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Food pairing. How to combine flavors for mind-blowing meals?

The origins of tasting food extend back hundreds of millions of years, so it’s not surprising that food pairing is often thought of as the main difference between high class dining and an average meal. Whether you’re cooking for a loved one or gearing up for an evening out, understanding how to combine flavors will enhance your experience with food. The science behind combining foods can quickly become complicated, and talking to experts in the field may only make things more overwhelming.

So instead of taking classes or spending weeks learning about the dynamics of food pairing, we’ve created this crash course for you. By the time you finish with this easy lesson, you’ll have a great understanding of how to combine flavors so you can make the most out of every meal.

Basic Flavors

In the science of food pairing, there are considered five basic flavors. We have unami, sweet, bitter, sour, and salty as the dominating factors of flavor. Spiciness isn’t considered a basic flavor because it’s actually a reaction to the nerves in the tongue that’s signaling pain. Every basic flavor reacts with all the other flavors through one of two ways.
Firstly, flavors can be combined through counteracting. For example, a very spicy recipe can receive something sweet to cool down the spiciness of the dish. Another great example is balancing sweetness out with spices. A very common example of this is Mexican hot chocolate. After a hot chocolate is finished brewing a little cayenne pepper is mixed in to produce a more dynamic flavor.
The second major way flavors can react together is through enhancement. A well-known example of flavor enhancement has to be the sweet and salty combination. This enhancement is what makes sea salt caramels so famous. The presence of salt actually amplifies the sweetness inside of our favorite deserts.
Now that we know more about how flavors work together, it’s time to learn more about each one so we can use them to combine flavors.

Flavor 1 - Salty.

Our taste buds are naturally programmed to enjoy the taste of a dash of salt, but a little too much can quickly become overwhelming. The reason behind this taste is because our taste buds are designed to enjoy a nice balance of what fuels our bodies and makes it healthy.
Salt is known as a flavor enhancer. It helps release aromas as well as locked flavors, and it’s considered as a perfect balance for bitter food. Salt is a perfect addition for food that tastes a little too bland or a nice way to counteract sour dishes. There’s a reason why that age-old saying “salt to taste” is still around!
Flavor 2 - Sweet.
The second flavor is undeniably sweet. Flavors that hold sweetness are known to developing more savory dishes, because it allows dishes to provide more depth of flavor. Sweet also goes very well with sour foods like vinegar or lemon and lime. Sweet ingredients are also known to take the edge off those dishes that are a little bit too bitter for the liking.

Flavor 3 - Sour.

Sour is a peculiar flavor. While scientists aren’t sure how this flavor was developed, it’s caused by the acids inside of food. Scientists believe the harsh reaction to this flavor have signaled it was a test for rotting food. However, a splash of lime or a dash of vinegar is known to brighten up an excellent dish. If you’re contemplating on blending in this flavor into your food, it’s very important to slowly add it into the mix. The perfect amount of sour on a dish can be a game changer. On the other hand, a little bit too much sour and the flavor could over power your meal.
Sour can be used for a variety of reasons. It can help give bland food a much-needed punch, but it is also known for help balancing out extremely spicy ingredients. If you ever end up with a little bit too much sourness, try throwing in a light pinch of salt or add in a sweet ingredient into the mix.
Flavor 4 - Bitter.

Everyone has a unique tolerance when it comes to bitter, but there’s no doubt that this flavor can spark some unpleasant taste. The reason why we get a sharp reaction to the flavor is humans are wired to be suspicious of food with this taste. Regardless, it’s easy to see why bitter ingredients are mixed into meals and beverages. If you ever use a bitter ingredient, it can be balanced with salt or sweet flavors. Cocoa is the perfect example of a bitter food that can taste impeccable when it’s blended with sweetness. Well-known ingredients that can be combined with bitter food are arugula, dark chocolate and horse radish.
Flavor 5 - Umami.

Umami is considered the new kid in the flavor kingdom. The flavor was originally accepted by scientists in 2002 so it’s only had a decade in the spotlight. However, this fresh flavor is identified as being savory and earthy. It’s the flavor that can be used to describe meat. This flavor can pair well with every other flavor. If you think that a dish is too overpowering with umami, you can balance it out with salty, bitter, sour, or sweet flavors. It’s best used as an addition to recipes and meals that have a little something missing to them. Also, if you’d like to add in a little bit of umami flavor, you can use plenty of ingredients. Parmesan, mushrooms, and tomato sauces are just a few excellent ways to add a little umami to a meal.

This quick guide has given you everything you need to know about food pairing and combining food.
While there are countless combinations that can be used in dishes, understanding the basics of how to combine flavors is the only way to understand what can be used together to create a mind-blowing dish.