Cilantro and salmon don't go together. What does?
August 27, 2008 12:03 PM   Subscribe

How do cooks figure out which tastes go well together?

I've seen Iron Chef a million times. I know that the chefs on there have tasted a lot of different ingredients and thus know what will go together well.

I'm wondering if there's a resource of some sort out there that tells what ingredients complement each other. An example is a sandwich that is made with roast beef, boursin cheese and caramelized onions. Never in a million years would I have out those together.

So, I ask you: How did you become creative in your cooking? Is there a book or website that could give me ideas on new food combos?
posted by reenum to Food & Drink (34 answers total) 60 users marked this as a favorite
For me there is a lot of smelling. And a whole heap of trial and error.
posted by silkygreenbelly at 12:11 PM on August 27, 2008

Cookbooks and trial and error are the flip answers.

But the real answer is that you want to try to combine not flavors, but flavor qualities and textures -- e.g. sweet/sour/bitter, crunchy/smooth, etc.

Classic example: Chips and salsa gives you crunchy, salty chips combined with juicy, sweet salsa.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:12 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

It's just like visual design. Very general rules about balance and complement/contrast. The rest is experimentation.

As I side note, what about that sandwich throws you? That sounds pretty fantastic, even as someone that doesn't eat beef.
posted by piedmont at 12:15 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Culinary Artistry devotes a large section to listing classic pairings. If you "search inside" and hit "surprise me" a few times, you'll be able to find an example.
posted by Hermes32 at 12:17 PM on August 27, 2008 [3 favorites]

I have some cooking experience (5 yrs as a kitchen manager) and I've always been of the opinion that "there are no rules". Sure, there are "guidelines" but there are so many endless combinations of tastes and textures and temperatures, that (much like other things in life) if you try hard enough you are sure to find a combination that "works". Lots of people have different tastes, lots of cultures have different taboos and delicacies.

Or as piedmont said:
"Very general rules about balance and complement/contrast. The rest is experimentation."

One of my favorite things in the restaurant was when a regular customer would come in and instead of ordering off the menu would just say something generic like "I'm in the mood for fish".. or "can you make me a spicy vegetarian salad?"... or got any deserts with pistachios?,etc,etc
posted by jmnugent at 12:28 PM on August 27, 2008

I sometimes like to think of the variety of tastes as being like various hues and intensities of color, and that there are groupings like color palettes that naturally provide experienced cooks with a general sense of what will go together. For example, different ethnic types of foods have very different palettes of taste that go with their particular traditional combinations of spices and herbs and main ingredients (think Middle Eastern versus French versus Chinese cuisines, etc).

As with color balance, getting great taste combos is eventually a matter of experience -- eating as well as cooking interesting foods, and skill in perceiving what you are eating and reproducing it. If/when you get to be a better chef, one of the joys of eating excellent food is figuring out what's in it and how it was made. At levels beyond cookbook and standard restaurant dishes, cooking becomes an art as much as anything, and so there are no simple rules, any more than there are for a talented artist creating paintings or sculptures.

All that said, roast beef, soft aged cheese (particularly blue, but also milder soft cheeses), and caramelized onion is a pretty classic combination. I've enjoyed it many times, and soft of think of it as being a fancy version of traditional pub food (maybe just because the first time I had it was a long time ago in a brew pub).
posted by aught at 12:50 PM on August 27, 2008

Response by poster: @piedmont: I am a beginning cook and have not explored the various cheeses as of yet. The sandwich sounds awesome to me too.

