A few days ago, someone posted a photo of avocado toast on Instagram and it got more than 1,300 likes. So, avocado toast must still be a thing, even if it means you’ll never buy a house. It was a fairly plain-looking concoction and probably could’ve used some jazzing up — say with tomatoes, mushrooms, clams, cocoa, or… peanut butter?
According to James Briscione’s new book, The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes, all those ingredients should pair as well or better with avocados than eggs or bacon (though not necessarily all at once). Using a database of aromatic compounds, Chopped winner Briscione created a reference guide that will teach you how to sniff out which flavors work best together so you can dream up new recipes or just put a surprising twist on an old favorite.
Briscione created a reference guide that will teach you how to sniff out which flavors work best together.
While working with IBM to develop Chef Watson, Briscione learned about the Volatile Compounds in Food database, which is run by Netherlands-based Triskelion Research. It lists the volatile compounds in different foods and groups the items in 108 “product categories,” like fruit, seafood, and vegetables. So for example, if a subscriber clicks on ouzo, an anise-flavored liquor popular in countries like Greece and Lebanon, they’ll see its volatile compounds by chemical class. One of its hydrocarbons is limonene.
What does that tell you? Probably not much, but Briscione took the raw data from Triskelion to figure out which foods have the most compounds in common. The higher the percentage, the better they pair is his theory. Strawberries have more than 400 compounds, so the results can be quite complex.
But instead of just tossing all the info in a spreadsheet with a bunch of numbers, Briscione approached Jan Tulp to help lay out the flavor matrices. The result is an “aroma wheel,” similar to what you use for beer or wine. In the book, the first ring lists the ingredient’s primary aromas. Avocado’s include fruity, maillard, terpene, and vegetal. The next ring is for secondary aromas, such as melon, carmel, wood, and green. The thicker wedges have more specific ingredients associated with them, and the length of the ingredient’s bar represents the percentage of compounds it shares with the avocado.
Attached to the “nutty” secondary aroma wedge are the ingredients coffee, walnut, sesame, peanut, hazelnut, and cashew. Hazelnut’s and cashew’s bars are longer than the rest, so they’ll pair better than the other ingredients. The reason two foods may share so many compounds varies; it could be that they are from the same region or that they just share a common taste profile.
When you take a bite of a strawberry, your nose is actually doing a lot of the work delivering that jammy taste. While that tongue map is a myth, your taste buds are detecting the berry’s sweetness. But try eating one with a stuffed-up nose, and that might be all you taste. The main aromas in the fruit that make Tom Brady gag are furaneol (caramel, cotton candy); mesifurane (bread crust, butter); and ethyl butanoate (apple, butter, pineapple), according to the book. To find out why these chemical compounds are so important, Digital Trends asked Briscione to get a little geeky about the science behind the scents.
Digital Trends: What’s the best way to start using the book? (For example, should you limit yourself to a certain number of ingredients, try the included recipes, etc.?)
James Briscione: That’s for the reader to decide! We really tried to construct The Flavor Matrix so that it could be useful in different ways to different levels of cooks. For the experienced foodie or chef, they can dig right into the pairing charts and compound charts in the back of the book to begin experimenting with new combinations of ingredients on their own.
Less experienced cooks who are looking to get a little more adventurous can begin with recipes in the book and learn how to use flavors in new ways before adding them into their own cooking. Everyone from chef to newbie can benefit from the introduction where we break down the science of flavor, principles of flavor pairing, and crafting tastes in food.
What if an ingredient isn’t in the book? For example, anise. Fennel is somewhat anise-flavored, so could you use that as a guide?
Exactly! We were not able to include every single ingredient (at least in the first edition). But most ingredients fit neatly into categories and can be associated with another ingredient. All in, the 58 matrices in the book cover around 150 ingredients.
“We really tried to construct The Flavor Matrix so that it could be useful in different ways to different levels of cooks.”
We’re really intrigued by the flavor-pairing/aroma chart in the back of the book. Can you explain how the main aromas work? For strawberries, for example, if you were to smell furaneol alone, would you get the sort of caramel/cotton candy aroma mentioned in the chart?
That for me is the fascinating part of how flavor works. We would never perceive those caramel aromas in strawberries with just our noses. But the chemical analysis allows us to “see” that this is one of the most important aromas in a fresh strawberry. These charts in the back of the book list the three most significant aromas for each ingredient [and] allow you to better understand the flavors and best pairings for ingredients.
Could you give an example of how to use the primary-aromas chart at the back? One of the surprising combinations was hazelnut and pork, for example, and the chart lists foods that share the aromas.
We found the pairing of pork and hazelnut particularly intriguing, so we wanted to explore it a bit more. In that chart we list two of the chemical compounds responsible for the pork-hazelnut pairing, as well as other ingredients that contain those same compounds. That tells me that if I wanted to create a dish with pork and hazelnut, then coffee, egg, mushrooms, tamarind, beef, peanuts, popcorn, or sesame seeds would be great choices for ingredients to add to that dish (but not all of them at once).
When we were coming up with something to try, We started with knowing we wanted to use bacon and saw one of the things it paired best with was caramel. They each had cinnamon and figs listed, so we slightly modified a recipe we found online. It was surprising that there are a lot of recipes that exist already with some of these unusual combinations. Why do you think that is?
This scientific or data-driven approach to pairing is very new. Before that pairings were created intuitively or through trial and error. The science behind the flavor matrix reveals that there are connections between these ingredients, some of them we already knew, others new or unexpected. It’s always exciting for me to see when the Matrix reveals something like that and then I see that someone else arrived at that same combination on their own!
“When you think of the ingredients that way, you use them better; you can make choices how to cook or season them—make one sweeter or the other more sour.”
In terms of complementing and balancing, are all the flavors on the wheels complementary? When thinking of how to put new dishes together, how should people approach a ratio of complementary versus balancing flavors?
In the introduction we run through a graphic of the most complementary aroma categories or flavors. I think it’s best to look at them as their bigger categories. For example, marine aromas (fish, shellfish, crustaceans) match best with roasted, savory, and sour aromas. That tells us not only what ingredients match well, but also hints to cooking technique and seasoning that will make the food best. Grilled miso marinated fish with lemon is a perfect flavor match.
How do you think this book works for beginner cooks? I’m curious about something like blueberries versus cranberries, for example. Obviously, everyone knows one is sweeter than the other, but I’m wondering how someone with less experience would know which ingredient would be better with a dish that included blueberries versus cranberries.
We hope this book can help shape the way people think about ingredients. With the berry example, it’s good to think, OK, these two ingredients have a very similar profile, but it gets masked because one (cranberry) is sour and tannic while the other is juicy and sweet (blueberry).
When you think of the ingredients that way, you use them better; you can make choices how to cook or season them, make one sweeter or the other more sour or using the tartness of the cranberry to your advantage in a recipe that might call for blueberry (sweet) and lemon (sour). Now you can replace them cranberry (sour) and ruby grapefruit (sweet) to get a new twist.
The flavor matrix would make a fantastic app. Have you given any thought to that?
It’s something that our data visualization specialist Jan Tulp (who helped create the matrices) said from the very beginning. We’ve also been hearing the same thing from a number of other excited readers, so I think it is time for us to seriously consider it.
Should people start putting peanut butter on their avocado toast?
Yes. But just a thin layer. If that’s too much creaminess for folks a good sprinkling of chopped up roasted peanuts will do the trick!