Why do some things taste better together than others?

The tongue, for all its functional importance, is a largely misunderstood, multipurpose muscular organ. We use it to speak, mock others, whistle, and eat. Arguably, the tongue’s most important daily task is the role it plays in the gustatory system. This system includes cranial nerves, gustatory cortex, and approximately 9,000 papillae, or taste buds. Taste buds have their own little regions on the tongue. Each region is responsible for detecting specific flavor profiles. The very back of the tongue detects bitterness, the tip helps with sweet and savory, and two locations on each side of our tongue identify sour and salty.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION

With the tongue, flavor is entirely dependent upon location. When we prepare to take a bite from a peanut butter and raspberry jam sandwich, first we smell combined aromas of the bread, peanut butter and jam. This stimulates our salivary glands. Thus, when we take that first bite, we simultaneously experience the savory, sweet, and salty — an appealing combination. And yet we are able to detect the individual flavor qualities of each ingredient.

But did you ever wonder why milk is such a satisfying chaser to that PB&J? It’s because milk stimulates sensory receptors that identify richness, or umami. If we followed that bite with something acidic, say, orange juice, many of us would experience unpleasant bitter flavors that would ruin our PB&J pleasure.

MASTERS OF MANIPULATION

Chefs hang their hats on the ability to know what goes with what. Long aware of the tongue’s geography, chefs have learned, through instruction and experimentation, how to manipulate our taste buds to maximize our dining indulgence.

It’s no accident why they know to pair some ingredients with others.

Fat, found in both meat and dairy products, coats the tongue and inhibits the function of some taste receptors. To help cleanse the tongue of this heavy coat, chefs may include an acidic element, such as vinegar or citrus juice, to a dish that helps minimize taste receptor clogs. Diners then experience both delicate and robust flavors as the food passes over various regions of the tongue.

Nick Moss, award-winning executive chef at Bellingham’s 9Restaurant, explains. “One of my favorite tricks to leverage flavor is to use roasted peppers in my non-clam chowders. The cream naturally balances out the flavors by calming the taste buds that detect heat from spice.” This strategy allows the diner to experience the thrill of the pepper’s heat, which is almost immediately tempered by the fat in the cream. Try this at home with a grilled pepper jack cheese sandwich and a glass of milk!

FAT AND ACIDS’ “DANCE OF DEATH”

The relationship between fat and acids is a Tango de la Muerte performed on the tongue. Wine and cheese are a popular beverage and snack combination. The fat molecules from the cheese coat the tongue and create a pleasant mouth feel. A sip of a high acid wine like Sauvignon Blanc rinses the fatty layer from the taste buds. The newly rinsed taste buds are ready to taste more of the wine’s flavor profile. The recursive nature of eating and sipping serves to enhance the flavors of each item consumed.

WINE AND CHOCOLATE? YES, BUT PROCEED WITH CAUTION

Just as there are different kinds of chocolate; dark, bittersweet, milk — there too, are a number of reasons why many wines eschew chocolate. Dry red wine, generally, does not pair well with chocolate because the chocolate is sweeter than the wine. This drowns out the wonderful flavors of wine, often leaving it tasting bitter, acidic, or “hot” because of an emphasized alcohol content. It would be like eating a pickle with a sweet popsicle. The tip of the tongue experiences the sweet notes, which are immediately destroyed by dominate sour notes of the pickle.

Like wine, cocoa nuts have a broad flavor profile that includes fruit and herbs, so a low-acid red wine coupled with a semi-sweet dark chocolate could pair nicely. But like anything that we eat and drink, pairing foods with wine is subjective. So, if you like sweet chocolates with dry wine, then unapologetically indulge your papillae. Bigger, bolder wines with spicy, smokey flavor characteristics such as Cabernet Franc or Syrah might just work here. You be the judge!

Food and wine pairing is not the exclusive domain of chefs and oenophiles. Look for complementary characteristics or contrasting elements of taste. Have hot-buttered popcorn served with a big, buttery Chardonnay. Try sweet wines with spicy foods, such as pad Thai with Riesling.

In the end it all comes down to trusting your tongue. If your taste buds put a smile on your face, then you’ve succeeded in selecting a combination that works for you!

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"Long aware of the tongue’s geography, chefs have learned, through instruction and experimentation, how to manipulate our taste buds to maximize our dining indulgence. It’s no accident why they know to pair some ingredients with others."