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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: http://www.apinchof.com/guidelines106...

            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 epicurious.com 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.

                1. Some basic thoughts - what grows together, goes together. Crossing cuisines is hard, sticking with one cuisine makes things easier. Generally, I'm not going to be too worried about adding olives to a Greek dish that has lemons and oregano, but fusion-style cooking (say, adding those olives to a dish that has Asian ingredients) takes more skill and knowledge of ingredients. Pay attention to what's in the things you eat at restaurants, at home, and deconstruct the recipes a little. If A + B is good in one context, it's probably good in another. One of my most popular recipes is a peanut butter, molasses and ginger cookie, and I'm always surprised how, well, surprised people are by the combination. Peanut butter and ginger go together in Thai food (and those great peanut-ginger chews at the supermarket), ginger and molasses are the classic pairing from gingerbread, peanut-molasses taffy is a standard flavor. So all together in the pot. Anyway, I think the best way to learn what flavors go together is to read a lot of recipes and eat a lot. Both fun activities, too.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: curiousbaker

                    I like this example of the cookie. It's a demonstration of one of the biggest skills you can have in life *or* cooking: pattern recognition. As in, if these two ingredients work well together in this dish, chances are the same ingredient combo will work well in other dishes.

                    The example from my own life was exposing the wee ones in my household/world to ingredients. We'd make pizzas at home, and each child would get to roll out his or her own pizza dough, slather and slide on the sauce, then choose a variety of prepped toppings -- always their choice. I'll never forget when we were out for brunch and one of them asked me, "Will I like this fritatta?" And I said "Well, you like eggs, and you like red bell pepper and fontina -- you put those on your pizza -- so chances are you're going to like this frittata." Her eyes lit up in the pure delight of recognition, and she was a happy eater. The pattern was that fontina and bell pepper went together, at least on pizza, so why not in a frittata?

                    Two other patterns: Peanut butter and ginger in Thai/Indonesian cooking are wonderful, and ginger/molasses together are wonderful, so chances are the flavor combo of all three is going to work. As the years accumulate, so does one's working knowledge of food combos -- if a group of ingredients are often found together and taste good together, another pattern has been discovered.

                  2. Yeah, Iron Chefs are incredible. But, even they have their own regional knowledge. Cat Cora doesn't do a lot of Asian and Bobby Flay isn't real keen on Scandinavian recipes. But, I am sure they could learn, and probably pretty well in time. I am in awe of some of their creations.

                    There are many resources that show complimentary flavors.
                    But most important, you have your own personal tastes, both inherent and learned.

                    Here is one site that is food information, if you have time to read it. There is a section entitled "Culinary Uses" at each spice link.


                    I learned flavors as I grew up because we ate out and sometimes travelled to other areas. I had three siblings. My parents would ask us to all order something different and something we hadn't had before. And, then they asked we allow each other to share a taste, at least one bite. They would also.

                    At home, my mom would cook a hot breakfast every morning and dinner every night we were home. But, she didn't like it much and didn't vary much. But, she did allow me to experiment with my interest in it and encouraged me. And, my step-dad introduced us to peanut butter and mayo sandwiches because he liked them. I don't think I would have found that combo anywhere but at home.

                    Oh, man, just the other day on HGTV, a chef made milk-chocolate covered crisp bacon sprinkled with almonds. I never would have thought of that! Would you try it? Maybe Mikey would?

                    Creative cooking is a matter of experience and also matter of your own number of taste buds, your ability to smell, and your open-mindedness to try.

                    Some people don't like the taste of cilantro because it tastes like soap to them. But, cilantro appears in many dishes. I am probably one of the only people in the world that doesn't like blueberries -- as healthful as they are.

                    Some people have so many taste buds on their tongue they are consider a "super taster" and have a hard time enjoying prepared meals because everything tastes soooo intricate, intense, too much, over spiced. In this case, more is not better.

                    Years ago, one of my boyfriends liked iced tea with so much sugar and lemon in it. I learned the flavor he liked and could make it that way, but wouldn't drink it myself.

                    Becoming creative in your cooking gets better once you've learned inherent properties of a food. Flavor isn't the only thing in successful cooking.

