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The science behind food pairing: Why do pineapple and blue cheese taste so great together?

By Elaine WATSON , 12-Mar-2013

The science behind food pairing: Why pineapple & blue cheese match

Why do pineapple and blue cheese taste so great together? Lots of reasons, but a key one is that they both contain the flavor component methyl hexanoate, say the founders of Belgian firm Foodpairing.com , which has built a business around identifying novel flavor combinations.

Speaking at the Research Chefs Association (RCA) annual conference & culinology expo on Saturday, Foodpairing.com science director Bernard Lahousse and culinary director Peter Coucquyt, said chefs have learned through trial and error, and a good deal of intuition, which flavor combinations work well together.

However, foodpairing.com - which has worked with some of the biggest names in molecular gastronomy to food giants including Kraft and Nestle - takes guesswork out of the equation and identifies food and ingredient pairings based on the principle that if the major volatile molecules of two foods/ingredients are the same, they might taste and smell nice when eaten together. 

Ingredients are more likely to match when they have important flavor components in common”, said Lahousse.

Foodpairing trees

The Foodpairing process starts with a flavor analysis of a product, such as cucumber, chocolate, or a pita chip, that could be combined with other foods or ingredients.

The process results in a Foodpairing tree (see above), which serves as a visual aid for chefs and cocktail makers that indicates which ingredients might match from a flavor perspective.

Once the most important flavor components of that food have been analyzed, they are compared to a database of hundreds of other foods. Those with with key flavor components in common with the original ingredient are then retained and graphically presented on foodpairing trees.

The shorter the branch, the better the match to the central ingredient. Beijing roasted duck, for example, fits a little better with cucumber than cardamon.  

“It’s actually a lot more complicated than this”, Lahousse told FoodNavigator-USA. "We have developed proprietary algorithms that are based on our understanding of flavors and flavor interactions; but as a starting point, we look at the major flavor components.”

If major volatiles are shared between two foods it may very well be that they go well together

The notion that certain food pairings probably have a molecular basis was first popularized by Firmenich scientist François Benzi and celebrity chefs such as Heston Blumenthal (pictured left), who owns the Fat Duck restaurant in the UK, said Lahousse.

The two showed that caviar and white chocolate are a perfect match (possibly because they both contain trimethylamine), while strawberry works perfectly with coriander; banana with cloves; salmon with licorice; potato and coffee; cocoa and cauliflower; oysters and passion fruit, and so on.

However, the discoveries made by the pioneers in the field are no longer just being applied in swanky bars and high-end restaurants, said Lahousse, who now works with some of the biggest names in food and beverage manufacturing to help chefs apply the science behind foodpairing to products you can buy at Kroger or Walmart, he said.

“Our users are chefs, bartenders, and food companies from around the world. Some of the website can be accessed for free, although if you want full access to the database you need to subscribe.”

Unusual combinations

So what unexpected combinations do Lahousse's algorithms throw out?

You can check out lots of examples on the Foodpairing.com website, but some interesting ones include Columbian coffee teamed with milk, licorice and Tahitian vanilla;Trappist Westmalle Tripel (beer) with mango, lemon, apricots and cumin; and Lait Venezuela 43 with yuzu (Japanese citrus fruit), shiso (Asian culinary herb) and strawberry. 

More accessible examples he tested on delegates at the conference included pita chips with hummus (chickpeas), made with candied ginger, chocolate and basil; chocolate ganache with blue cheese; and cucumber, tarragon, green tea and ginger - which make for an unusual mocktail.

Other great-tasting combinations include chocolate and fried onion; strawberries and parmesan; conference pears, lamb, dark chocolate and bourbon vanilla; and oysters and passion fruit.

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