas Chromo machine thingy.

Imagine a single lego brick – think of that as a ‘Compound’.  Now imagine a castle made out of lego – that’s a smell/flavour made out of lots of different compounds.

None of these individual compounds smell like a single food.  For example, strawberries contain Mesifurane which smells absolutely nothing like strawberries or fruit – it does smell a bit like almonds though.  Remove the Mesifurane however and your strawberry will no longer taste like a strawberry (and your strawberry jam will no longer go as well, as it currently does, with an almond croissant!). 

Flavour is a combination of different compounds/lego bricks – and, with that knowledge, that’s how you start to pair flavours. 

We will get into that in about 2 minutes... but first, just one more bit of essential foundation knowledge:

How do we taste?

Well. Firstly, your nose is more important than your mouth!  Smell = flavour.

That school rumour about certain parts of your tongue being used to pick up one of those flavour each – that’s just not true.  Your mouth, tongue, throat and (most importantly) nose can pick up, between them, thousands of different tastes of all varieties.

Your nose is capable of picking up almost all of these Compounds – some studies report that the nose accounts for 95% of the taste you experience.  Your mouth mainly detects 8 taste groups – the commonly known salty, umami, bitter, sweet, sour plus fat, pungent and alcohol – but your nose is so much more sensitive and can differentiate between thousands of smells (ie flavours). 

Your nose captures this collection of compounds and, by the miracle of neuroscience, your brain works out whether you like the taste or not.  That particular skill harks back to the days when we needed to know if the food was off or poisonous (without supermarket labels) – hence the gag reflex when you smell rotten fish or eggs.

The science of foodpairing – made simple

Those 10,000+ different compounds have been simplified by boffins into 14 groups.  They are:

The “chemical” group is the one we normally avoid – it’s the foul smelling stuff that makes us run a mile away from rotten or poisonous food.

The books and databases we linked to above will tell you which foods fall into which groups and what ingredients share the most compounds.

So when you see that our Persian Chicken Rub pairs Edible Rose with Sumac please know that this wasn’t just a marketing gimmick. 

The recipe includes pistachios, pepper and lemon which all have significant overlaps including limonene, pinene and a range of esters.  We then add the sulphur in the garlic and onion to balance the sourness of the lemon, sumac and coriander.

And that’s why we frequently sell out of our Persian Chicken Blend.
Food Pairing Theory basically states, with academic credibility, that the more compounds you match the better 'paired' your ingredients will be. 
It's that simple!

Except it’s not…

When art compliments science

Obviously, too much of one ingredient can overpower a dish.  So how do you overcome that?

I cannot state this enough:  Taste your food whilst you cook!  You can correct mistakes, tweak recipes, enhance the best bits – before it lands on a plate.

As the diagram below shows, you can enhance, subdue or balance these main tastes.  For example, the addition of fat to a recipe can reduce the taste of alcohol in your sauce.  Most people know that sweetness balances out sourness.

Want to enhance the meaty umami flavours in a dish?  Add salt.

Taste interactions

If you start to use these principles and add in flavours that genuinely compliment each other, due to their molecular make-up, your cooking will go up a level.  Don’t make your dish too salty/sweet/meaty/whatever… and get the subtle flavours (ie the compounds listed in the book/database) to match in order to compliment each other.

Follow Smoke and Flame’s lead

Kieren, the co-founder of Smoke and Flame had created a damn good Korean Pork marinade, genuinely amongst the best on the market, but he wanted to stand out from the crowd – so he asked me, and molecular gastronomy, to raise Smoke and Flame above the rest.

We tested 9 different versions of our Pyongyang Pork Belly (a Korean BBQ blend). We added something called Diastatic Malt to the Korean Gochugaru pepper and other ingredients.  By matching the compounds between ingredients (pyrazines with their earthy and roasted aroma alongside aldehydes which bring sweetness).  We settled on the range of ingredients by version 5 of testing. 

But getting the proportions right took a further 4 experiments before we were all happy!  It was a great day!

Korean Gochujang Pepper Pork Belly Rub

The coffee in our jerk seasoning compliments the paprika.  The mushroom in the Far East 9 spice takes your steak up more than 1 level.  You get the gist…

Don’t be afraid to experiment – and fail

Remember that flavour is a combination of lots of compounds together – and these compounds, when mixed, create whole new tastes.  Think 2+2=5.  Yet then, some compounds (even those we cannot taste on their own) suppress other flavours!  Yep:  2+2=3!!!  That’s where the art comes in and takes over the science!  Practice, practice, practice – but at least with the knowledge you have gained today, you’re not just chucking any old thing into the pot and hoping for the best, or worse, wasting good food and time.

Start by smelling your ingredients, particularly your spices blends and taste your food as you cook (I’ve said it again!).  Try and pick out which of the main flavours, listed above, you can pick out.  Now think what else you’ve experienced that type of aroma before and practice, practice, practice.  Write down which ingredients you paired and in what proportions.  Tweak it the next time you make it.  Treat it like an experiment – one that you fully expect to realise success with, after practice.

A final word on activating flavours and scents 

Many flavours and scents will remain dormant unless triggered by heat, oil, water, alcohol (or other solvent), acid or air.  Think about how much more you notice the cucumber aroma when you cut it open and expose aldehydes to air.  Or the intensified whiff of aromatics such as garlic as the thiosulfinates are heated in a frying pan or roasted in the oven.

Now think about chewing food – the compounds are exposed to air, acid, heat, water and shoot up your nose from inside your mouth – boom!  Flavour explosion!

But some flavours will only be activated by a few of those triggers.  Paprika, for example, is almost tasteless in water/saliva - until you add oil – so when a recipe says marinade with oil it’s probably best to follow those instructions - especially if your food is low in fat.

OK, lesson over - you've got this!

Have we achieved what we set out to do?

Did that make sense?  If so, great.  If not – sorry, we really did try. To recap:

1. Find foods with the same compounds in them.

2.  If something is too sweet, salty, bitter (or not bitter enough) etc then use the chart above to adjust.  Keep tasting.

3.  Treat recipes like an experiment and record what you did.  Improve each time.

If all else fails, get Smoke and Flame to do the heavily lifting and take a look at our (scientifically curated!) spice blends and dry rubs instead.

We love to hear what people think – good or bad – so please leave a comment below!

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