@kalessin: What you've suggested is what I'm looking for. Please do provide links to books and other references.
posted by reenum at 1:00 PM on August 27, 2008

You need to start by reading recipes and the narrative sections of cookbooks like The Joy of Cooking or How to Cook Everything. A sports analogy: you will not be able to break down the defense with creative dribbling until you know how to control the ball. Flavor fundamentals are the key and then you can learn to extrapolate by analogy. I think there's more to it than simple trial and error; your trials must be educated.
posted by kosem at 1:01 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: Seconding "How to Cook Everything" (and the veg-head version "How to Cook Everything Vegetarian") and I'll add Alton Brown's book I'm Just Here For The Food. Alton is really all about the science of food and while he certainly can be elitist, a lot of what he talks about is exactly what you asked - why things fit together foodwise and what you can do with them.
posted by elendil71 at 1:22 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

Synaesthetic Recipies is some academic work in this area.
posted by zippy at 1:24 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Just as a btw -- cilantro and salmon go rather well together when the salmon is prepared as a ceviche with lime juice, chiles and onions. Here's one recipe for example. Here's another salmon recipe from Martha Stewart that calls for miso, cilantro and salmon.
posted by peacheater at 1:40 PM on August 27, 2008

I became creative by being adventurous in my eating. I try things regardless of what my initial opinion of the dish is - I'm often pleasantly surprised and have a new food combination to add to my internal database of what goes with what. I also watch a lot of cooking shows - I like them better than recipe books because the host will usually chat about alternate ingredients for recipes. Finally, I just's amazing what you can come up with if you're willing to mess a few things up.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 1:43 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: A few methods off the top of my head: trying out and tweaking classic combinations, swapping out similar ingredients within those in these classic combinations, borrowing from other culinary traditions, copying what other chefs are doing, playing with their food. Looking for contrasting flavors, textures, temperatures.

Have you explored Food Pairing, by the way?

Figuring out new combinations of what goes with what is also something that chefs in the "molecular gastronomy" genre play with. Chefs at restaurants like WD-50 and Alinea often list items as a series of ingredients on the menu. What you get is surprise and delight (and sometimes disgust) as how those ingredients were played with. Who knew that blueberries and duck went together? I didn't.

Funny, I was just reading Land of Plenty by Fuschia Dunlop last night. It's a Sichuan cooking book, and she explains a bit about the characteristics looked for by Sichuan chefs, not just within a single dish but also within a progression of dishes in a meal.
Western science identifies four fundamental tastes, salty, sweet, sour and bitter. The Chinese, however, traditionally have five, in keeping with their theories of the five elements, (metal, wood, water, fire and earth) and five directions, (north, south, east, west and centre) and their liking for fives in general. The five fundamental Chinese tastes, which have been recognised since the time of Confucius, are salty (xian or han), sweet (gan or tian), sour (suan), hot or pungent (xin or la) and bitter (ku). The Sichuanese, who like to go their own way in so many respects, have their own localised version of these five fundamental tastes: they replace bitter with ‘ma’, the extraordinary numbing taste of Sichuan pepper.

These basic tastes are combined into a vast array of complex flavours and with a typically Chinese love of numbers and of categorisation, Sichuanese cooks and gourmets have precisely labelled at least twenty-three of them. Each has its own distinct characteristics, its balance of sweet and sour, its degree of spiciness, its effect on the tongue and palate. The Sichuanese culinary canon lists 56 distinct cooking methods in the 1998 Sichuan culinary encyclopedia published by the Chongging Publishing House.
She has an appendix in the back where she describes these 23 distinct flavors and 56 cooking methods. Great stuff, and I've only sat down with it for about half an hour.

That Culinary Artistry book does sound great, however, as does The Flavor Bible (not yet out), also by the same authors:
Choose any ingredient, cuisine, technique or season, and you’ll find listings of compatible ingredients with a ranking system to indicate flavor matches that are truly stellar, along with those to avoid.
posted by kathryn at 1:55 PM on August 27, 2008 [2 favorites]

Seconding "Culinary Artistry" and adding "On Food and Cooking". The first has classic pairings and the thinking of professional chefs, while the second has information on *why* certain things go together. Aside from that, just taste everything and actually think about what you're tasting.
posted by madmethods at 2:19 PM on August 27, 2008

