The Science of Weird Food Pairings (and Why They Work)

published Apr 18, 2017
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(Image credit: Anna Timoshenko and Shany Muchnik)

Weird food pairing are counterintuitive: How can a person possibly enjoy two conflicting flavor profiles like chocolate-covered salmon or pizza dipped in sugary icing? One possibility is that said person is a masochist. Or they have low-functioning taste buds.

But odds are (because science says so!) it has a thing or two to do with flavor perception.

Sebastian Ahnert, a physicist at Cambridge specializing in biochemical networks, looked into this very thing. By mapping out a web of flavor perception and how ingredients interact with one another using data from 56,498 recipes, he was able to better understand unorthodox flavor pairings.

“It has led to something called computational gastronomy” said Ahnert at a recent conference, reports Munchies. “We can use datasets about food compounds to change the way we experience food.”

Each food item has chemical compounds — which vary based on temperature — that are common with other foods. Similar chemical compounds show scope for pairing and broaden the horizons for new flavors being mixed. Like coffee and garlic, beef and chocolate, matcha tea and sour cherries, pork and vanilla, and chocolate and caviar.

Just because two foods have common shared compounds doesn’t mean you can blindly lump them together and expect something delicious in return. Since temperature changes compounds, sometimes how you prepare the foods can make or break the combination.

“Cooking can also alter compounds, so we need to do some work predicting how that can change a flavor profile,” Ahnert said. “Coffee and potato share a lot of compounds, so I made mashed potato with milky coffee. It was horrible. But I’ve had a dish in Paris with coffee and potato that worked. So, the execution is a big part [of it], and that is where chefs can really help.”

For the average consumer, the takeaway is to keep an open mind to new combinations of foods. And for chefs — both novice and amateurs — it’s to keep experimenting.

What are you favorite weird food combinations? Let us know in the comments!