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Lucy Saunders
4230 N. Oakland #178
Shorewood WI
53211 USA
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Principles 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?

Somewhere, 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.

To consider the principles of flavor from another perspective, I interviewed Jonathan Zearfoss at the Culinary Institute of America.

"The 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."

Zearfoss 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."

Regional affinities do exist between beers and certain kinds of foods, for good reason.

"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 misleading.

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."

Zearfoss 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.

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