Joyce Goldstein's cookbook Kitchen Conversations deals with this very thing - each recipe comes with discussion of the different ingredients and how the flavors and textures interact. There's also information about wine pairings. Her focus is Mediterranean (mostly Italian) cuisines.
posted by expialidocious at 2:23 PM on August 27, 2008

Here's one of many food pairing charts. I have most of it memorized (just from having looked at it so many times). This comes in handy when I have to cook with what's available.
posted by special-k at 2:25 PM on August 27, 2008

One key to this is recognizing ingredients that work together by some common principle or theme, and don't get hung up in the specific type of ingredients. For example, my favorite cheese for a burger is blue cheese, thus the combination beef + blue cheese. You can extend this to fancier ingredients, like filet mignon with Stilton and caramelized onions--sounds fancier and more enticing, but it's a dressed up cousin of the familiar "burger with blue cheese." The sandwich you mentioned is another iteration.
posted by Brian James at 2:29 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: An example is a sandwich that is made with roast beef, boursin cheese and caramelized onions.

Well.. that's a fairly classic combination.

Here's why, roughly.

Cheese contains a lot of the fifth flavour sense, umami. This sense is, roughly, 'savoury'; that is, those things you eat that have a great deal of satisfaction, essentially. Tomatoes, cheeses, anything fermented--these are high in umami. One of the things that umami does is to heighten and enhance 'meaty' flavours in your food. So pairing cheese with beef becomes more than additive, it is multiplicative; the cheese enhances the flavour of the beef.

Likewise, caramelized onions are full of complex flavours due to transformation of the sugars within the onion. Consider the vast flavour difference between white sugar and caramel. The complex flavours arise from heating the sugars. This is, by the way, the real reason why you sear meat in a pan before roasting it in the oven. Caramelizing the sugars in the meat is known as the Maillard reaction, and creates more complex flavours. Adding caramelized onions (or, classically with a roast, roasted potatoes and onions) plays off thos flavours.

Moving on to 'how the hell do they do that?'

Tasty food (ignoring texture) is built on two things: complement and contrast, similar to basic understanding of art.

Let's start with kathryn's example of duck and blueberries. These are flavours that contrast; the fatty meaty richness of the duck with the tart-sweet astringency of blueberries. Duck with fruit is a classic pairing from the mists of time; the acid of the fruit cuts through the unctuous mouthfeel of the fat while the sweetness offers a counterpoint to the savoury flavours found in duck meat, enhancing the flavour by contrast. There are, of course, infinite combinations of this. Consider very everyday examples: beer nuts (salty peanuts with a sweet coating), ice cream sundaes (cold sweet solid ice cream with hot slightly bitter liquid chocolate/fudge sauce), or the MeFi favourite of peanut butter and pickle sandwiches (soft creamy salty-sweet peanut butter with crunchy sour pickles). In each case, the contrasts enhance each other; in the duck example the sweetness of the blueberries makes the duck seem more savoury while the duck makes the blueberries seem sweeter.

Then there are flavours that complement each other. The easiest to understand is the combination of coffee and chocolate. Each brings dark, roasted, complex flavours to the table which marry incredibly well with each other because they match. And then there is (unless using wholly unsweetened chocolate) the contrast between bitter coffee and sweet chocolate, each flavour playing off the other.

So when you are looking at flavour combinations, you want to look at three things:

1) Flavours which contrast each other: sour/sweet, salty/sweet, fatty/acidic. The list goes on.

2) Flavours which complement each other (more below).

3) And the gestalt; flavours which both contrast and complement, as with the coffee/chocolate example.

Finding contrasting flavours is relatively simple. But note that you are not looking for diametric opposites, necessarily; the bitterness of asparagus is unlikely to pair nicely with the sweetness of caramel, for example. Which is why you really aim for the gestalt.

Finding complementary flavours, I think, is more difficult. In my view, what you are looking for is a flavour note that is common amongst two or more ingredients, while ensuring that none of the ingredients has wildly clashing notes.

