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The Basics of Pairing Cider and Food

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[Photograph: Christopher Lehault]

In my kitchen, we don't have a restaurant's ready supply of open bottles to tinker in search of a laser-focused, ideal food-and-beverage pairing. For me, the untested bottle that I open up is the bottle I am going to drink, whether or not it's perfectly compatible. But that's where learning the basics of how to make food and drinks go well together comes in handy—especially the ability to adjust what I'm cooking to the bottle I'm drinking.

Cider's a pairing workhorse: it's pretty easy to find food that tastes great with it, whether you're drinking at a midweek dinner or a celebratory feast. Cider's low alcohol and carbonation help to add a little light to heavy meals and prepare the palate for a new bite. And its natural fruitiness pairs as well with pork chops as it does with a kale salad.

A Few Basic Methods

If you are looking for a broader guide to matching food with all sorts of drinks, our editor, Maggie Hoffman, posted an approachable primer on food and drink pairing that will break down all nuances for you. Today, though, we will focus on one specific pairing concept for cider: seeking resonance. Resonance is just what it sounds like; combining food and drink in harmony with one another. A few ways to approach resonance include:

Pairing Flavors
The most common pairing, and one I consider most useful, is to match similar flavors. For example, by pairing a cider with fruity, berry flavors and a summer salad full of strawberries, the food will help amplify the cider's flavor profile while the drink helps highlight the salad's star ingredient.

Pairing Intensity
Another common way to find good matches is to choose food and drink that have the same level of assertiveness. This is often demonstrated by pairing big, bold ingredients with bold beverages, but the same effect can be achieved with subtleties. The nuanced flavors of a light fish preparation, for example, are highlighted by the salinity and minerals of a dry, structured cider. By keeping both plate and pairing subdued, we can add intrigue to both dishes.

Contrasting Flavors
This is a difficult pairing to achieve but, done right, it is the most impressive. Instead of aligning the flavors of a dish and drink, a contrasting pairing pushes the your palate an opposing directions. We do this all the time in cooking to create balance—cutting rich dishes with acidity is a classic example—and the same concept applies for contrast pairings.

A Shortcut for Pairing Cider

While there are a wide range of flavors in a cider, most exhibit some level of fruitiness and this can work as your secret weapon. The simplest way to go about pairing food with cider is to think of dishes and ingredients that you'd cook with apples. Pork chops? Check. Soft Cheese? Yup. Butternut squash anything....you betcha. Roasted vegetables, sage risotto, crisp-skinned poultry: it all works. If you have the choice, choose richer, fruitier ciders with classic fall dishes, and more floral ones in the spring to complement lighter flavors.

A Little Expert Advice

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We recently had the chance to talk cider pairing with Suzanne Wolcott, Head of Education for Goose Island Brewery. Suzanne has been conducting classes and pairing events alongside ex-Goose Island brewmaster and now-Virtue Cider Owner Greg Hall for over ten years. Here's her advice.

How does one begin pairing a cider with a dish? Do you start with the dish and find a cider to match or is it the other way around?

The most effective way to approach a pairing is to first taste the cider and identify its most prominent flavors and desirable attributes, and then create a dish that resonates with those flavors and attributes, and balances them well. The concept of 'resonance' is quite literally identifying flavors in the cider that will resonate in the dish. For example, if the cider has citrusy notes and good acidity then you would create a dish using citrus (for resonance) and fat (for balance) to soften the acidity of the cider.

What makes cider good for pairing with food? What makes it difficult?

The most agreeable qualities in cider for pairing are fruitiness and body. Cider is made from apples and can display a wide range of fruity aromas and flavors. Ciders also can vary widely in body from lean and dry to full and rich, allowing for many diverse pairing opportunities. Difficulties, however, arise from the tannins in cider.

Tannins, much like bitterness in beer, can be a challenge to the pairing process. Tannins have a drying, almost bittering effect and can alter the outcome of a pairing by unpleasantly enhancing the spiciness or acidity of a dish. This aspect of cider can be overcome by the increasing the degree of sweetness in a dish or bumping up the richness of the dish.

Do you have any tips for using cider as an ingredient in cooking?

The flavor profiles of cider tend to be more delicate and ephemeral, so they can be easily lost in the cooking process. That said, cider works well in cooking, creating more depth and complexity in dish as long as the ingredients and preparation don't overwhelm the flavors of the cider.

We've had some pairings where the food actually mellows some overly assertive flavors in a cider. Can you talk a bit about the process of using food to 'round out' a cider?

The most noble intention of a successful pairing is to enhance the best features of a beverage with the well-thought preparation of a dish, while making both more delicious. There are many ways to downplay undesirable, or aggressive flavors in the cider, all the while encouraging its best qualities. If the cider is a bit too saline-tasting, then you can trick the palate on its perception of the salt level of the cider by adding a salty component to the dish. Then the cider feels like it has a contrasting sweetness and the saltiness of the dish will trump the saltiness of the cider. Another method would be to add a little sweetness to the dish. Sugar would balance out the saltiness of the cider, and sweetness can also lessen the perception of muskiness or earthiness in a cider.

More Articles on Cider Pairing

Pairing Cider with Cheese
Pairing Cider with Fish
Pairing Cider with Pizza

About the author: Christopher Lehault is a New Jersey-based cider journalist, craft beer documentarian, and home brewer. Follow his cider adventures on Facebook, Google+, and Twitter.

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