How to Pair and Layer Ingredients to Elevate Your Food’s Flavors

A top-down view of a box of ZENB Pasta Agile, a bowl of uncooked ZENB Pasta Agile, a bowl of red cherry tomatoes, a cucumber, herbs, garlic, feta cheese, a small bowl of black olives, and two glasses of wine on a medium-toned wood surface

Are you ready to take your cooking to the next level? Even if you’ve already got some serious moves in the kitchen, there is always room to evolve and expand your culinary prowess. One of the best (and easiest!) ways to up your game is to learn about pairing and layering ingredients.

Much like curating a gallery wall or styling an outfit, combining ingredients for maximum effect takes some intention and a touch of skill. Just because that cashmere beret, beaded bolero jacket, and leather pants are all killer on their own doesn’t mean they should all be worn together. The same thing goes in the kitchen: As you’re looking through the pantry, or rifling through the spice drawer, certain ingredients want to be together and others don’t.

Looking at ingredients through a flavor-focused lens is one of the pillars of elevated cooking. A grasp of textures, high-quality ingredients, and proper technique are the other three pillars. Once you have this quad perfected, you will be a certified cooking badass!

As you begin utilizing ingredients for the purposes of building and layering flavors, there are some key pairing principles to keep in your back pocket:

Complement

Pair like with like. When it comes to flavors, this can be a tricky line to walk. An overuse of sweet, salty, sour, or rich ingredients can really detract from the balance of the dish. But used in moderation, complementary flavors amp each other up to new heights. Remember: This doesn’t have to mean the same flavor; just flavors that are similar and friendly.

Some examples of doing it right:

  • Vanilla ice cream with hot fudge: Different temperatures and textures means that sweet-and-decadent can be delightfully layered together.
  • Saucy pasta with bold, savory red wine: The acidity of tomato sauce with the umami of onions and garlic are like two guitars blazing the same solo.
  • Lots of fruits are complementary. Think strawberry and banana, mango and pineapple, cucumber and watermelon.

Contrast

Opposites attract! When wielded wisely, contrasting flavors can create some of the most powerful “aha” moments in cooking and eating. The inherent differences in the ingredients serve to highlight each others’ best qualities, just like you and your BFF. Classic examples include peanut butter and jelly, hot sauce and blue cheese, and salt and pepper.

A few others:

  • Chocolate and citrus: Smooth and rich meets bright and acidic.
  • Hot honey: This on-trend condiment brings together sweet and spicy for a whole new, tongue-tingling sensation.
  • BLT sandwich: This tried-and-true example is a perfect harmony of umami-forward bacon, sweet tomato, refreshing romaine lettuce, and mild mayo.

 Complete

This is when one flavor helps push another flavor just a little farther. It’s similar to complementary, but the main distinction is that instead of the flavors melding into one unified combination, one of the flavors makes the primary flavor work harder. We see garnishes and beverages doing a lot of the heavy lifting in this department.
Some examples:
  • Fresh basil on pasta dishes: The garden-fresh herbaceousness makes the vegetable notes in the sauce pop.
  • A pat of butter on a grilled or pan-seared steak: The extra hit of fat draws forth a deeper meatiness and savoriness from the beef.
  • Cookies and milk: We don’t really think of milk as the most refreshing beverage, but because it completes the sweet butteriness of cookies, the two are a match made in snack heaven.

Cut

Some flavors have the superpower of being able to cut through other flavors. It’s this sensation that allows us to eat super-spicy and the occasional extra-indulgent dishes without getting palate fatigue. The extra touches that provide relief from one overpowering taste represent one of the biggest factors that separates chef-level restaurant cooking from beginner home cooking.
A cut above:
  • A dollop of sour cream on five-alarm chili. 
  • Creamy coleslaw on a fried chicken or pulled pork sandwich. 
  • White wine or lemon juice with rich seafood, like clams and salmon. 
As you can probably tell, thinking and talking about food is truly one of our favorite things! Loving to cook means going on a lifelong adventure of exploration and discovery, which lets you care for yourself and for others. We hope that the concepts we’re sharing help spark more of your kitchen creativity and curiosity!
If you’re ready to fire up the oven and get cooking, be sure to check out ZENB’s library of recipes, full of plant-fueled and flavor-forward ideas for everyday and special occasion meals. To join our community of fellow food-obsessed friends, follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.   

One Bite Closer to a Better World View all

SPAGHETTI IS HERE!Get 3, 6, or 10 Spaghetti
$14.99 - $49.99
NEW! ALL 5 SHAPES
Get 6 or 12 Pastas
$30.99 - $61.99
NOW WITH SPAGHETTI Choose 3, 6, or 10 Pastas
$14.99 - $49.99
Sold Out
NOW WITH SPAGHETTI Choose 4 Pastas and 4 Sauces
$43.99