Why do some foods complement each other so well?

25 September 2011

Question

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?

Answer

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 together 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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