                    In 7th grade, I had an hour of cooking classes at school everyday. We learned the science of cooking. One of our first projects was Baked Alaska. Who knew you could put ice cream in the oven and keep it from melting? We learned the science of baking and how elevation effects it. We learned that though pineapple is a fruit, it is not easily interchangeable in baking as others fruits are because of it's acidity. It changes the chemical reactions of ingredients. Jello won't set if made with fresh pineapple. But, you can use canned pineapple. It's as complicated as the English language.

                    1. Aside from reading waaaay too much foodstuff (books, mags, etc), I don't like commiting to BOLD flavor combinations/add ins before i'm 90% sure it's ok, so i do this:
                      To test a flavor add in (say, a spice like cinnamon in yer tomato sauce), take a teaspoon of sauce and add a little itty bitty pinch of the flavor you want to add and see if it works...if it's heinous, you dont' have a vat of something nasty...if it's good, rock out!

                      1. I google everything. For instance if I'm trying make something one night and don't have one item for a recipe, but have another, I'll google it until I find a few recipes using those ingredients together. Some times I will take my chances and just wing it though, but doing a websearch will almost ensure that you don't screw up flavor combos! :)

                        1. Reenum, there are some great ideas already on this thread. But I am also a fan of a book called "Culinary Artistry" by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page. ( I have posted on this topic before). This book explores the creative drive of various chefs, talks about what inspires them. It also has a great section on "Food matched made in heaven" which lists an ingredient and then lists other ingredients that go well with that item. It is very eye-opening, and gives a lot of great ideas of combinations that can work well. I find it to be an excellent resource.

                          1. Are there any other books and resources you all would recommend? I've already got "Culinary Artistry" on the way.

                            5 Replies
                            1. re: reenum

                              You might also want to look into Collicchio's (sp?) Think Like a Chef as well - while part of the emphasis is on techniques, he also discusses "flavor profiles" and has chapters on groups of ingredients that work well together - it's a book I really like.

                              1. re: MMRuth

                                Even Mark Bittman's cookbook How to Cook Everything is helpful because he often starts with a basic recipe (pancakes, or fish), and then suggests a bunch of variations. Those suggestions can inspire you to try or consider combinations you might not come up with on your own.

                                One of my own top-10 inspirations was making a ham and parrano cheese sandwich on rosemary bread, with blackberry jam. Yum.

                              2. re: reenum

                                Sally Schneider is often a guest on The Splendid Table (such as the Aug 30, 2008 episode)
                                Her 'The Improvisational Cook' focuses on combinations (some novel) that go together..

                                1. re: reenum

                                  They have a new book coming out in a couple of weeks. It's definitely on my list.

                                  And I also love Culinary Artistry.


                                  1. re: reenum

                                    i also enjoy culinary artistry. i think that you can learn to visualize by using it. however, i also think that in many instances, classic is best, and by learning the classics, you develop a better understanding of what works and why and then you can extend your understanding independently. like anything, learning how to imagine food you haven't ever seen or eaten is a skill that you can learn if you practice it.

                                    even without it, though, there are some simple rules of thumb that can help . . . for example:

                                    what grows together, goes together: like corn and blueberries, seasonally matched.

                                    keeping within the same geographic palate: like, if you are fixed upon making something with avocados, look at cuisine that uses avocado, whether asian or latin american, and stay within that palate.

                                    when planning a meal, try to balance textures and temperatures and colors: the classic problem here being thanksgiving, always so much mushy food!

                                    when planning a meal, try to balance between fat, acid, salt, and sweet - if you have a cream based soup, you can't also have a creamy dressing on the salad and ice cream for dessert, for example. this also means that if you are making something and it is tasting flat, and you realize it needs acid, you can think through the different options to work it out - lemon juice? dijon? vinegar? citrus? tomato? and so on and so forth.

                                  2. I could be wrong but I just figured for the most part that the chefs on "Iron Chef" are doing variations on dishes that they make or have made in the past. Bobby Flay for example, no matter what the ingredient, sort of "does what he does well" to it (i.e. American Southwest preparations [I've heard him say poblano pepper 8 million times I think}). Other chefs are similar probably.

