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Over the weekends when I have more time to play in the kitchen, I often experiment by putting things together just to see how they taste/interact with each other. I've been doing this pretty randomly and have had a variety of results. Here are some "recipes" that I have tried recently:

  • marshmallow chicken (surprisingly good, like peanut chicken)
  • coffee and sour cream (ok I didn't want to do this, but I was out of half & half, awful)
  • chocolate chip stuffing (excellent, just make sure to spread out the chocolate pieces)
  • peanut butter salami sandwich (highly recommended)
  • jalapeño ice cream (do not try this at home)

These are just a small selection of my samplings, but are there any guidelines on how to pair ingredients when cooking, or is it like the Large Hadron Collider and just hope they hit the right way to find something that tastes good?

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Also: cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/2770/… –  justkt Dec 3 '10 at 18:21
    
I guess it's not technically a duplicate, since this is about specific ingredients and not general flavour classes, but the answers to my question would seem to apply equally well here. –  Aaronut Dec 3 '10 at 18:27
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Love the LHC reference –  boxed dinner Dec 3 '10 at 18:55
    
+1 for "do not try this at home". :D –  Marti Dec 4 '10 at 6:46
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up vote 5 down vote accepted

When it comes to pairing specific ingredients, the general thinking seems to be that ingredients that share "flavour notes" in significant quantity will go well together.

In practice it goes much deeper than that, because in addition to taste, foods have very specific and recognizable aromas which affect the perception of flavour; wine is mostly sweet and sour, but you wouldn't substitute ordinary grape juice for it; the aroma of the alcohol is unmistakable, and even between different wines you will have varying levels of "fruitiness" or "woodiness".

But let's start with tastes:

  • Chocolate and coffee go well together because they share characteristic bitter notes. The roasting of the beans also makes a difference; the pairing works best when the roasting is enough to thermally degrade the bitterness without losing too much sweetness due to caramelization. This emphasizes the sweetness and de-emphasizes the bitterness and acidity of the coffee, making it closer to the flavour profile of chocolate.

  • A traditional stock combines a mirepoix (onions, carrots, celery) with meat (well, bones), both very high in umami. The end product may have varying notes of bitterness or saltiness from the vegetables but is basically one huge kick of umami. A lot of people also enjoy peanut butter and bacon together, which combines the significant umami and saltiness in both foods.

  • Beets and sour cream are a traditional (or so I'm told) Polish dish, both obviously sharing strong sour notes. Often chives are added, which are mildly pungent in nature and pungency tends to go with sour or bitter (since it is created by sulfur which is perceived as sour, bitter, and also "metallic").

This tends to work reasonably well for basic pairings, but another very strong element of this is balancing all of the different flavours in a dish.

  • Peanut butter and jam don't seem to have much in common, flavour-wise. But when you combine them together in a sandwich you have the high umami and saltiness of the peanut butter, the sweet and slightly sour notes of the jam, and the hints of bitterness and/or sourness in the bread. Together you have strong notes of all five tastes and the result is appealing to most people.

  • Five Spice is usually a mixture of cinnamon (sweet), star anise (mildly sweet and bitter), fennel (mildly sweet and fairly savoury), ground cloves (pungent and somewhat bitter), and Szechuan peppercorns (salty and pungent with a sour aftertaste). The quantities are generally adjusted to balance out the tastes; for example, fennel is the only really savoury ingredient so Five Spice tends to have more of that than other ingredients. Anyway, this is used all over Chinese cuisine as a sort of "wonder spice".

  • A really good roast chicken starts off high in umami and is then brined (salty), buttered (sweet), and roasted which involves the Maillard reaction (bitter). This is missing sour, which is why a lot of cooks will throw a few lemon slices in there.

But truthfully, even though this all sounds plausible, it's really so much more complicated than that. Even though there's some science at work here, the five tastes are a little like the four elements or humours; it's an almost archaic way of thinking about food chemistry, because our mouths and noses can detect so much more than that.

If you want to see just how little we actually really know about flavour today, check out They Go Really Well Together on Khymos, linked to from one of the related questions. There you'll see totally nonsensical combinations like chocolate and garlic or mint and mustard that actually - with the right preparation of course - produce pretty pleasant flavours/aromas.

The truth is people are still gathering data on this and we don't really know, exactly, what makes some flavours work together. At least we're starting to approach this scientifically and actually experiment and document this stuff, but there's not enough data to form a coherent theory yet. Check the answers to my question about flavour pairings and the other question on pairing resources if you want detailed data on which flavour pairings can "work", although you might not get much of an explanation for why.

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This is great information and gives me a little more confidence even though most of my concoctions are terrible! –  Frank Pierce Dec 9 '10 at 19:03
    
Another great taste: Nutella (Chocolate/Hazelnut spread, not sure if it's well known outside of Europe) with Salami. You have the nutty sweetness of the Nutelle and the salty savoriness of the salami. Very nice. Or Watermelon and Bacon. –  Lagerbaer Dec 20 '10 at 2:19
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Personal preference! My advice: be creative, unafraid, and share your vision - make discoveries.

Flavor is like color. Or music. Except even better :) ..It is an experience. Some dishes play with contrasting flavors, clashing one ingredient against another. Or, they may harmonize into a symphony, but one part of the food on a plate presented will contrast with others.

There may be 'accepted' methods to all this, but it isn't a mathematical science like other disciplines. but there isn't an exact science to human opinion. Simple example: foods a child may consider distasteful - such as those from an unfamiliar culture, he may grow to love after acquiring a taste for it as an adult.

My adventures in cooking have been mostly about discovering ways new to me that other cultures (I'm American) have mastered various ways of cooking, flavoring, and presenting their foods.

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@zanlock - on the contrary, there is plenty of science involved, even if the art is in applying the science to a specific person –  justkt Dec 3 '10 at 18:22
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Agreed. But: that's the science.. not so much that any one combination "must" work. I love cooking for my extended family and knowing how to prepare meals in alternate versions that a particular individual will most enjoy. –  zanlok Dec 3 '10 at 18:23
    
@zanlok - I meant the way the molecules interact in a flavor pairing is the science. –  justkt Dec 3 '10 at 18:36
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Well, yes yes. I am an engineer by trade, and understand there "is" a science to all things. So, I agree. However, other than information from the great links cited in your comments, my point is more that we shouldn't focus only on science :) –  zanlok Dec 3 '10 at 18:40
    
@justkt While there is a science in how flavours pair up and form new ones, there is far less of a science in determining whether people will like them or not. Sure there are trends, but I've never found a flavour or food that all people like, or dislike for that matter, combinations doubly so. So the combinations are still primarily an art. –  Orbling Dec 4 '10 at 2:32
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