of Pairing Flavors
Interview with Jonathan Zearfoss
Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY
Think about your tastebuds for a moment, and what comes to mind?
at some time back in school, you studied the elements of taste perception.
Maybe your teacher even drew a map of the tongue, showing areas where
we perceive salty, sweet, bitter or sour flavors.
But pairing flavors is more than knowing the map of the mouth--and
sometimes the most interesting combinations just don't go by the map.
consider the principles of flavor from another perspective, I interviewed
Jonathan Zearfoss at the Culinary Institute of America.
standard approach to flavors is to complement, contrast, or create
a third new flavor through the synergy of flavor," Zearfoss explained
to me. "Think of a tennis match, with opposing tastes, or a dance
of flavors that work as partners."
Professional chefs get a great deal of training in pairing flavors
of food and wine. "But pairing food and beer is often approached
by thinking first of the food, and then trying to figure out which
beer might go with that dish," says Zearfoss. "A more challenging
exercise is to taste the beer first, close your eyes, and imagine
foods or dishes that might go well with flavors you're savoring now."
"I cook with beer at home, and it's still my beverage of choice
as a companion for home cooking," says Zearfoss, "mostly
because I like a lot of spicy flavors."
just made a green chile stew with posole, the fluffy white hominy
corn that is a staple of Mexican cuisine. "I used pork country
ribs smoked over cherry wood, and added a light lager as the cooking
liquid, and it turned out great."
affinities do exist between beers and certain kinds of foods, for
"Look at food history, and you'll see that cooks have always
prepared foods with readily available ingredients, as a matter of
necessity or thriftiness," says Zearfoss. "And for centuries,
beer has been one of the safest liquids one can consume, since it
has already been boiled."
Yet he adds that looking outside the expected choices requires some
imagination. "One of the most prevalent myths is that one must
pair a dish prepared with beer, with the same beer used in cooking,"
sighs the chef. "You wouldn't serve tomato juice with a pasta
topped with tomato sauce."
Nor is he a fan of putting beer in food just for the sake of cooking
with beer. "It's easy to push that sort of thing too far, and
you wind up with flavors that don't really pair all that well."
When dining at a restaurant recently, Zearfoss read a menu description
of an imported Rauch bier, suggested that it should be paired with
smoked foods. "But my friend tasted the beer and said, "it's
a smoky beer already; why would you overwhelm your palate with adding
another smoky taste to it?"," says Zearfoss. "I was
drinking the Rauch bier with a lentil salad made with smoked bacon
and a vinaigrette. On my palate, the acidity of the vinegar was sufficient
to cut through the smoke, and create an interesting contrast. But
my friend, who was eating a pasta with cream sauce, found that the
smokey taste coated her palate and became cloying."
Blanket recommendations for pairing beer with certain foods can be
If planning a beer and food pairing, taste several different beers
before planning the menu, advises Zearfoss. "Become familiar
with the possibilities. In photography, one should experiment with
bracketing, figuring out the boundaries and looking outside the expected
framing. In developing truly memorable pairings, be ready to look
outside the expected choices."
A good pairing of beer and food often creates a lingering new flavor
on the palate. "The taste memory is composed of the synergy between
the drink and the food," says Zearfoss, "and that's especially
true with beer since it has a definite aftertaste."
Lingering over a beer's aromatics and aftertaste also offers clues
to possible food pairings. "Many people tend to quaff beer instead
of savoring it," cautions Zearfoss. "Give yourself time
for your senses to take it in. Just as the aroma wafting upwards from
the dish whets your appetite for that first bite, so too does the
aroma of a beer enhance the taste perception of the beer."
cautions, "we're just sophisticated enough as a culture to think
we appreciate fine beer, but not necessarily knowledgeable enough
to recognize and speak out about beer quality and freshness."
For that reason, Zearfoss recommends sampling both bottled and draft
versions of the same beer. "There's a lot of wisdom in labeling
beers with bottling dates, so be sure to check the label before you
drink," he add.
Texture is not a term normally associated with drinking, but the textural
components of beer--its carbonation, or residual yeast sediments--also
contribute to flavor. "We shouldn't overlook the textural components,"
says Zearfoss. "Even as a drink, beer contributes more than just
slaking a thirst."
Approach beer and food pairings with an open mind, and the possibilities
for fantastic flavors will blaze tantalizing new trails on that map
of the tongue.