Consider these three ingredients:


The first two go together by way of contrast. Ditto the last two. And turkey with (unsweetened) chocolate would work very well--think about a mole sauce. But all three would not work well together. There's a theory about any three ingredients, it's been linked here, but I can't remember.

I'll stop rambling now.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:34 PM on August 27, 2008 [15 favorites]

Kathryn beat me to it with similar information and an explanation cn be found at The basic idea is paring foods that share flavour molecules together. This is why I am able to combine salmon and cilantro here (it's actually two flavour pairings: strawberry/cilantro and salmon/strawberry).

The Khymos blog is also worth looking at, particularly the TGRWT (That Goes Really Well Together) series, linked in the right hand panel, where food bloggers come up with recipes for unusual, but compatible, pairings.
posted by tallus at 2:36 PM on August 27, 2008

For what it's worth, the people who are cooking on Iron Chef have practiced the dishes in advance. They're told a handful of potential ingredients in advance, they need to submit a pantry list for each secret ingredient. Don't assume they're seeing turnips as their secret ingredient and coming up with half a dozen turnip dishes on the spot.
posted by foodgeek at 2:40 PM on August 27, 2008

True, though all of them probably could come up with something in under ten minutes. They just wouldn't be able to cook the dishes flawlessly without prep.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 2:50 PM on August 27, 2008

You should also check out The Elements of Taste. The author divides tastes beyond the usual 5 (or 6 if you include umami) to a larger set of 14 flavor attributes. As a cookbook it's not very practical for a home cook - fractions of leeks and tiny amounts of stock for one dish and things like that. But it does show the thinking that goes into combining flavors and textures to create a dish.

For inspiration these days I read Ideas in Food. I can't say I translate a lot of it into my own cooking, but it's a great read.
posted by O9scar at 2:53 PM on August 27, 2008

Response by poster: Great suggestions, guys!

I will definitely check out some of these references.

Keep 'em coming!
posted by reenum at 3:00 PM on August 27, 2008

Best answer: A professional chef - and I'm just pulling ideas out of my proverbial here - would likely have started life, before their career, as a person who just really loves food. At an early age they would have discovered that while sushi and ice cream may be delicious as separate entities, together they're not such a hot combo. They would hang around in the kitchen helping their mother or father or whatever cook the evening meal, and would likely commence cooking a few themselves. They would try absolutely everything, everything, no matter how vile it may seem ("Fermented duck penis soup with pickled lice and coriander?" "Ugh. Hold the coriander please."). And probably when they did that hippy "find yourself" overseas backpacking thing when they were twenty or whatever, they displayed more interest in regional cuisines than they did in traditional art or architecture, and would follow their noses down dangerous-looking alleyways because there's something a-sizzlin' down there.

They would try literally thousands of dishes, in hundreds of thousands of combos, from $200-a-plate march hare with fennel seed jus and white truffle curly fries at Dorsia, to earwax pie from Dick's Diner, to raw witchety grub. They'd be taking notes and doing a lot of reading and, yeah, probably watching pretty much all the cooking shows. Once they had the fundamentals ("Crush garlic before peeling", "Microwave the lime to get more juice", "Burn the onion to make a good curry"), and had actually developed a serious, no-I'm-not-bullshitting-you opinion on what kind of ginger is best, they would get a job at a little suburban eatery while attempting to secure an apprenticeship at a slightly fancier establishment. They would do a lot of talking to other chefs, a lot of tasting, and once they got home, after cooking burgers all day long, they would go straight into the kitchen and start experimenting late into the night. Weekends would be devoted to the same, with trips to the market for fresh and interesting produce. Ninety percent of their creations would go into the bin. They'd take more notes ("Blended fish is not a refreshing beverage"). Research. Eat eat eat and taste taste taste.

Whenever anybody, anywhere said "Try this", they'd try it.

