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When discussing pairing drinks with food recently, a friend said to me, "pairing in general is completely subjective and bogus. In reality, perception and attitude have far more to do with a successful pairing than flavor anyway."
What an interesting idea! But I don't agree. Sure, perception is different for everyone, and sure, your expectations will shape how anything you eat or drink tastes. But we shouldn't discard the idea of pairing because of that—there's just too much deliciousness to lose.
Pairing Isn't Snobby, You Do It All the Time
I'd like to dispel the myth that those who think about which beverages will go best with their food are snobs, that thinking about pairing is only for people who hold their pinkies up when they drink tea. As food lovers, we think about pairing all the time.
Let's say you have a brownie. It's deep and chocolaty and just a little sweet. You could put a scoop of ice cream on it, or a drizzle of hot fudge. You could add some berries, or a raspberry sauce, or a little salted caramel, or quite a few other delicious things. But would you add garlicky pesto? Would you add tomato-and-onion salsa? Would you add melted cheddar cheese? Probably not. The flavors wouldn't taste good together; that pesto would ruin your brownie, and the other way around. What a waste.
It's not snobby to want what you eat and what you drink to taste good together. When you season a dish, or add a sauce, you're thinking about combining flavors that taste good together. You add a squeeze of lime to balance a dish, or you add a pinch of cumin. There's not just one way to spice your chili, and there's not just one drink to pair with your french fries (Milkshakes? Of course. Sparkling wine? Totally.)
But it's worth taking two seconds to think about whether a particular drink will go with what you're eating, whether it will make the food taste better, and whether it will make the drink taste better, or whether both will be diminished. If you like food, it makes sense that you'd want to improve it with what you're drinking. And that's where the miraculous happens: sometimes flavors in solid form and flavors in liquid form come together to create a third, delicious, set of flavors, bringing out something you wouldn't taste if you hadn't tried them together.
Drink What You Like
People often say, "Just drink what you like, forget about the rules."
Sure. If you hate a certain drink, you likely won't love it with your food. (Though a great combination might surprise you.) But take 'drinking what you like' as a first step, and then think about when to drink it.
Say you have a bottle of your favorite Cabernet in the fridge. Fantastic! But should you drink it the night you're having lamb chops, or the night you're having sushi? Chances are one combination will make you say 'wow,' and compliment the cook, and the other might feel a little fishy.
How to Steer Toward Delicious: Contrasting and Mirroring
So let's not call them rules. Let's strike the idea that there's only one 'perfect pairing' for any one food. But you're a Serious Eater, and you want your food to taste good, and you have the option of drinking something with your food. How do you increase the chances that the combination will be a winner?
There are two main ways to go about it, and they're pretty similar to the ways you'd make a sauce for a dish. First, you can pick drinks with characteristics that contrast the flavors in your food. Of course, too much contrast could make one element overpower the other. But a little bit of contrast can bring out good things in both. (Think of that squeeze of lime on your bowl of chili. Yum!)
The second method of pairing is mirroring: picking a drink that offers continuity with the food, complementing similar characteristics and helping them shine.
Your pairing choices can be a combination of contrasting and mirroring to bring out the best in your food, and to balance the food and drink in your mouth. But what are you mirroring? And what are you contrasting? What should you be paying attention to when you are choosing food and drink to serve together?
Impact, Body, and Alcohol
Impact is an easy way to get started thinking about picking the best drinks for your meal. Everything you eat and drink has an impact—say you're cooking rich braised short ribs, or grilling a meaty dry-aged steak. The impact of these dishes is pretty major.
So when you're deciding which bottle to crack open, you'll want to consider the impact of the dish and the impact and body of your beverage. Wine is often described as being light-, medium- or full-bodied. You can think of it like the different types of milk: skim, 2%, whole milk, or cream. Cream feels different in your mouth than skim milk does; full-bodied wines and light-bodied wines act pretty much the same way. And body isn't limited to wine—consider a crisp, light pilsner versus a mouthfilling, malty doppelbock. The heft of these different beers matters, and your wee pilsner might be overpowered and feel thin and metallic if you drink it with your rich braised short ribs.
One thing that affects the body and impact of wine and beer is the alcohol level. If your food is very delicate, consider choosing a lower-alcohol drink to keep things in balance. Alcohol can also increase to the point where it tastes "hot" in your mouth—this can be intensified if your food is super-spicy, so you might want to keep an eye on that.
One more tip: If you're going to be drinking a series of beers or wines over the course of a meal, you'll probably want to start with those with a lighter impact, and proceed to bigger, fuller drinks, since anything big will blow out your tastebuds and overpower what comes after it.
