The Current

Hot sauce with chili and bananas? Using science to discover surprising food pairings

American chef James Briscione's new cookbook Flavor Matrix explores why the pairing of certain foods based on their chemical compounds taste so good, like tomato with coconut or coffee with carrot.

Chef James Briscione gives a crash course in the chemistry of combining flavours

You might not expect chili peppers and bananas to be a natural combination, but according to chef James Briscione, science explains why they can team up to make a great hot sauce. (Alison Masemann/CBC)

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Originally published on May 7, 2018

Have you ever thought of mixing strawberries with mushrooms or blueberries with horseradish?

The science of flavour suggests we should. It turns out pairing certain food ingredients unlocks what American chef James Briscione calls the "flavour matrix." 

All foods contain, at their core, certain chemical compounds. Learning more about which foods contain which compounds can make it easier to figure out whether certain foods will go well together.

Briscione explores this idea in his new cookbook The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes. In it, he explains why traditional combinations like the classic tomato, garlic and cheese pair so perfectly.

According to Briscione, one of the most prominent aromatic compounds in the strawberry smells like toasted bread, and it's the scientific basis for why strawberry jam tastes so good on toast and croissants. (Pixabay/Pexels)

But he also found other, more unusual ways of putting foods together, based on their underlying chemistry.

Some surprising pairings include clam with melon, tomato with coconut, coffee and carrot and avocado with cocoa.

Matchmaking chicken

Another pairing involved making a hot sauce for chicken made out of chili peppers and bananas.

"One thing about chili peppers ... is that they have these really phenomenal fruit aromas, these big powerful fruit aromas. But they're often just so lost because of the heat," Briscione told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti.

"They just kind of blow out your taste buds."

Chef James Briscione's ​Banana and Chile Hot Sauce Recipe from The Flavor Matrix.

Chili peppers and bananas share certain aromatic compounds, even though they don't taste the same. 

By adding more banana flavour to the sauce, you'll mellow out the heat of the chili pepper, creating a very tasty combination.

Any single food ingredient might contain hundreds of chemical compounds, that make up its flavour. Scientists have worked for decades trying to isolate these compounds. That information is contained in a number of databases that are mostly used by food scientists and food developers.

Briscione got access to two of those databases to use in his research for The Flavor Matrix.

A breakdown of flavour compounds for the egg from The Flavor Matrix. (Submitted by Raincoast Books)

You might be surprised to learn which compounds are found in your favourite foods. The strawberry is one of Briscione's favourite examples.

One of the most prominent aromatic compounds in that fruit, when isolated, smells like toasted bread. It's the scientific reason why so many people like strawberry jam on toast.

"You never smell that in a strawberry, just by slicing into it, and smelling it, but that is one of the key components of the flavour," he said.

"Those buttery toasted aromas are actually there in the strawberry. Even though we don't necessarily recognize them, our bodies are still detecting them."

Cooking with Chef Watson

Briscione first became interested in the science behind flavour in 2014, when he collaborated with IBM's artificial intelligence program Watson.

Watson had already become famous for its ability to outsmart humans, playing on the quiz show Jeopardy.

But IBM also wanted to look into how artificial intelligence could be applied to creative pursuits, so it approached the Institute of Culinary Education, where Briscione is the director of culinary development.

The IBM computer called Watson made a stellar showing on the quiz show Jeopardy, but it was also used to develop new food pairings based on their flavour combinations and compounds. (Seth Wenig/Associated Press)

Chef Watson, as it was nicknamed, came up with ideas for the kinds of ingredients that should go into a particular dish, based on knowledge of flavour combinations and compounds, as well as information about how dishes like fish and chips were typically constructed.

Briscione was then tasked with figuring out how to prepare those ingredients in the best possible way.

"I was very skeptical that a computer could possibly tell me something about cooking that I didn't already know," he recalled. "We're talking about a thing that doesn't have hands, doesn't have a nose, doesn't have a tongue."

He felt certain he would "beat" the computer. But it ended up being a genuine collaboration, and in some ways Chef Watson liberated him from the "decision fatigue" involved in picking ingredients, so he could focus much more on creative ways to prepare the food.

Briscione said that experience, along with years researching and developing the recipes in The Flavor Matrix, "made me a lot more thoughtful about how I combine ingredients, and really about how I approach the process of cooking."

Listen to the full conversation near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Alison Masemann.


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