It’s true that there’s no accounting for taste, but some foods just seem to go together.
It’s like that with music. There are notes that sound good together and other combinations that make you cringe. And we know that it’s based in science. The vibrations of sound in the air create sound waves, and when the math and physics of different waves are a good fit, you’ve got music.
We all know foods that go together better than others. Bacon with cheese, pickles with deli meats, sushi with ginger, tomatoes with basil—they seem to create their own harmonies. And just like music, there’s math and science behind the fit of flavors.
The science of food pairing
Scientific flavor analysis has only been with us for a few years. It’s based on the molecular analysis of ingredients that identifies the odor and flavor compounds. Ingredients are sliced and diced with liquid and gas chromatography and mass spectrometry, and then an algorithm is applied to the compounds to come up with a unique flavor profile for each food. Compatible pairings happen when ingredients share enough compounds.
The molecular basis of pairings takes chefs away from recipes, intuition, and tradition to inspire the new and innovative dishes that you find on the menus of cutting-edge restaurants. Some of the new combinations that have worked their way into modernist cooking are chocolate and pink peppercorn, cauliflower and cocoa, and salmon with licorice. Some are better left in the laboratory like liver paired with jasmine and chocolate with smoked fish. And it’s said that caviar is molecular perfection with white chocolate, but I’ll just take it on faith.
There are clearly limits to molecular pairing.
That’s because we experience food in ways that transcend flavor. Preferences are also shaped by a dish’s appearance and texture, and the eater’s individual taste thresholds, culture, memories, traditions, and even inbuilt defense mechanisms that guided prehistoric eaters away from poisonous foods. The most complex genetic map in the entire human body is the one that controls the olfactory bulb that processes information sent to the brain about the food that we eat. Taste is far too complicated to boil down to a single, molecular rule of thumb.
Food, like music, can thrive on contrast as much as harmony.
In music it’s called dissonance; the jangle of tones that deviates from neat sound waves to create harmonic tension. It can sound harsh and unstable but dissonance has also given us Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, the Beatles’ Strawberry Fields Forever, and pretty much every movie soundtrack worth its salt. In food a kind of dissonance is found in East Asian cuisines that are based on contrasting tastes combined in a balancing act of sweet and sour, hot and cooling. Garlic with sesame oil, shrimp with ginger —these are food pairings that are completely incompatible on a molecular level, but without them there’d be no Pad Thai, Vietnamese spring rolls, or Japanese gyoza.
Don’t just guess:
Foodpairing.com has more than 1,000 pairing trees. These are interactive visualizations that give you all the possible combinations you can make with a chosen ingredient. Your selection is placed at the center and you can see all the molecularly compatible matches grouped on the branches around it. The closer to the center, the better the pairing.