Why Certain Flavor Combinations Melt in Your Mouth

The chemistry of flavor determines much about which foods people enjoy together.

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Beyond Flavor

Lahousse also admitted that there many unanswered questions about how food is experienced.

"You cannot explain everything by looking at food pairing because a recipe is more than flavor alone," he said. "It's much more complex."

Sometimes, despite mixing ingredients that should form agreeable flavor combinations, a dish does not work. Often, a chef may need to add ingredients that introduce additional elements for reasons of balance. For example, a dish may be calling for an additional taste of sweetness, or perhaps a bit of lemon to add a sour note to round out the dish. But the chef is not necessarily making those adjustments because of the flavors that element brings.

Ahn believes that even if an ingredient is applied this way, solely for the benefit of taste to the tongue, its contribution to overall flavor should still be analyzed. Lahousse believes that this is where careful analysis of a food's most important flavors pays off. For example, he said, garlic and onions add flavor, but also sweetness. They also influence the browning of meat as it is cooked.

Eggs are another popular ingredient, especially in baking. Lahousse said they are not added for their flavor profile, but for their contribution to texture.

Ahn said it is important to consider eggs' flavor contribution, because even though they influence a food's structural properties, that recipes evolve, and if the flavors were not pleasing to those who ate it, the recipe would change over time to reflect flavor preferences as well as those of texture.

Finding Harmony

Even if the flavor notes of two foods line up, a deft hand may still be required to make a combination sing.

The visualization of lobster's most closely-related foods hosted on Lahousse's website, clearly highlights the crustacean's affinity to strawberry. But, he said, many factors influence how those items are best combined and balanced, including the culture of those eating the dish and even the qualities of the individual lobster and strawberries.

"If you start to add strawberry to lobster you have to be a very good chef," said Lahousse. "The chance is very high that you will add too much sweetness to this dish. You have to be able to make a really good balance."

Potter likened the combination of flavors to notes or chords on a piano. Some will join together in a more pleasing way than others. Two wildly differing sets of odor molecules might not mesh if they didn't have any accompaniment. He pointed again to lobster, and to chocolate as its pairing.

"That's not to say that a really talented chef couldn't make lobster and chocolate work," said Potter. "I'm sure there's a combination with an appropriate set of ingredients where those dissonant chords do actually produce a pleasing sound."

For home cooks facing a nearly empty refrigerator and a lack of inspiration, Potter recommends taking inventory and Googling a list of your seemingly mismatched ingredients to identify opportunities to create your own culinary innovations.

"I'm a huge fan of experimentation; there's no single better way to learn how to cook than to go into the kitchen and try doing something," said Potter.