“One of my favorite flavor combinations is pears and blue cheese. Actually, specifically pears and Stilton. Why not turn up the volume and bake pears with a stuffing that has Stilton in it?”
So starts Ina Garten on an episode about cheese on her Food Network cooking show. She prepares baked pears with a stuffing of stilton, cranberries, and a dressing with port wine. Besides being very English, the sweet pears, the sharp Silton, and the port dressing over a base of peppery arugula make each taste better.
This got us thinking about other winning food combinations, pairings that are better together than as separate ingredients.
Peanut butter and jelly, milk and cookies, spaghetti and meatballs, macaroni and cheese, popcorn and soda, pancakes and syrup. Irresistible combinations that have endured generations and lasted long beyond food trends. What is it that makes certain foods go so well with one another?
To answer this, we look at 7 characteristics that make up great food combinations. The biggest factor is contrast. Foods that contrast in texture, flavor, temperature, or even color tend to make striking pairs. The foods are delicious on their own but even better together.
1) Dry + Wet
Crispy waffles soak up maple syrup; toasted bread clings to creamy mayonnaise and juicy tomatoes; buttery Ritz crackers carry creamy chicken salad. All these dry rafts keep wet topping afloat for the perfect bite.
2) Meat + Veg
The richness of hamburger meat is cut with crisp lettuce and acidic onions; pulled pork tacos are topped with crunchy coleslaw. The fat and rich meat is enhanced by the contrast of fresh, raw vegetable toppings.
3) Sweet + Savory
Maple syrup brushed on prosciutto or bacon and baked until crispy become meat candy. Honey and pears with savory blue cheese, as Ina suggests, are a winning sweet-savory combination.
4) Hot + Cold
A la mode is a mainstay on dessert menus for a reason; vanilla ice cream scooped over warmed apple pie melts into rivers of cream, adding the perfect moisture to the flaky crust.
5) Creamy + Crunchy
Vanilla cream spread between two chocolate cookies (read: Oreos); extra crunchy peanut butter and banana are classics that offer the pleasing contrast in cream and crunch.
6) Bitter + Sweet
Coffee and donuts are a study in extremes: coffee’s bitterness offsets donuts’ sweetness, or is it the other way?
7) Sour + Sweet
Underappreciated grapefruit becomes a star when sprinkled with brown sugar and bruleed. The caramelized sugar contrasts with the sour citrus, making it crave-worthy for breakfast or dessert.
How to come up with your own winning food combinations?
- Pick from different food groups.
Pick from one group and pair with an item from another. For example, tomatoes (vegetable) + mayonnaise (fat) + bread (grains) each come from different food groups and put together are much tastier. They have different compositions and offer nutrients that complement one another.
- Take a classic and substitute one item with a similar one.
Take a classic that you know works, like peanut butter and jelly, and substitute one of the items for a similar ingredient. In this case, either peanut or jelly could be replaced by another spread such as Nutella (chocolate hazelnut spread), Speculoos (caramelized gingerbread cookie spread), any nut butter (almond butter, cashew butter, etc.), and of course, any preserves and jam, in any flavor. Favorites are raspberry preserves with Nutella, orange marmalade with Speculoos, and peanut butter with marshmallow fluff.
- Pick from different food groups.
- Add on another dimension.
Take a classic and add a third component. Take broccoli and cheese for instance. Add a third flavor with a squeeze of lemon juice. The acidity heightens the flavor of the broccoli and contrasts with the mellow notes of cheese. Another example is hot chocolate. Add spice as a third element to the steaming mug of milk and chocolate, from a pinch of warming cinnamon to spicy cayenne pepper, to add depth of flavor in every sip.
- What grows together, goes together.
Tomatoes and basil are a prime example of increasing each other’s flavor as well as nutritional benefits. Toss ribbons of basil in tomato sauce, tuck fresh basil between thick tomato slices, or pair oven roasted tomatoes with basil oil. Pumpkin and greens, peaches topped with pecans, corn and lima beans paired in succotash, to the trio of eggplant, tomatoes, and peppers baked together in the signature Mediterranean ratatouille dish are all foods grown seasonally and locally together and go together beautifully.
With these tips on how to make winning food pairings, we hope that you’ll be able to make each ingredient taste that much better. And as Ina likes to say, how bad could that be?