Imagine trying to create a painting with only one or two colors of paint. Or, attempting to write a song with just one chord. When it comes to most arts, it’s easy to understand why a broad range of materials and tools are important for the maker to be able to accomplish their vision.
The same idea applies in the kitchen, where each meal presents the opportunity to create something new — to transform disparate parts into a harmonious whole. Whether that is something as simple as cultured butter on sourdough toast, or as elaborate as a four-course meal, the principle holds fast. Understanding how to combine and pair ingredients is like holding a painter’s palette, dotted with colors, while standing in front of an empty canvas: You have what you need to illuminate the creative path ahead, you just need the know-how.
Of course, different cultures have distinct philosophies on how to best pair ingredients. In part two of this two-part blog series, we’ll examine how many Western cultures tend to utilize ingredients with shared flavor compounds. Part 1 covered how East Asian cuisines often use different pairing strategies, eschewing shared flavors in favor of highly contrasting flavors.
Much of Western cuisine is influenced by classical French and Italian cooking techniques, which for most of the 20th century represented “fine dining”. Just as fashion trends have historically emanated from the couture ateliers in Paris and fashion houses in Milan, ideas about food have trickled down from the brigade kitchens of Western Europe.
In the 21st century, social media has disrupted these rules, but for decades, that is how the influence of culture worked. Budding chefs would stage and work in the kitchens under leading chefs, and then bring what they’d learned to their own restaurants. The basis of that knowledge is, to some degree, baked into the West’s cultural understanding of how food should work. And a large part of that is about combining ingredients with shared flavor compounds, consciously or not.
The science of flavor compounds is a wide field of study, illuminating how ingredients that share compounds can taste different. For example, chocolate and blue cheese share over 73 flavor compounds, though on the face of it, you probably wouldn't say that they have a lot in common!
Here are a few other ingredient pairings that are woven into Western cuisine that you can choose to employ as you explore and develop your own style of cooking:
Eggs & Butter
From the fanciest French dishes to the most rustic, homestyle food, eggs, and butter are at the core of Western cuisine. Part of this is due to their versatility and amazing capacity as builders of texture, and part is due to agriculture as an economic driver across the planet. But there may be another reason why these two staple ingredients are paired up again and again: They share over 50 flavor compounds. They also share chemical compounds with milk, cocoa, and vanilla, which may at least partially explain the importance of pastry and baking in Western cuisines.
Parmesan & Mozzarella Cheese
These two Italian cheeses share over 100 flavor compounds! And just think about how many times you see them together, from saucy pasta bakes to pizza and flatbreads, to classic chicken or eggplant parm. They don’t seem very alike: Parmesan is aged for an intense umami flavor, while mozzarella is a soft, young cheese that’s known for being mild and creamy. Traditionally, they are even made with different kinds of milk (buffalo and cow, respectively). And yet, on a chemical level, they share a large number of compounds.
A few other ingredients that share over 50 flavor compounds with Parmesan and mozzarella (and with each other) are tomatoes, shrimp, and white wine. This may help to illustrate why certain ingredients are paired again and again in Western cuisines.
Beef & Garlic
The floral aroma and sharp flavor of garlic seems to enhance nearly everything it touches. This includes, of course, all kinds of roasted, grilled and braised meats. But it has a special connection with beef. On a molecular level, beef and garlic share a number of flavor compounds. We see this pairing again and again; think beef bourguignon, Italian-style pot roast, and classic American chili.
There are so many fascinating lenses to examine cooking through! We love to get nerdy with food, and hope you do, too! For more explorations of flavor and texture, check out the ZENB blog; and if you’re ready to get cooking, take a look at our collection of over 150 plant-powered recipes, perfectly balanced for your healthy lifestyle. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest for daily kitchen inspo!