Food pairing, also known as "flavor pairing", is one of the newest and biggest crazes in the food industry.  Though slow to start, it has been picking up speed over the last couple of decades as a new generation of chefs comes into the culinary arena.

Ketchup - One of the Strange Ingredients in Food PairingCredit:

What is Food pairing?

Food pairing uses science to combine different foods into new and more interesting combinations based on their flavor compounds.  Not ever combination that they come up with is something that you would want to eat (like bananas and ketchup) but it is a jumping point to start chefs and home cooks thinking about the possibilities out there.

These innovative combinations are not restricted by their cultural or geographic context, so you could end up with spices from India mixed with an American condiment to make the next greatest culinary sauce.  This freedom opens up a whole new world of yummy food.

History of Food Pairing

Humans have been experiment with food since the dawn of time, but it has been recently that scientists and food experts have combined forces to really figure out the power of flavors in the foods that we eat.

The science of food or flavor pairing started with Heston Blumenthal, chef of The Fat Duck.  It was 1991 when he was playing around with different ingredients.  That's when he stumbled across an interested fact - caviar and white chocolate actually tasted good together! Why was that?
To answer his question, he tracked down François Benzi of Firmenich, the largest privately-owned flavor house in the world.  François used his scientific and flavor knowledge to compare both foods.  What he found surprised the men - foods that share the same major flavor components will usually combine really well together.  And hence, food pairing was born.

How does Food Pairing work?

When scientists investigate a new food for its food pairing possibilities, they begin with some scientific experiments.  A gas chromatograph is used to break down the aroma compounds found in the substance. 

You have to remember that most of our sense of taste comes from our nose.  Scientists believe that at least 80% of our "taste" is actually aroma – a fact that surprises many people.  That's why we can't taste much when we have a cold.

These key aromas are then used, along with other data, to compile a flavor profile.  This profile is then compared to a database of profiles to see if there are any close matches.  These matches are then made into a food pairing tree.

What is a food pairing tree?

A food pairing tree is a visual picture of all the foods that could taste good when paired with the food in question.  At the center of the tree is the key food and springing off of this center are all of its possible matches.

Why is food pairing important?

First of all, it makes life easier for chefs.  They no longer have to spend hours doing trial-and-error experiments with different ingredients.  They still can if they want to, but the science of food pairing can give them a nice shortcut, pointing them in the right direction and saving them hours of time.

Food pairing can also serve as inspiration for home cooks who want to try something different.  You have lots of ketchup but tired of using it to top the same old foods.  That's when you can turn to food pairing to find the perfect food to eat it with!    

You can also use food pairing when you are creating a new dish or menu and feel that there is something missing.  A quick glance at the matching food pairing trees can help you brainstorm what you need to add to make it perfect.