Question of the Week

Why do some foods complement each other so well?

Sat, 24th Sep 2011

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Tom Anderson asked:

Why do the tastes of some foods complement each other so well? For example, cheese and wine? Could you explain the chemical reaction that takes place that makes it so palatable?


We posed this question to Dr. Marcia Pelchat from the Monell Chemical Senses Centre in Philadelphia...

Marcia - The main reason that some foods are considered to go togethercheese better than others is culture.  In each culture, we’re used to certain pairings and unaccustomed to others.  A good example is in the United States, we’re used to putting sweet sauces on our meat - things like barbecue sauce and ketchup, whereas the French don't consider that to be such a good combination. 

But there are some important scientific principles that can explain classically good combinations like wine and cheese. There's a saying for wine merchants, “Buy with apples and sell with cheese” and what this means is that wine is at its worst when consumed with apples and at its best with the cheese.  One principle is that salt, which of course is found in cheese, is a very good bitterness inhibitor and when wine is consumed with salt, some of the bitterness in say, a big tannic red wine is suppressed and this reveals some of the sweetness and people tend to like it better. 

Another important principle is taste adaptation and this is the idea that when you eat a lot of a particular taste, you temporarily become less sensitive to that taste.  One classic bad wine and food pairing is a big red wine and dessert.  What happens is when you consume a sweet food, you become less sensitive to sweetness and this reveals the bitterness and the tannins in the wine.  So that's why wine and cheese tend to go together.

Sarah -   So food pairings are a trade-off between what society tells us should go together and the way in which certain flavours contrast with others.  So a sweet food might reveal and enhance the bitterness in another while a sour food can make its complement taste sweeter.  On the forum, Techmind expressed how personal tastes can differ from classical opinion and Griselda listed the delightful combination from the back of a Crisp Packet.  Clearly, citric acid and disodium inosinate are an excellent pairing.  



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cheese constipates & wine deconstipates= asshole communicates with mouth via brain CZARCAR, Mon, 19th Sep 2011

Raspberry (or raspberry jam) and chocolate is an 'interesting' combination.

And proper ground coffee with a full English breakfast (probably the bacon in particular) makes both taste better than the sum of their parts IMHO.

However, much as I'm very fond of cheese, and like meat (separately) - I'm very unconvinced that they work well together when hot/cooked together - despite the prevalence of "beef & stilton" pasties, "chicken in a blue-cheese sauce" etc etc. Possibly maybe I'd concede that cheese works in a burger... but then that's really a glorified sandwich. Cheese and ham sandwich is perfectly acceptable :-)

Hot meat (or fish) and cheese anyone? What's the consensus?
I vote not a good combination! techmind, Mon, 19th Sep 2011

I'm sure there's different classes of flavours which pair up well - but I would guess that often it involves combining complementary/contrasting yet 'non-overlapping' flavours.

I find that I struggle to find a good vocabulary to describe flavours (are languages other than English better?) The five basic tastes: sweetness, bitterness, sourness, saltiness, and umami are too crude to really describe flavour.
In my mind's eye, I think of 'broad spectrum' flavours which are a bit like the wash of a watercolour, and 'spikey/sharp' flavour components. In this model, the umami flavour of a roast meat, or the creaminess of cheese is a 'broad spectrum' flavour; sweet/sugar is also fairly 'broad spectrum' but in a different part of my mental graph. Saltiness, bitterness or sour are much 'sharper' spikier peaks on my internal flavour-graph. Roast beef (broad spectrum) is complemented by spikey horseradish, or mustard.
Pancakes and lemon is again a broad/savoury complemented by a sharp/spikey flavour.
Cheese and wine is interesting as both can potentially be quite complex flavours, although they won't tend to 'overlap', and the cheese will probably be predominantly broad-spectrum umami while the wine will likely have sharper/bitter and/or sweeter components.

Hmmm... flavours are too hard to describe. techmind, Mon, 19th Sep 2011

Well it says here on the bag: Seasoning (corn maltodextrin, salt, cheddar cheese, whey, monosodium glutamate, buttermilk solids, romano cheese, corn starch, whey protein concentrate, hydrogenated vegetable oil, lactose, garlic powder, dextrose, spices, natural and artificial flavors, onion powder, color, citric acid, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate). Anyway, when they spray this on the corn chips it increases the value of the corn by 10,000 percent, so it must be good for you, right? grizelda, Thu, 22nd Sep 2011

Food and science, can it get any better?

I think that when we use the word "taste" we often really refer to "flavours". As already mentioned, we only really distinguish between 5 basic tastes, detectable by the tongue and mouth. Flavours, on the other hand, are related to the volatile compounds released by food and are detected by the sense of smell. Flavours are are many, complex and to some extend interpreted subjectively. The author of The Flavour Thesaurus, Niki Segnit, divides her book into 16 categories (earthy, sulphurous, fresh fruits, citrussy, etc.)for example.

So when certain types of food go well together it's often because they share certain flavour compounds (measured in Odour Activity Values, I believe). For example, according to one webpage, banana goes well with parsley because they share (Z)-3-hexen-1-yl and linalool (source: That said, it's not a guarantee that everyone will like any combination which share certain compounds because personal taste (or should I say 'flavour'?) is often down to eating habits, palate training and culture.

Finally, returning to the original question, it should not be forgotten that the fat and proteins in cheese also, to some extent, coat the taste buds which again accentuate or soften certain qualities of the wine. Skytte, Fri, 23rd Sep 2011

I just discovered a new one: Olives in strawberry yogurt, Mmmmm. Can I patent this? grizelda, Sun, 25th Sep 2011

There is a physical aspect to the reason cheese and wine go well together. The dry mouthfeel of tannic wines becomes easier when you have some cheese in your mouth. The tannins and proteins have conformational shapes that suit each other. Tannins - long chain molecules - are "prickly" and rough. Proteins can fit in around these rough polymers and make the whole smooth and slippery. Yum Slim Chance, Tue, 4th Oct 2011

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