Some flavours just go together. Some are ingrained into our brains from birth – such as rhubarb and custard or strawberries and cream and others come to us later as our taste buds evolve and we can handle richer and more intense flavours.
Sometimes flavour combinations sound as though they won’t go together and then low and behold! Wow! It’s a taste sensation.
As a species our palates have become much more mature as we have evolved and we explore and enjoy exotic and unique flavours; chefs all around the world are constantly challenging themselves to discover new combinations that might just stick.
Cooking goes beyond the basic assembling of ingredients, it’s about understanding how certain ingredients will coax out flavours from another ingredient.
The 5 tastes
We have 5 taste sensations that we experience on our tongue and in our mouth; bitter, sweet, salt, sour and the recently discovered fifth taste; umami – which translates as savoury and is different to salt in the sense that it encapsulates the flavours that certain protein rich foods release when heated such as: tomatoes, cheese, meats and fish all contain umami flavours.
How we taste
Although we use our mouth to taste the flavours, our sense of smell is far superior, with only 20% of flavour experience owed to taste; the rest is done through our nostrils! Having a sense of smell is key to enjoying (or not enjoying) the eating experience as up to 80% is actually the aroma that we taste.
At the top of our nasal passage is a patch of spaced out neurons known as cilia. Odour molecules are released from food and these molecules are light and evaporate easily, so they float in the air and into our nasal passageway. Here the odour molecules meet the cilia, bind themselves to it which triggers the neuron and causes you to perceive the smell.
Here’s the science…
Years ago food pairing was done through trial and error which is how we arrived at those classic fruit and cream combinations. Now chefs such as Blumenthal are using the science method to combine flavours by discovering which ones have similar molecular compounds.
The scientific explanation of why ingredients such as caviar and chocolate pair so well together is due to both the foods having high levels of amines – a group of proteins that have broken down from their amino state and have chemical similarities to ammonia. Phew! Sound complex? We’ll leave the scientific pairing to the experts who have studied the molecules of food to bring us whacky pairings such as: coffee and garlic, cucumber and violet, salmon and liquorice and oyster and passion fruit!
Blumenthal was originally famed for combining caviar with white chocolate. The salty taste of the caviar enhances the creaminess of the chocolate, which is why a salted caramel pudding is now one of the most popular desserts.
Blumenthal was inspired by the food scientist Harold McGee who was fascinated by chemistry and physics when he was growing up.
Discovering the science of food
During the 1970’s McGee was studying English literature when a throw away comment from a friend over dinner encouraged him to investigate the embarrassing problematic after effects of the combination of rice and beans. McGee did some digging around and worked out that it was due to indigestible sugars – the foods that don’t break down into simpler sugars for absorption, rather they travel to the large intestine undigested.
As a result of discovering the answer to a simple quandary posed by a friend over a meeting at dinner, McGees curious mind stumbled upon the answer to other questions in the food science field such as why bread is bouncy and why eggs solidify when we cook them. This took him down a rabbit hole of food science and food pairings that lead him to write books such as Food and Cooking – an encyclopaedia of kitchen science history and culture.
McGee is just one of many chefs, chemists and food scientists who have helped create the molecular gastronomy movement.
Food pairings today
This move from simple food assembly to food as a science experiment has had a massive impact on the food industry. Chefs are turning kitchens into their playground and creating a molecular gastronomy delight for their diners.
Flavours combinations such as red gazpacho with grain mustard ice-cream, which was adapted by Blumenthal as part of his ‘science of ice-cream’ projects has resulted in a rise of sales in savoury flavoured ice-creams for use in starters and main dishes.
The use of sea salt with caramel in ice-cream has seen sales of that flavour sky rocket and make its way from the restaurant floors to the high street stores. A recent survey of popular savoury ice-cream flavours found that beetroot, Jersey black butter and stout were some of the top tastes in pubs and restaurants around the UK
Many popular brands of ice cream are now venturing out into the savoury field with flavours such as watercress, chilli, wasabi and fennel. Whilst these may sound strange to the lover of a sweet flavoured ice-cream, essentially all of these flavours work in a cream based sauce. You just need to get your head around the frozen aspect with the savoury. But pair these flavours with the right food and you will be pleasantly surprised.
Just a few years ago, people would have run a mile from salt with chocolate – now the nation cannot get enough of it.
So put your taste buds to the test and free yourself from the usual pairings. Prepare to be amazed by the unexpected because a new way of pairing food flavours has been born.
Where to learn more about food pairings and molecular gastronomy.
The Flavour Bible – by Karen Page and Andrew Dorenburg. This book is a treasure trove of flavour combinations, a must have for any foodie or science geek.
The Fat duck cookbook – by Heston Blumenthal. This book presents an array of Hestons famous recipes as well as a section of food science and how certain foods pairings are brought to life.
McGee on Food and cooking – by Harold McGee. This book is pure food science and the sort of book to dip in and out of.
Molecular Gastronomy – by Herve This. The author has collaborated with the famed chef Pierre Gagnaire, the only person to hold a doctorate in molecular gastronomy.