Pairing Coffee with Foods: A Simple Primer and a Little Science
/ title photo - Begin Simply
Have you ever wondered why chocolate and coffee are such an amazing and enduring flavor pairing? Food chemists have wondered the same thing. The simple answer is this: foods that taste good together usually have flavors in common. When food chemists set out to explore why certain food pairs are more harmonious than others, they went at the problem with gas chromatography and mass spectrometers. These high-tech tools helped them identify the major aroma compounds in various foods by concentration. They confirmed that when foods share major flavor and aroma compounds, they tend to taste good together. That one simple bit of knowledge, along with the tips and exercises for developing your palate we shared earlier this week, can help get you started on developing your own coffee and food pairings.
Why is Coffee-Food Pairing a "Trend"?
Before coffee's Third Wave came crashing to the shore, food professionals thought of coffee as a single flavor, most often served with breakfast or dessert. It's hard to blame them, since the First Wave was dedicated to standardizing the flavor of coffee to smooth out all the differences among the many varieties, and the Second Wave focused heavily on darker roasts, which tend to taste more of the roast than the coffee. The Third Wave, however, focuses on the flavor of the coffee and celebrates the differences in flavor, aroma and body among the myriad varieties of the coffee bean. It was only a matter of time before coffee culture and foodie culture intersected. Today, cutting edge chefs in top restaurants are experimenting with using coffee as an ingredient in their dishes, while coffee shop owners are creating "tasting menus" that pair foods and coffees that taste good together.
Choosing Coffees That Taste Good with Food
Whether you're putting together a menu of foods to serve alongside your favorite coffees or choosing coffees to serve with your favorite meal, the principle is the same. Analyze the flavor of the food/coffee you want to pair and identify the dominant flavor notes, then look for the same or similar flavor notes in the coffee/food you want to pair it with.
Suppose, for example, you want to choose a coffee to serve with a killer Amaretto cheesecake for dessert. Cut a small slice for yourself and take a bite, deliberately savoring it to identify specific flavors in it. Almond, definitely. A hint of vanilla and a subtle lemon tanginess? You might consider something like The West Bean Honduras Capucas
, a coffee that has a creamy body, nutty aroma and subtle hints of caramel and juicy citrus fruit.
If you're starting with the coffee and choosing foods, just reverse the process. Consider this week's featured coffee, Thrive Farmers Ortega Estate Guatemala
, which features prominent dark chocolate and dark red berry notes. It's a medium roast, which favors both chocolate and fruity notes, and has a smooth, medium body, making it a good choice with rich foods. Pairing this coffee with a piece of cheesecake with rasperries and chocolate would accentuate the richness of the cheesecake and echo the berries and chocolate flavor in both foods. If you're feeling more daring, brew up a strong shot of the Ortega Estate Guatemala and substitute it for the liquid in a recipe like this one for Grilled Chicken with Raspberry Chipotle Glaze
, where the raspberry, chocolate and roast will work magic with the chipotle chilies.
Coffee Pairing Cheat Sheet
You don't have to be familiar with dozens of coffees to make reasonably good guesses at coffees that will pair well with foods, though. There are some general rules that can help you make good coffee choices even if you haven't tasted a particular coffee yet. We pulled together a coffee-dessert pairing cheat sheet
a few months ago, but here's a quick coffee cheat sheet that encompasses other kinds of foods as well.
Check out our Coffee Pairing Cheat Sheet + more infographics on our Pinterest site!
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