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How to Pair Flavors, According to Science

Chef James Briscione, author of ‘The Flavor Matrix,' breaks down the mystery behind flavor
How to Pair Flavors Together
Photo: Tasting Table

Everyone knows chocolate and peanut butter are a match made in culinary heaven. But what about chocolate and beef? Or chocolate and mushrooms?

Most of us use culinary tradition to decide which foods should go together, but chef James Briscione, director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education and author of The Flavor Matrix, wants to understand why flavors go together in the first place. "Chemical compounds in food, called aromatic compounds, create aromas that are interpreted as flavor by the nose and are reported to our brain," he says. "When you take a bite and chew, more compounds are released and the perception of flavor increases." Because cocoa has similar aromatic compounds to steak and porcini mushrooms, they are natural pairs.

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Luckily, you don't have to be a professional chef or a chemist to discover unexpected flavor combinations. Here are a few tips from Briscione on how to push the boundaries of flavor in your own kitchen. 

Taste vs. Flavor

First, note that taste and flavor are two different things. "Taste is the sensation reported by our tongue: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami and fat. Flavor comes from smell." Briscione adds, "The more aromatic compounds two foods have in common, the better they tend to taste when paired together."

Practice Restraint  

To create great flavor, cooks must pack the most flavor into each bite without overwhelming the tongue. "The best bites are simple, and more ingredients doesn't make a dish better." Briscione recommends "thinking beyond the tasting spoon. A tiny spoonful of something may be great, but a whole plate of it will create palate fatigue." 

Take It One Step at a Time 

Instead of conceptualizing a dish with a bunch of different ingredients, start with one ingredient—like carrots, for example. "A carrot's flavor is earthy, with citrus and spice. Taste-wise, I get little sweetness and crunch for texture." Next, Briscione builds off the ingredient's characteristics. "I think about how I'm going to season the carrots to enhance their flavor—a little coffee (earthy), coriander seed (citrus) and cumin (spice). Then, a quick roast to enhance the sweetness." Finally, he complements the ingredient with other elements that enhance the dish. "Chewy and creamy are great textures to add to crisp. Grains will give me a chewy earthiness to complement the carrots flavor, and yogurt will give me creamy and sour to oppose the sweetness." 

Repurpose Your Pantry

You may not be ready for cocoa-crusted filet mignon, but a little sprinkle of cocoa to a beef stew can amp up flavor in a can't-put-your-finger-on-it-but-it's-delicious sort of way. Briscione is a big fan of using coffee, as well as cocoa and mushroom powders, for seasoning savory foods. "With just a sprinkle, they add a depth and complexity that would take hours to develop with traditional cooking."

Brooke Siem is a writer and professional chef currently meandering around the world. Follow her on Instagram at @brookesiem.

  • The flavors that go with beef.

    Excerpted from FLAVOR MATRIX by James Briscione and Brook Parkhurst. Copyright © 2018 by James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Photography by Andrew Purcell. Infographic design by Jan Willem Tulp.

  • Ingredients to pair with carrots.

    Excerpted from FLAVOR MATRIX by James Briscione and Brook Parkhurst. Copyright © 2018 by James Briscione and Brooke Parkhurst. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. Photography by Andrew Purcell. Infographic design by Jan Willem Tulp.

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