At least, that's how I imagine it going. Just as likely they're sitting around with a beer and a bong and thinking "Yeah, food's pretty good. Guess I'll be a chef."
posted by turgid dahlia at 3:11 PM on August 27, 2008 [4 favorites]

I'm getting better at this, but I still cook a lot of dishes that taste weird. The more you cook and experiment, the more intuitive you'll become when you're throwing things together and expecting them to taste good. Often times I'll look at labels of prepared foods and see what's in them. For example, at my local market I have access to tons of prepared tofu, rice, and couscous dishes. And when you buy the prepared stuff at Whole Foods, all the ingredients are listed on the labels. So what I do is look at the labels and see which spices, veggies, seasonings, etc. are used and I'll consider each one as I take bites. Hmm, I like what the nutmeg does for this spinach. Oh, paprika tastes really good with chicken. I'll remember those complementary pairings when I cook for myself and often times I'll be very pleased with the results.
posted by HotPatatta at 3:22 PM on August 27, 2008 [1 favorite]

in general, things that grow near each other taste good together.
posted by thinkingwoman at 4:28 PM on August 27, 2008

Approaching ingredients with a hearty sense of play, a deep sense of curiosity and a lack of fear of making a mistake.
posted by hecho de la basura at 4:46 PM on August 27, 2008

Adding to thinkingwoman's comment (things that grow near each other taste good together): This is what the French call "Terroir" and learning how it works has proved useful to my cooking. For instance, there are several distinct styles of French cuisine depending on the geographic/climactic region. In the North: Apples, walnuts, creamy cheeses like Brie. In Provence/Mediterranean: Tomatoes, olives, tangy goats-milk cheeses. Don't these groups of ingredients just seem to go together--whereas if you, say, ate apples and olives together, it would just be weird? Genius chefs are often people who can put together innovative flavor combinations that don't merely follow the rules of terroir... but I think they generally have a solid grasp of the traditional, terroir-based combinations before they strike out into uncharted territory.
posted by clair-de-lune at 7:50 PM on August 27, 2008

The book, The Improvisational Cook might be worth checking out. I know it has a (small) section on classic food pairings, and also deconstructs most of the standard recipes in the book into other ones.

I recently had dinner cooked for me by an ex-chef who spent 17 years in the industry, and it was amazing the spread he put together w/ two bags of produce and some pantry staples. When I asked him how he made the amazing squash, he could barely remember..a bit of tamari, some balsamic, maple syrup...and trailed off. I think it really just comes down to experience, and knowing what general flavor categories (or qualities as mentioned above) work well together, and then having a decent palate.
posted by pilibeen at 8:04 PM on August 27, 2008

Great question, reenum. Mr. sfkiddo has a knack for throwing tasty food together, but I've never understood why a particular spice works with certain ingredients. I guess I don't have the taste, but am hopeful these resources will help.
posted by sfkiddo at 9:27 PM on August 27, 2008

I had a roommate with the remarkable gift that he could accurately imagine any flavor combination you could name, and tell you how interesting and compatible it was. I think it came down to memory and imagination really, since he had those abundantly in a lot of fields.

So here's everything I know about building culinary memory and imagination: Try a lot of stuff, both foods and ingredients; grab a random ingredient at an ethnic store, figure out something familiar that it resembles and substitute it and see if it works. Read recipes and imagine the food (flavor, aroma, texture, temperature), and then try it out and see how you did. That's it really.

Oh, and when you start improvising with a new ingredient or method, just match good ingredients and keep out of their way. After a bit of that, On Food And Cooking will help you understand what more you can do.
posted by eritain at 9:35 PM on August 27, 2008

Seconding the Flavor Bible -- sounds like what you want. It's sort of a flavor encyclopedia, listing other ingredients and cuisines that match with others. There are no recipes, but some tips and serving suggestions scattered throughout. Well worth looking into.
posted by Atom12 at 3:22 AM on August 28, 2008

The Flavor-Principle Cookbook by Elizabeth Rozin is exactly what you're looking for
posted by doppleradar at 4:09 AM on August 28, 2008

From personal experience, I can tell you that beets and celery also do not go together.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:56 AM on August 28, 2008

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