Mastering the art of flavor matchmaking

by Monica Watrous
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KANSAS CITY – The secret to a perfect match is compatibility, balance and maybe a little heat. Pairing flavors is no different.

Culinary matchmaking requires skill and instinct, but experimentation is a key.

“When combining flavors with different profiles, such as sweet and spicy, it is very important to give each flavor a chance to shine,” said Agneta Weisz, vice-president of flavors and technology for Comax Flavors, Melville, N.Y. “Blending isn’t the answer, but allowing each flavor to contribute equally to achieving a balanced synergy is best. … There are so many individual factors that impact creating flavor profiles.”

More than ever, consumers crave diversity and dimension. Widespread acceptance of nontraditional pairings is growing, with such complex combinations as Sriracha and salted caramel surging in popularity over the past year.

“This consumer is open to new possibilities,” Ms. Weisz said. “Edgy food and beverages are their way to explore the world. The Internet is their information highway, but chefs, mixologists and food and beverage manufacturers can give them the adventure roadmaps they want to follow.”

A rise in international cuisines combined with the prevalence of social media is stoking a hunger for flavor synergy that has trickled into mainstream applications. Last year’s launches of Dunkin’ Donuts’ bacon and egg sandwich on a halved glazed donut and Frito-Lay’s chocolate-dipped potato chips serve as testaments to the trend.

Dunkin' Donuts' launch of a bacon and egg sandwich on a halved glazed donut suggests consumers are willing to combine sweet and savory flavors.

 

“Tradition isn’t guiding flavor applications anymore,” said Kelly Weikel, senior consumer research manager at the market research firm Technomic, Inc., Chicago. “There is so much opportunity right now with consumers being so open to experimentation. … With the emergence of more ethnic cuisines, people are really looking for more, a complex depth of flavor that you get from pairing one or more types of flavor or two similar flavors.”

A recent report from Technomic showed more of today’s consumers than those polled in 2009 are interested in nearly all of the basic flavor profiles and combinations measured, with sweet and tangy pairings experiencing higher growth in demand than other flavor fusions. Millennials are driving the movement, with a greater portion of individuals ages 18 to 24 than those 35 and older reporting an interest in new and ethnic flavors, including foods and sauces that feature a combination of flavors. Thus explains the rise of Sriracha hot sauce, which melds sweet, heat and sour.

“It’s its own pairing in one,” said Julie Clarkson, senior applications technologist at Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill. “It’s got the garlic, it’s got the chili heat, and it’s got the acid notes. … Which is one of the reasons why I think it has grown in popularity so quickly, because it is a lot more complex than, say Tabasco, which is pretty much just hot and acid.”

When properly executed, flavor combinations simultaneously activate multiple taste receptors, delivering a more intense experience for the tongue and brain.

“Your brain is interpreting two different signals coming in and thinks, ‘Well, that’s interesting. It’s different,’” explained Austin Luft, senior savory flavorist at Sensient Flavors. “The flavor profile is more complex and stronger and brighter.”

While there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to flavor pairing, a well-made match may be achieved with a few simple guidelines.

“Experience, instinct and intuition make a difference, and overall it takes time and talent to find the midpoint between flavors being overly mild versus overpowering,” Ms. Weisz said. “So many unexpected and exciting flavors are created between that fine line of intention and the true expression of flavor.”

Compatibility test

Opposites don’t always attract.

“When you’re looking at flavors, there are things to take into consideration: the intensity of the flavor, whether it’s heavy or light, loud or soft,” Ms. Clarkson said. “You need to make sure that you’re pairing things that are complementary, so that both things are allowed to shine through.”

Bold flavors, such as balsamic and fig, pair nicely, while soft and subtle ginger and plum match well.

Same goes for sensations, she said. Together, cooling menthol and fiery capsaicin create a discordant duo.

“Other things to take into consideration are the big five: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami,” Ms. Clarkson said. “You want to balance. You don’t want to have everything on one end or the other.”

Milkshakes debuting this summer from Sonic Drive-In include salted caramel and chocolate jalapeno flavors.

Sweet talk

Sweet pairs well with a variety of distinct flavors, including savory, sour, smoky and spicy.

“I think sweet is a flavor we have been trained from birth to like, from generations past, so it’s something that is easily enjoyed, so it’s easy to pair with things,” Ms. Clarkson said. “You can put sweet with anything, whether it be meat, soups, sauces. Sweet can pretty much pair with it all.”

Conversely, bitter may be a flavor foe.

“Bitter is very hard to pair with,” Ms. Clarkson said. “That’s one of the reasons why more people dislike bitter than anything else.”

Food and beverage with a bitter character, such as coffee, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower and cabbages, tend to be more divisive among personal tastes.