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: Chinon00

                                      I think you're right. In the same way a home cook can open up a pantry and make something for dinner a professional should be able to make a dish based on their foundation of knowledge. I couldn't go home tonight and make bimbibop if my life depended on it but I could throw together a pasta dish based on stuff in the fridge/pantry. It's all about where your experience lies.

                                    2. I have a friend who isn't a "visualizer" like I am, and while she can turn out perfectly passable food, she is struggling to put out a good MEAL. I'm gong to get her "The Flavor Bible" as recommended here.

                                      Can anyone else recommend good "meal" cookbooks? A lot of my vintage books have meal plans in the back but not so much the modern ones.


                                      1. Others have made great posts on this. To answer "How did you become creative in your cooking," I would add you have to be curious and fearless. That is willing to eat anything once, just to see what it's like, and willing to make some mistakes in your own efforts to combine ingredients. The broader one's mind, the broader one's tastes, the better the cooking.

                                        1. I agree with those say it's a very visceral process...There's the obvious like chicken with tarragon that you can read over and over again in recipe books....But the really exciting matches are those that happen by accident...It's like the person who first decided to pair watermelon, onions, goat cheese and mint into a refreshing summer salad...It makes the synapses in the brain start to ping because it simply doesn't seem to fit together....But it works beautifully and stimulates the taste buds in new ways.

                                          I think some of the best pairings result from accidental spillages, picking up the wrong spice jar, or being out of an ingredient and having to wing it with another when preparing a dish in a rush...

                                          1. To me it comes naturally for some reason. Sort of how some people are great with decorating and putting colours together. I've tried interesting combinations since I was a small child. I guess what Iron Chefs will make almost all the time just by seeing the ingredients and seeing what they are starting to do in their prep (unless it is something regional that I have not heard of). Nothing on the show has ever surprised me. As soon as they pull out the arborio rice you know what they are doing with it! My husband and I are glued to that show and love figuring it out. I've cooked in some Iron Chef contests myself - the last one I used black truffles.

                                            One of my favourite sauce combination for beef, for example, is blue cheese and bittersweet chocolate. Now by hearing that I can just tell that it will go well with beef. I really enjoy pairing sweet and savory.

                                            When I look at a recipe I know what it will taste like. If someone tells me about a recipe (over the phone, for example) I can almost always guess what the remaining ingredients will be. That also comes from years of experience!

                                            But food is my life. It is what I do, what I think.

                                            1. 1. Eat a lot of different foods from everywhere; and try to figure out the ingredients. Note down combos that you like and that you don't.

                                              2. Foods that taste good not only have "tastes that go well together" thay also reflect good or appropriate techniques and textures. Bobby Flay did a throwdown making Chinese dumplings. His flavor combos were apparently very good; but he probably lost out due to technique and final texture/thickness of the dumpling. Good sauces are good because of both ingredients and technique (that can be easily learned).

                                              3. So, practice: cook, cook, cook,..

                                              4. Name that tune: it kills me how some people can Name That Tune in two notes! A similar fun thing to do is somtimes when watching sports with friends, they say, "We should eat but I don't have anything in the house." I say, "I can look in your refrigerator and make a three course meal with whatever you've got".

                                              16 Replies
                                              1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                Gotta love Sam's can-do attitude. There are times I fetch my car keys, do a quick mental inventory of the fridge and pantry, and...turn around and put oil and garlic in the skillet to get started and whip up a storm...

                                                1. re: Veggo

                                                  Dunno, Veggo, now that I think about it, only time I tried that at a Danish couple's place it didn't work: Helle and her 12 foot tall blue eyed husband love good food, but bought small amounts daily in order to cook up good, fresh, healthy meals--but they hardly kept anything in the pantry and ref.

                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    I love this!! When I was in culinary school, at any moment you could be tapped on the shoulder and given a "Magic Box." (Some schools call it "Blind Box.") It was usually an oddball assortment of ingredients -- half a piece of fish, a turnip, a this and that -- and then the chef instructor (sometimes one you'd never seen before) would say, "You have 90 minutes. Cook something." So then, tick-tock, the game was on. I had the use of any grain, any stock, any spice, any dairy, but what did I do? Did I make an entree and side, or a soup and main course, or what? How creative, how ingenious, could I be with a limited assortment of ingredients? I've always loved Magic Box, and think that when any of us surveys the ingredients in the frig and pantry, we conjure up a meal in the very same way. I still love the raw creativity of cooking this way, and yielding to the alchemy of the moment. Sure, at other times, I plan and cook with forethought and deliberation, but certainly not always.