Brightness and Acidity
One tool you have for picking drinks that go well with food is acidity—the tartness or sourness of your drink. In a cocktail, this could come from lemon or lime juice. Some wines have more bright acidity than others (think of puckering Sauvignon Blanc or Riesling, or bright, fresh Pinot Noir.) In beer, brightness can come from hops that offer a citrus or fruity character to the brew. Sour Belgian- or Flemish-style beers offer acidity in spades.
Acidity can contrast richness in your food, like a squeeze from a lemon wedge can help a plate of fried clams. Fat can coat your tongue, acidity can cleanse it and refresh your mouth. Use this tool to your advantage.
Carbonation, like brightness and acidity, can cleanse the palate when you're eating a rich dish, refreshing your mouth for another bite. Beer's got it. Sparkling wine's got it. Heck, Diet Coke has it, too—that carbonation is part of what makes Diet Coke so good with a greasy, cheesy slice of pizza.
Tannin and Bitterness
Tannins in wine are come from the grape skins, stems, seeds, or oak barrels. They offer structure to the wine, and you might sense them as a slight bitterness or astringency that's drying out your mouth. Tea has the same thing, as do some beers, such as Flemish reds.
In big red wines that don't have a ton of acidity, tannins can help the wine go well with rich red meats; offsetting the fat and protein. Conversely, the fat and protein seem to help calm the harshness of the tannin.
One thing to note: tannins actually irritate the soft tissue of your mouth a little. Eating super-spicy food with big, tannic wines may accentuate the problem, which is one of the reasons why these aren't an ideal match.
Bitterness in beers, like tannins, can also help balance heavy food and cut through fattiness or smoky, meaty flavors. Keep an eye out for beers with too much bitterness, though—in some cases, they'll overwhelm delicate foods.
There's more sweetness in most of the food we eat than we may realize; and I'm not just talking about dessert. I'm talking about caramelized onions, and ketchup, and pad thai, and barbecue sauce, oyster sauce, teriyaki sauce, and miso-ginger glaze. These slightly sweet dishes can make a dry wine or beer taste thin or bitter. An off-dry wine, though, or a beer with just a touch of residual sugar and malty sweetness, will bring out the best in these dishes and not by overshadowed.
Slightly sweeter drinks can also be friendly to more spiced dishes, enhancing aromatic spices and countering some of the heat. It's very fashionable to say you like 'dry' wine, but a tiny bit of sweetness in your wine may help it go better with food.
Wondering about pairings for dessert? The basic rule of thumb is to go sweeter with your drink than your food. Ever sit at a wedding and realize you just don't like Champagne and wedding cake together? It's not because the Champagne is bad. (Though it may be.) It's probably because the sugary-sweet frosting blows out the fruit flavors of the champagne when the combination hits your mouth; you might as well be drinking seltzer.
Some of my favorite food-and-drink combinations are those that highlight umami and earthy flavors. Beer has umami galore from lightly roasted malt and the glutamates that are formed as a byproduct of yeast fermentation; it picks up on the caramelized flavors in roast poultry or mushrooms or paté or anything with soy. Yeasty, bready notes in beer (and sparkling wine) can also highlight similar qualities in food.
Sherry isn't as popular as it should be, but if you think you're not wild about sherry, try some fino sherry with fried green olives. This combination is a seriously delicious umami-bomb.
Since we mentioned roasted malt in beer, it's probably worth noting that just like we might seek to match light, bright flavors in food and drink, we also could bring together dark, earthy flavors. Darker roasted malt in porters and stouts can taste like chocolate or coffee and pair wonderfully with charred meats, deep, savory sauces, and sometimes even dessert.
Beware of Oak
In general, oak from barrel-aged or barrel-fermented wine is something of an obstacle to delicious food-and-wine pairings. When too robust, oak can stand out like a mouthful of firewood and overshadow any food you might match with it, unless that food is a super-powerful charred steak or piece of game. If the oak is delicate, though, it might add a pleasant smooth vanilla quality that works well with rich, creamy sauces.
This is Supposed To Be Fun
All these details may seem like a lot, but they're just a few entryways into the world of dining delicious food-and-drink combinations. The best way to discover something that doesn't just work, but tastes really terrific? Play with it.
Invite some friends over and give everybody a bunch of glasses—3 at once, or 5. No one has to finish anything. (And, um, drink water, too.)
Pour a bunch of different options at once and try each one the food food. Are the pairings awesome? Are they awful? Does the food make the drink taste better or worse? Does the drink serve as a sauce, enhancing the dish you're eating? Which characteristics match up? Which seem to be fighting? Would something else be better? Go back to the fridge and see what else you have!
Everybody may not agree on the perfect pairing, but you're bound to discover something delicious.