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Sep 1, 2008 10:03 AM

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 put those ingredients 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?

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  1. Most of the time I can visualize or taste flavors in my head. Okay, I know that that sounds awkward, but I'm not really sure how to explain it better. It's like an artist can "see" a painting before picking up a brush. Sometimes I start with a single ingredient and add other flavors, and sometimes I have a final dish in mind and have to figure out how to make it happen.

    I've spoken to other chefs who do this as well. Some of my favorite conversations about food would sound very weird to people who don't think this way. Here's one exchange I was involved in last year:

    Chef 1: Grouper
    Chef 2: Mahi's cheaper
    1: Done. Pan-seared?
    2: Mmm. Yes, in browned butter with thyme.
    1: Sauce?
    2: I'm thinking blackberries
    1: You're crazy. Fruit and fish?
    2: Hear me out: blackberry gastrique
    1: (Thinking) I get you, go savory instead of sweet. The vinegar makes it work.
    2: Exactly. Sides?
    1: Well, if you go blackberry, you've got to have asparagus
    2: Yeah, that's what I thought too

    5 Replies
    1. re: chefbeth

      chefbeth, I do the same thing. I also play music by ear and find it's very much the same thing. I can picture and imagine the taste combinations just as I can anticipate the next note of music before it happens. Same part of the brain I suppose.

      1. re: scubadoo97

        What seems intuitive now was once learned I suppose. I've cooked all my life, since I was 4, so I suppose that I, like most cooks, have learned what flavors go together as I've tasted food all my life.

        In culinary school, I heard this described as flavor families -- or flavor groupings like rosemary, lemon, and garlic. You learn those "families" or affinities.

        There's also an intuitive knowledge that comes from food categories: citrus, red fruits, black fruits, herb families, vegetable families, onion family, condiment groupings, meats, shellfish, etc, and once you know the families and their affinities, you can often subsitute within the category. For example, I don't have lobster, maybe I can make the same dish with crab.

        You can also learn what goes together by studying the cuisine of a culture, and noticing that a culture combines the same ingredients in many dishes. Italy, Spain, Morocco, India, Thailand -- that's a great way to learn flavor groupings.

        You can learn categories of flavor -- the anise/licorice flavor family, or the cola/sassafras/tea flavor pantheon. You can go even way beyond that and learn the affinities on a chemical level: the umami family, the caramelized starch family, and the hygroscopic sugar family (molasses, honey, etc.).

        There's a new book just out called "The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity" by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, and that may be a good one for you to pick up.

        Good luck to you, and BTW, remember to smell everything.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          ML, the last four words of your post brought back memories of when I was first cooking professionally, and I often used my sense of smell to figure out if a particular herb, spice or other ingredient would be a good addition to the dish I was making. It rarely steered me wrong.

          Good advice!

          1. re: chefbeth

            chefbeth, that's exactly how I do it. Sometimes (ok... always) I'll taste a dish part way through and figure out what flavour it is my tongue is seeking in that dish, then go about sniffing all my available ingredients if I don't know immediately what it is that's missing. That's how I figured out that pot roast NEEDS dehydrated onions (to my mind).... I'd never made a pot roast that was QUITE right (DH liked it, but it wasn't quite "there" for me), until one day I was purchasing some bulk spices and took a sniff of the dehydrated onion, which triggered the memory of that specific note of the pot roast grandma used to make.

            I've since figured out that I actually live a lot of my life through my nose. It's done me quite well in the kitchen. Sometimes you can just be making a random dish, go over to the spice cabinet and start sniffing your spices, and you'll get the idea to add "X" spice to your dish, and wonder how you ever made that dish without that spice.

          2. re: maria lorraine

            Well said. I would also say that with a new/unfamiliar ingredient, you can analyze its characteristics and then think about how you would use more familiar foods with similar characteristics.

            Another way to look at combinations is to try to find elements that will add specific flavor components and bring the whole dish into balance, i.e., fat, acid, salt, sugar, meaty/umami and something bitter, pungent or herbal. So, for example, in the example given above:

            roast beef (meaty)
            boursain cheese (fat, herbs, pungeant (garlic))
            caramelized onions (sweet, buttery, carmelized, also adds moisture)

            Note that roast beef is rather lean, so it goes well with fatty/creamy elements.

            I had a bunch of green tomatoes leftover from making fried green tomatoes. I decided to make a fresh salsa with them. I made a salsa similar to what I would have made with ripe tomatoes, and it was too dry and one dimensional. So I thought "what's the difference between a red tomato and a green tomato? Red tomatoes are juicier and sweeter than green tomatoes. What can I add that will make this sweeter and juicier?" I thought about how trend fruit salsas are, but I'm not really crazy about them. But I could try adding a small amount of fruit. Hey, what about that can of unsweetened crushed pineapple. So I took a small amount of the salsa and added a small amount of crushed pineapple. I couldn't taste the pineapple, but the sweetness and acid really rounded out and sharpened the flavor of the salsa.