                                                2. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                  NPR The Splendid Table occasionally has 'Stump the chef' segment like that - where a caller names 3 ingredients and Lynne has to come up with a menu. Christopher Kimbal of Americas Test Kitchen is the judge.

                                                  Food Network had a show called Door Knocker Dinners (I think) in which the host (that tall, brash Australian guy who is now producer for Paula Dean) would knock on someone's door and ask if his entourage could make a meal from the contents of their fridge and pantry.

                                                  1. re: Sam Fujisaka

                                                    Hahah Sam, I am playing #4 all the time around here!
                                                    OP may find this helpful as well:


                                                    1. re: Pablo

                                                      Darn! I just found this website by chance and thought it would be perfect for this thread. You beat me to it!

                                                      1. re: archstreet

                                                        I just stumbled upon http://www.foodpairing.be/ today and was surprised that it hasn't really been mentioned during the 8 months I've been CH.

                                                        1. re: Caralien

                                                          Interesting site. As long as people don't use it exclusively. Tomatos are not paired with basil or visa versa and they are well know flavors to combine.

                                                          1. re: scubadoo97


                                                            I went all through the pairing graphics at that website and don't think the pairings are honed at all. Banana with ham? Salmon with chocolate? Just two examples of weirdness, but the site is loaded with pairings that don't pair.

                                                            Why do you recommend this site? Are you seeing something of merit I'm not? Just curious.


                                                            1. re: maria lorraine

                                                              I thought it was an interesting site, as was this book by the former head of the FDA:

                                                              from a Whole Earth Foods email:
                                                              According to the New York Times Book Review "in perversely fascinating detail, Kessler, the former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, reveals how industrial chefs engineered the Cinnamon Crunch Bagel at Panera, the Parmesan-Crusted Sicilian Quesadilla at T.G.I. Friday's and other 'hyperpalatable' concoctions undreamed of in any traditional cuisine. Such foods, he argues, artfully layer fat on sugar on salt on fat to trigger the release of the brain chemical dopamine, leading to a kind of 'conditioned hypereating.' Kessler, who confesses to utter helplessness before SnackWell's, throws in a particularly grisly description of the Margarita Grilled Chicken at Chili's, which is mass-marinated in cement-mixer-like machines until it is essentially 'pre-chewed.'"

                                                              Personally, I like foods that taste like what they are, and have been using fewer herbs, spices, and flavour combinations that might be interesting in lieu of the base element (unless I'm making an effort towards replicating something I've tried).

                                                              That said, I devour anything that is food related--both edible and literary. It's interesting to try new combinations, including abject failures, followed by the disection of which ingredients were added, why I like or dislike it, and how I feel afterwards.

                                                              1. re: Caralien

                                                                I've certainly been moving in the direction of "foods that taste like what they are" -- if you're using fresh, good-quality ingredients, then any seasoning/additional ingredients should complement the natural flavors, not overwhelm them. Chicken breasts are popular for a lot of dishes because mass-produced factory chicken breasts are basically a flavorless blank canvas a cook can dress up any way s/he wants, but a chicken breast that actually tastes like chicken doesn't need to be breaded/sauced/highly seasoned to be delicious.

                                                                1. re: Caralien

                                                                  Maybe my brain is on recharge today, but I don't get the connection between that very strange Belgium food pairing website, and Kessler's book on food manufacturers' calculated trifecta of fat, sugar, and salt.

                                                                  I myself cited David Kessler, his book and the NYTimes article link in the thread on "Do we crave what we need?"

                                                                  So, what's the link between food pairing and Kessler? I'm not trying to argue; I'm trying to get it.

                                                                  Do you find a commonality in food pairings that are all about flavor, and manipulating fat, sugar and salt to create a dopamine rush and embed a reward pathway in the brain?

                                                                  I like your last part about ingredients. If you have great ingredients -- especially in the summertime -- you don't need to do much to them!

