Food Pairing for the Rest of Us

“You are better at food pairing than you thought.” These are the words floating through my mind as I write this post, because I am astounded food pairing is so instinctual. We all can food pair. We do it all the time. Since cocktail parties are usually only a couple of hours long and do not require a sit-down meal, it is a low stakes way of hosting a fancy or casual get together.

Ever eat a greasy slice of cheese pizza and ‘wash it down’ with one or several gulps of carbonated perfection and feel exceptionally satisfied in ways you and I both know water could not have replicated? Ever wonder why wine and cheese, despite the snobby stereotype, actually do go really well together? What about black tea or coffee with your rich dessert, Amber ale with your fish and chips, or a sweet white wine with fruit?

There is a reason these food combinations are familiar to a large majority of us. We have some instinctive basics about what goes well together. If not these specific examples, there are certainly regional combinations that just… click. I want to experience more intentional food and drink moments that “click,” so I went out and found the basic of basics guide to matching drinks with food.

Taste, Aroma, and Flavor

It’s important to draw a few distinctions, I think, for anyone who wants to understand the basics of food pairing. Specifically, the differences between taste, aroma, and flavor.

Taste is for the tongue: it is one of 5 or 6 sensations: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and umami (savory, earthy). Some add metallic. Taste also includes how our mouths feel after we’ve eaten something: a spectrum ranging from astringent (puckering sensation) to fatty (oily, heavy, coated sensation) is used as well as more obvious descriptors including temperature and texture.

Aromas are for the nose and the back of the throat. The particles from the food enter our nasal passages and meet up with nerve receptors to create the sensation of scent.

Flavor, if I understand it correctly, is the culmination of smelling the food, tasting the food, and reacting to the food. If you have a cold, food is salty or sweet, sour, savory or bitter: but it lacks character. I lost my sense of smell as a young girl for a few years. When I got it back, my food preferences changed dramatically. Likewise, if you only smell food, you lack the immediacy of the experience.

This is the medium through which food pairing can create new, exciting, and unexpected experiences. The play between the aromas and tastes of our food and drink work in concert. We can let the dice roll (i.e. wow, that glass of milk after eating my grapefruit REALLY was not pleasant!), or we can be proactive in setting up our food and beverage experiences for ultimate dining enhancement.

Now let’s explore some general pairing guidelines:

1.) Compliment

Here’s the easiest and most intuitive rule out there: complement your food and drink. Are you eating a delicate, light meal full of subtle flavors? Don’t over power it with a high alcoholic, full-bodied beverage. You’ll over-shadow your lovely meal. Maybe you want to showcase a lighter beverage like a rare white tea. You probably shouldn’t shovel decadent dark chocolate bits in your mouth right before taking a sip(no matter how tempting).

Save the intense, heavy beverage for the intense heavy meal complete with rich sauces and aged or grilled meats. This allows both the drink and the food to stand on their own. Think of it like boxing weight categories: keep the heavy weights and light weights separate.

A great example is beer: light, relatively low alcohol content beers with lightly flavored fish. Dark, higher alcohol content beers with burgers, steaks, or even rich desserts.

2.) Balance

As mentioned above fatty and astringent are two ends of the spectrum for the viscosity of food. Dry or wet are the descriptors we’re all familiar with in regards to wine or vermouth for our martinis.

The key to a happy mouth is to find the fight balance between fatty and astringent in our meals. Let’s talk about that greasy piece of cheese pizza again. The oily feel left over by the pizza is cut and cleansed by the carbonation in the soda or, if soda isn’t your thing: beer.

Another good example: ginger after eating sushi. The ginger’s astringent taste strips the residual flavors from your previous (delicious) piece of sushi, refreshing your mouth so the new sushi’s flavor is not interrupted/disturbed/thrown off by other unintended flavors.

3.) Find a Common Denominator

From the articles I’ve read, most writers say you need to mirror or contrast your pairing. This makes sense. You have sweet wines with sweet fruit because if your wine were less sweet than the fruit, the sweetness of the fruit will accentuate the acidity of the wine-washing out the other flavors you otherwise would have experienced. Mirroring is like having lots of flavors in common that bridge both the drink and the food.; To contrast flavors, however, you might take a spicy Indian food and pair it with a sweet beverage to cool off the heat from the dish. These tastes balance each other.

I think these are sound guidelines, and I have a another observation to add: I think both contrasting and mirroring share flavor. Contrasting tastes would share less than two items that are mirrored, though. I call it the pivot point: the common denominator.

While either mirroring or contrasting your beverage and food, you need to find a common denominator between the food and drink. If you can’t physically distinguish what foods share flavor compounds, has collected a vast database filled with the chemicals that make up food, and which foods share the most in common.

Also, there is a study which recorded commonalities between foods regionally. Despite North America and Western Europe preferring foods that share more flavor compounds while Asia and Southern Europe preferred less in common, the most popular and traditional dishes in all regions still shared SOME flavor compounds.

4.) Stick to the Region

The way I see it, geographic areas and common cultural heritages probably developed the same flavor signatures for a reason. They know what tastes good together from their region. An easy rule: when in doubt, pick a food and drink from the same area. Human and plant evolution are probably more intertwined than we realize.

Some Final Thoughts

Food and beverage pairing could become overwhelming if you think too much about it. There are seemingly endless combinations of flavors. That said, if you notice yourself becoming overwhelmed, remember: you’ve been tasting food and drink since the beginning. You know what you like. Food pairing is just exploiting the self-awareness for excellent dining experiences. My basic words of advice to you and to myself?

Take it slow. Stick to what you know works, and try to replicate it with other new flavor combinations. Try. Try again. Try some more. Experiment small-scale so those combinations that don’t quite fit won’t be a source of discouragement when no one likes the meal.

Happy food and beverage pairing!

The Beverage Blog [] is the best place to sit back and explore your favorite beverages. Stop by and let me know what you think!

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