One exception is gin and tonic.

“That’s one thing that people absolutely pair on purpose, specifically highlighting the bitter of the quinine, but then you’re pairing it primarily often with lime, so you’ve got a little bit of acid, the lime and then the herbals from your gin,” Ms. Clarkson said.

Combining garlic, chili heat and acidic vinegar, Sriracha offers more flavor dimension than a basic hot sauce.

 

Adding some spice

Sweet-and-spicy fusions are red hot, according to a 2014 flavor trend report from Comax Flavors. Such heat-meets-sweet medleys as honey wasabi and habanero maple are flavoring snack chips, confections and sauces.

“The key to a composed spicy flavor is to capture the spice rather than the heat,” Ms. Weisz said. “Adding sweetness brings a new calming layer to the boldness of the spice notes, and it makes the final combined flavor complete.”

Traditional dishes are getting the heat treatment, she added.

“Expect … your Thanksgiving turkey to be smothered in peppered honey mustard or your celebratory champagne to have a fiery mango coconut top note,” Ms. Weisz said. “Innovation and new delivery vehicles will extend this flavor journey for consumers, further tempting them to try something outside their comfort zone. It’s a great time to be in the flavor, food and beverage industry.”

Pucker up

With pickled and fermented foods growing in popularity, sour is in the spotlight. Vinegars offer a breadth of flavors and applications that may add a much-needed spark to a complex dish.

“You have a really broad range from a really soft rice wine vinegar to a really bold balsamic vinegar and everything in between,” Ms. Clarkson said. “Frequently acids are used to brighten a flavor, so you can put a little bit of vinegar in something, and you wouldn’t necessarily know you added vinegar to it, but it brightens it.”

Mainstream food makers are experimenting more with unexpected flavor combinations, such as this sweet and salty snack from Frito-Lay.

Getting fresh

Fruit, as a culinary companion, complements a variety of ingredients and dishes.

“I would say fruit has really trended, and that goes across the board in savory, sweet and beverage applications,” Ms. Clarkson said. “Fruits are friendly.”

Sensient’s 2014 flavor trend predictions include green coconut, juniper berries and tayberry, which is a red raspberry-blackberry hybrid. Another emerging flavor, burnt calamansi, represents a cross between a kumquat and mandarin orange with a sophisticated flavor profile similar to that of a sour orange or slightly sweet lime with caramelized notes.

Fruit also plays to the health and wellness trend.

“Fruit adds a brightness of flavor, but also is getting a push from positioning as fresh and better for you,” Ms. Weikel said.

Savor the moment

In savory applications, fat adds a layer of complexity.

“The fat itself will grab flavors from aqueous sources and extend them so you get different flavor expressions, depending on how much you have in a product,” Mr. Luft said. “In a beverage, the flavor is basically naked — it’s straight out, you’re seeing what that real flavor is. In a savory system, it’s more complex.”

Chefs are leveraging fat to highlight hints of flavor, he said.

“Instead of being all just beefy, it’s beefy with a little bit of fruitiness or beefy with pepper,” Mr. Luft said. “It makes the whole thing taste different.”

Taking risks

While more opportunity exists for bold, new flavor frontiers, creative combinations should fit a restaurant’s concept, Ms. Weikel noted.

“An independent restaurant has more leeway than, say, a mainstream operator who can’t really go as far,” Ms. Weikel said.

Food trucks allow more exploration than a 150-seat restaurant with printed menus, Ms. Clarkson added.

Still, the emerging set of savvy and curious diners are more willing to take a risk on a new, interesting dish.

“They’re not going to spend $150 at the grocery store on all of these wacky cool things, but they’re much more likely to go spend $25 at a restaurant and try it,” Ms. Clarkson said. “If it doesn’t work? No big deal.”

Her advice for combining flavors?

“I start simply with teas or a solution of things and just start mixing and matching,” she said. “Make yourself a bunch of different solutions, and just start playing. And don’t be afraid.”

Dynamic duos

Bold new pairings top the list of flavor trend predictions from Comax Flavors, which dubbed 2014 the “year of transformative flavors.”

“Flavors have no boundaries,” said Catherine Armstrong, vice-president of corporate communications. “The world’s most talented chefs and mixologists are experimenting with the geography of flavor, whipping up a storm of creativity through their explorations.”

Emerging pairings include sultry blends of sweet and savory flavors as well as fiery, ethnic-inspired flavors with topped with sweet notes.

“Adding a flavor like wasabi to either a honey or chocolate flavor adds a new kick of spice/heat to a familiar favorite,” Ms. Weisz said. “This kind of flavor excitement and diversity is what consumers are looking for now.”
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