                                                                  1. re: maria lorraine

                                                                    Ruth and Maria:
                                                                    I've started testing the salt and sugar on even the summer fruits--with my ongoing quest for why someone would put x with y, when they're so good on their own. Salt the watermelon (ok, we need salt because it's hot, but why the cheese? salt again. same with proscuitto and melon). Salt or sugar the strawberries. Got it.

                                                                    I'm blessed that I love things as is. BUT have learned that salt can help, as can real sugar. If it's a little under ripe or over ripe. What to do next. What do you do with it.

                                                                    There was something I saw years ago which had item x (salmon, beef, salad) with y (red, white, rose--dry, sweet, in the middle) and how one might match the 2 together, regarding taste. Vinagre and wine parings (salad) might be difficult, until you add a little bit here or there. Personally, umami tastes like a perfect blend of sweet/salt to me; I grew up with it. But trying to decipher what it was, mild salt sweet. I haven't yet accepted it as the 6th taste. One of the reasons I've always hated orange juice and champagne is that it ruins both. Maybe that's the underlying factor with not liking crossover vehicles--you ruin what is and it's not good as a combo.

                                                                    BUT there happens to be new combos--yellowtail and jalapeno with that mild sweet but gentler than honey mixed with miso. Morimoto may have "invented" that. It's great. Heat, butteriness, mellow, happy face (and no actual dairy). An incredible combination. I get this sometimes, but usually get sashimi--impress me Mark San! Give me the best of what you have. I don't need anything else. But if it's inferior as I've had in other places, then a shiso leaf to add bitterness and earthiness to the salmon, with a touch of the cayenne/dried tobiko and touched with a bit of wasabi. Not dissimilar to having a good dijon when having an overcooked steak frites.

                                                                    Maria--please forgive me. I have not answered your question.

                                                                    Science is the only thing that is similar between all of the references. I can't vouch for the banana and ham, although it does make sense. I don't plan to serve that combo anytime soon, but if I find that it's good (ie bacon wrapped anything is good), well, maybe.

                                                                    1. re: Caralien

                                                                      Watermelon and feta is becoming a classic combination. I think I can see why: feta is not only salty but it has some fat. Like salt, the presence of fat makes other flavors more deeper and rounder. Watermelon is sweet, but it's very low in acid compared to other fruits, so a little salt or acid really boosts the flavor (for that matter, a squeeze of lime juice is delicious on watermelon -- have you tried the classic Mexican trick of squeezing lime juice on fruit and sprinkling with a little salt and cayenne pepper -- it's particularly good with watermelon, I think).

                                                                      Plus, it's a nice visual and textural contrast.

                                                                      1. re: Ruth Lafler

                                                                        My Grandpa Owen had an ancient terrier who loved watermelon, but only if it were salted! And only watermelon, no other fruit.

                                                                        1. re: Will Owen

                                                                          My wife's family had a dog that got to eat left over eggs after breakfast. This was in the day that breakfast was served every day.

                                                                          Anyway, something happened where breakfast wasn't served one day and the dog was wondering around in the kitchen whining so my wife cooked some eggs for it and put it on a plate on the floor. The dog sniffed it and walked away.

                                                                          My wife had to put salt and pepper on it for the dog to eat it!

                                                    2. Sometimes, there's also bloopers, and you learn that certain things don't work (I'm still trying to noodle through that milk chocolate bacon thing - guess I'll just have to try it). But it's the sense of adventure that gets you to try some things.

                                                      One of my more pleasant surprises was a shrimp dish done in Chicken Broth with Garlic, Tarragon, and pepper(also had onions). On impulse, I added a TBs or so of caramel sauce. It was a big hit! I remember being in Rocky Point, Mexico a few years back and had a shrimp dish that had a "special something" that at the time I couldn't define. For some reason ,it came to me that night it must have been caramel or something like it. Now, if I had added tomatoes to the dish, there's no way I would have added the caramel. Something in my brain says it just wouldn't click.