      2. I am far from an accomplished cook, and certainly not a chef by any means, but I am finding as I cook more and more that you just develop a sense that tells you if something will be good. The more experience with and exposure to cooking food you have, the more developed your sense will become. Also, just plain old trial and error. Some of the best food combination for me have come about by looking in the fridge and throwing together a meal utilizing what I have.

        I am also a person that rarely uses recipes verbatim. I use them more for inspiration. Part of this is due to the fact that a trip to the grocery store is 1 hour round trip, but if I don't have an ingredient, I use something else that I feel will work. Try it. Only rarely will something come out unpalatable.

        It just takes time and practice.

        2 Replies
        1. re: hilltowner

          A post after my own heart. I learned to cook with left overs. Open the frig., grab whatever is in there and make something out of it (not just warming up the little dabs individually) and a lot of my early experiences included adding a cream soup and/or cheese to what I had. I would sometimes set aside portions into which I could introduce some unfamiliar herb or spice, sometime sugar or honey or even fruit or fruit juice, to see how each "test" ingredient affected the final product. Lots of failures, a few nice surprises and a gradual eduction. I'm not a chef, but I have been able to gain the reputation as a pretty good cook. Like "hilltowner", I have e a lot of difficulty in following a recipe verbatim but I do find them to be a source of inspiration. My principal focus is on the ingredients/introduction of ingredient sequence/heat/timing issues. Everything else just seems to take care of itself.

          1. re: hilltowner

            Coming into this post a little late, but pretty much everything that hilltowner said. I grew up watching and helping Mom cook. The more you're exposed to what goes with what, the better you get at it.

            I was also fortunate to find a list like this


            that allowed me to match up various herbs and spices with the foods they work with. The two lists I have (not this specific one I've linked) are still on the inside of my spice cabinet. I don't refer to it as often as I used to, but on occasion, it helps out.

            Here's another that helps:

            Smell is important. If you have a Penzey's near you, go in and try smelling a new herb/spice to you. If you like it, buy it. Experiment with it.

            As for foods like roast beef, caramelized onion and boursin cheese that "go together" but you never would have thought of the combination, I started paying attention to how things were made awhile back. I *know* I love caramelized onions and boursin cheese, and the thought of combining them with roast beef just *sounds* right to me. You eventually learn what works and what doesn't by experimenting. Tasting throughout your cooking process is important, if you're able to do so. If a recipe calls for 4 tsp. of salt, it might sound like a lot, but if it's making enough for 8 people, it probably works.

            Read recipes online - go to and put in a search for a food item you want to cook with. You'll get hundreds of recipes to review, and you can start saying "OK, I want to cook a pork chop, but I don't want sage". Put sage in the search as -sage and it should remove recipes that have sage. Then you might see something with ginger, and want to clarify that you want to make pork chops that have ginger in it. Put that in the search engine, and start reviewing the recipes.

            Blogs are another great place to see what people are cooking.

            But most important - experiment on your own after reading recipes and have fun with it! You'll eventually just begin to know what works for you.

          2. I think I've learned mostly from cooking from recipes of creative chefs etc., (e.g., Suzanne Goin) as well as from classical pairings (e.g., Julia Child, Hazan). Then, sometimes, availability of ingredients plays a role as well.

            One thing that might be useful - CHOW's ingredient section. Here's the entry for halibut for example, and it has a section called "flavor affinities":


            1. What a neat questionm, reenum! 99% of time, I count on my ultra sensitive sense of smell. I am not sure how odd that is, but my brother and I seem to work around cooking that way. :D I am not a chef or super accomplished cook, but it's almost like what chefbeth mentioned. Once I take a quick sniff on ingredients, I am usually able to come up with different things that can be paired together. I think it comes with experimenting and tons of walking up and down the grocery store/market. ;) I grew up in food business (my grandma, mom and aunts own either bakery or catering) and 'inhaling' all those food 'flavor' for many years, I sort of count on it a lot.

              1. I can't follow a recipe. It is a curse sometimes, but it comes from being just too lazy to make sure I have all the ingredients on hand, plan ahead, measure things, etc. But what I can do is use a recipe for inspiration, and sometimes when I am just learning a cuisine follow fairly closely.

                To learn I say, read recipes, don't just make them. Look at the ingredients, and think - what are they doing for this dish? Look at the amounts of certain kinds of spices, if you aren't used to using them - it gives you an idea of how strong and in what kind of balance they should be added. Over time and practice of not relying on recipes as instructions but "reading" and learning from them, you will get the hang of it.

                When you go out to eat, taste the food in the same way. Try and figure out what the components are that you enjoy and ask if you need to - many restaurants will share. Maybe not a recipe, but the idea of a dish.

                Finally, get familiar with worldwide cuisines to expand the palate and which tastes go together. The sandwich sounds like fairly classic French tastes to me. With southeast asian food you find the balance of sour, sweet, savory and spicey. With Mexican I learned about the use of a variety of spices together to make complex sauces - that really in the end just have a lot of ingredients but aren't that complex at all. Then on a weekday, when I just want to make up a dish, I can just throw together the spice combinations I have learned in a quicker manner.

                That being said, many books, such as Vegeterian Cooking for Everyone, will list affinities of veggies and foods. Can help get you out of a rut.