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How to combine ingredients

How to combine ingredients

by Bernard Lahousse 23 November 2015

You can’t enter a kitchen or bar without people discussing the combination of food and drink, but how does the pairing of food actually work? Why do specific ingredients match with one another and others do not?


As a scientist, food aficionado and co-founder of foodpairing.com, Bernard develops a scientific approach to food innovation and offers his knowledge to chefs and bartenders all around the world.

There’s more to combining ingredients than a chef’s intuition. The Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal was the first one to challenge the conventional perception of ‘combinations’. When he was looking for a way to accentuate the salty flavour of his chocolate dessert, he started experimenting with cured duck ham (which worked quite well), with various types of shellfish (which were not as successful) and eventually with caviar (which worked very well). By serving chocolate with caviar, he discovered that flavours form pleasing combinations because they share the same chemical compounds that are responsible for flavour.

As a food scientist and aficionado, I wanted to shed some light on why this marriage was so succesful, even more when chef Sang Hoon Degeimbre (L’air du Temps, Belgium) turned to me with his surprising ‘Kiwhuïtre’, a combination of oyster and kiwi. After analyzing both ingredients, we concluded that kiwi and oyster are both rich in ‘green’ and ‘sea-like’ aromas, and therefore form a good pair.

After a series of tests with chefs and barmen from all over the world, our hypothesis was confirmed: ingredients combine well when they have similar key aromas in common.

The synergy of aroma

When we talk about aroma, we are actually talking about what we smell. When eating food, the sense of taste is easily connected to our ‘flavour experience’ (the five basic tastes – sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami). But our sense of smell is far more important; through this, we are able to differentiate up to 10,000 different odors or aroma molecules. As much as eighty percent of what we call taste is actually aroma. For example, think about the smell of coffee. Containing over 1,000 aromas, coffee has a strong, roasted smell. If you take a sip of your coffee with your nose closed, it will turn into a bitter drink.

When foods share certain key aromas they are more likely to interact in a recipe. Let’s take a look at an example with ginger and pear. Did you know they are great companions? When we take a closer look at their aroma profiles we can see that besides the green (citrus) notes, ginger contains some degree of spiciness and cinnamon-like aromas. When comparing both aroma profiles, we discover that cinnamon is also the distinctive aroma descriptor which connects pear with ginger.

Smell
Smells and aromas are incredibly important
Oyster with kiwi
The unusual (but delicious) combination of oyster and kiwi

Brave new world

This pairing theory explains why known combinations such as strawberry and chocolate work well; it’s mainly the shared roasted aromas connecting these ingredients. However, the method has opened up a whole new world of new and exciting flavor combinations. Our research company, Foodpairing, scientifically analyzes culinary ingredients from all over the world – from native Peruvian ingredients, Alpine plants and spirits to fresh and dried spices, meats and fish. Today we have a databank with more than 1,600 ingredients, and by comparing all those aroma profiles, our algorithms calculate possible pairings between them. By using our database as a chef, you can discover delicious pairings to create innovative recipes. Of course, aroma is not the only key to success; it’s still up to you as a chef to use your intuition and show off your expertise.

 
 
 
 
 

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