                                                      1. I'm with Sam here. Try many different cuisines and foods and expand your palate. Pay attention to the food you're eating. You'll begin to develop an understanding of the flavors that hide in the background, blend things together and pop out front. When I go outside my repertoire and try new ingredients, I like to try them in their raw state to understand what flavors they contribute to a dish. Knowing what I have, I know what new tastes and sensations will blend in. When it comes to preparing that final meal, I think about what I have in my kitchen that will hit salty, savory, sweet, bitter, hot in concert.

                                                        Today's lunch was one of those new creations. I bought some shell-on Old Bay seasoned garlic shrimp at the market. I had some shirataki noodles laying around. Scallions were a natural pairing with the garlic. I added some sugar and oyster sauce to highlight the brine and sweetness of the shrimp. The heat from sambal oelek played off the cajun seasoning in the shrimp, while a handful of chopped cilantro added some cooling. Watching plenty of Kylie Kwong taught me to add dark and light soy for umami and all the flavors were tied together with sesame oil. I guess breaking down flavors into their component parts, kind of like LEGO pieces, helps you build up something cool.

                                                        1. What good responses we get from Chowhounders when simple questions are asked (ie "How do cooks figure out which tastes go well together?"), and then as we ponder we realize that the answers are really very big and reflect part of the total aggregate experience of life.

                                                          We've covered a lot, and at the risk of treading upon the territory of the anal-retentive-schoolmarm, I'd like to overlay two more slices of the mandala.

                                                          1) Prepare prior to eating or dining out. Decide what cuisine type you want, then choose the restaurant, then get their online menu, and choose before you go which NEW dishes you want to try. Google recipes for those dishes to learn the ingredients. Then, at the restaurant, savor and study. Go late after the rush so that you will have time to engage the chef with your delight and query him or her about specifics of the ingredients, based upon your preparedness. Your final question should be "if I want to experience the greatest variety of tastes and flavors that you have to offer, what three dishes should I try next time.?" Now you have the names of three more dishes to Google before you return there again. Use a Food Journal for followup, even if only in your head, but best is written.

                                                          2) Venture into the unknown. Take one dish, google it, and look at all the variations there are, especially in spices. Gradually invest in spices, cuisine by cuisine, as you prepare to take on each dish.

                                                          A google search string such as "tastes cuisines spices flavor", followed by the name of a cuisine type, can yield some fun results. Use those bookmarks.

                                                          1 Reply
                                                          1. re: FoodFuser

                                                            This is one great sentence:
                                                            "[A]t the risk of treading upon the territory of the anal-retentive-schoolmarm, I'd like to overlay two more slices of the mandala."

                                                          2. A fiend of mine in England just recommended this book:

                                                            Flavours of the World - Paul Gayler.

                                                            Is anyone familiar with it?


                                                            1. im not a chef but i find that when i taste a food or spice i can imagine how it tastes with other things and i just build my dish that way. but dont forget to never overpower the taste of your dish with spices!(i think its like imagining your piece before you draw, hearing a song before oyu play it,ect)

                                                              1. I just saw this post today and was discussing this very subject yesterday. There is no book or anything expect lots of cooking with trail and error to know what will go together well. Just keep trying and you will learn.

                                                                1. 1. Trust your instincts. It's like playing music. The more you practice the more complicated your part can be. If you are not sure - just simplify until you feel confident. Start with classics and elaborate from there.

                                                                  2. http://www.foodpairing.be - is a site that does flavor profiling based on the assumption that foods with similar molecular properties go well together - it often works.

                                                                  3. The cuuks project is based on the idea that you could pick the top flavors from user generated flavor compositions http://www.cuuks.com (this one is still in beta and you have to apply for a code to get in


                                                                  4. Chefs like Heston Blumenthal apparently use huge flavor databases to find similarities and connections. This one costs 2675 $ to get access to: http://www.leffingwell.com/bacis1.htm
                                                                  a simplified version would be this one here: http://www.flavornet.org/flavornet.html
                                                                  Practice and a good mentor go a long way. Good luck!

                                                                  1. Experience will teach it and certainly all the good chefs possess this ability.

                                                                    I have even had a few epiphanies but most of the time, I rely on a little help from "The Flavor Bible" by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.


                                                                    It is exactly what you're looking for. You can look up any food and it will provide foods, flavors, spices and herbs that go well with it.