Science of flavour pairing – Cranberry, brie & walnut appetizer

Anyone who’s developed a new recipe, which can be as simple as throwing some ingredients in a wok, will know that one of the tricks of a good recipe is the flavour combinations you make. Red cabbage works well with apple sauce, apple pie works well with cinnamon, fish sauce works well with Chinese cabbage. A good cook knows and understands these combinations and uses them to lift up a dish, so not just cooked brussel sprouts, instead combine them with some bacon and herbs.

Making these flavour combinations is a personal thing, it depends on your personal preferences. However, it’s also very scientific! If you would know which types of molecules form the determine the flavour of your food, you can look for other foods with similar molecules! True chemical analysis for a great combination. This is the science of flavour pairing, and ultimately food pairing.

Exploring a new ingredient

Somehow cranberries are all over the place in the Christmas season (and Thanksgiving in the US). In Europe though they aren’t that common or popular. So when we recently bought some cranberries, we honestly didn’t know that well what we had to do with them. They tasted sour, not that appetizing. Now what?

Cooking with a new ingredient can be a challenge. If you have no clue how a new ingredient works with other ingredients it might be hard to put it in a dish. As a result, you might not buy or eat it at all. Once you’ve eaten it a few times though, or have found some recipes with the ingredient, it will start making more sense and it will be easier to incorporate. By that time, you’re understanding the flavour profile.

There’s a risk to that method though, once you’ve got a few favorite recipes, you might well stick to them. Once you’ve tasted cranberries with orange, you might be making cranberries with orange the rest of your life, since you like it. There’s nothing wrong with that by the way, but at this point (as well as before you even ever tasted your ingredient), flavour pairing can come in handy.

Chef IBM Watson

Before we dive into this pairing science though, there are various other tools out there that can help you as well. In another post we already discussed the use of Chef IBM Watson. This is a software tool that will suggest ingredients to add to your dish. The software has learned which ingredients go well together, based on a huge database.

What is flavour?

In order to get the concept of flavour pairing, let’s first discuss what flavour is. You might think flavour is the same as taste, however, it most certainly is not. Taste is a very important part of flavour, detected by your tongue. Your tongue can detect saltiness, sweetness, bitterness, etc. thanks to a complex arrangement and variety of receptors in the tongue.

Apart from taste though, texture, smell and visual appearance influence flavour. Research has shown that flavour actually is a very complex system. It will differ between people and will differ per situation. Remember that example of the wine or cheese that has a delicious flavour when on holiday but is just a regular cheese back home?

The importance of aroma

Within the complex interaction, the aroma of a food has found to be particularly important. According to some researchers, this makes up 80% of the overall flavour experience. It is also the reason why your food may taste a little bland when you have a severe cold. Your nose won’t be able to distinguish all the aromas anymore.

What is aroma of food?

The aroma of a food is made up of the volatile molecules that escape from a food. These molecules move into the air and reach your nose where they’re ‘seen’ by your receptors in your nose. These aromas are very complex, it’s almost never just one or two molecules. Instead there are a lot of different molecules floating around that make up the aroma of a food.

Detecting aroma

Food chemists are able to analy the aroma of a food. They can do this using a GC-MS. The aroma will pass into the system. In the GC system the different components are split and in the MS section they are identified. Whilst doing the analysis a sensory expert can sit at the end of the system. When the flavours come out of the system, one by one, they can then describe the flavour. By then comparing which molecules came out of the GC-MS at which time, researchers can identify which components smell a certain way.

cranberry brie walnut sandwich
A home made flavour pairing; bread with brie, cranberry sauce and walnuts, jumjum.

What is flavour pairing theory?

Flavour pairing theory states that the flavour of certain combined ingredients, taste better together, than separate. In other words, they should improve one anothers flavour. For example, assuming that strawberries and chocolate would pair up well. Then the combination of the strawberry & chocolate flavour will be liked better by people than when they’d just eaten a strawberry or some chocolate.

You might have experienced this flavour pairing benefit. Also, you might have experienced it the other way around: eating two ingredient at the same time that taste worse when eaten together than when eaten separate.

Role of aroma in flavour pairing theory

Scientists have tried to see whether this flavour pairing is merely due to two aromas working well together, so not even taste or texture, just the aromas. If that does indeed work, all you’d have to do is analyze the aroma’s from products and then figure out which aroma’s work well together. You’d be looking for aroma’s with a similar profile, for instance, both would have a fruity or roasty aroma to them.

Is flavour pairing based on aroma valid?

There aren’t a lot of scientific articles on the topic of flavour pairing. Those that have been written tend to contest whether flavour pairing can be done by merely combining and comparing flavours. This is due to the fact we mentioned earlier, flavour is so complex. There are so many different factors at play which influence the overall flavour perception.

Use of flavour pairing

That said, it surely isn’t complete nonsense! Flavour pairing does work in plenty cases. If you use it, you just have to keep in mind that there’s more to it than aroma. Presenting something nicely can also do wonders.


There is a company that allows you to look into these pairings yourself: Foodpairing(R). If you sign up for a (free) account with foodpairing(R) you will be able to see which ingredients should match well based on their aroma profiles.

So let’s have a look at those cranberries again, at the end of this post you can find the final recipe we used for the cranberries. Let’s have a look whether that is at all advisable according to foodparing(R). In the software of foodpairing(R) you can select cranberries as your main ingredient. Subsequently you get a list which gives several proposals for combinations. The size of the green dot between the two ingredients indicates how well they match. The larger the dot, the better the match. As you can seen below, the cranberries would have matched very well with gruyere and not as well with brie (which is what we ended up using), although that still shows a bit of a green dot. It also shows that cranberry and honey work well (which is what we use in the recipe below) and walnuts aren’t too bad. That said, apparently black tea works very well here! Maybe add some tea to the cranberry sauce next time?

cranberry flavour pairing

Foodpairing verdict + Recipe

Even though the combination wasn’t the best according to foodpairing, the recipe below worked out well enough. That said, we do think gruyere would have made it better, but haven’t tried it (yet).

Our overall verdict of the foodpairing software is that it’s another helpful and interesting tool. It will certainly give you inspiration for less common standard ingredient combinations! That said, use your previous cooking and baking knowledge as well, because it’s everything combined that makes a food really good in the end!

Cranberry, brie & walnut appetizer - Science of flavour pairing
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Appetizer
  • Walnuts (roasted for extra flavour)
  • Brie
  • Sliced bread or crackers
Cranberry sauce
  • 150g cranberries
  • 20g honey
  • 20g sugar
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • cinnamon stick
Cranberry sauce
  1. You can easily tweak this recipe by adding more or less sugar to obtain the required sweetness. Simply leave behind part of it, taste at the end and add as much as you deem necessary. Since cranberries can vary in sourness it is good to take this into account.
  2. Place the cranberries, honey, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon stick in a small saucepan. Add a few tablespoons of water.
  3. Place on a low heat and slowly simmer for 20-30 minutes. If there's a risk of burning, add a bit more water. The cranberries will become noticeably softer over time. All you need is a little bit of patience.
  1. Take a slice of bread or a cracker, cover with brie, add a few small spoonfuls of cranberry sauce and decocate with walnuts. Enjoy!


There isn’t that much published literature on the topic of flavour and aroma pairing. But here are several suggestions:

  • The scientific behind foodpairing according to foodpairing. It might be a little biased, since they’re selling their business of course, link
  • Attempt from researchers to prove the flavour pairing theory with aroma’s, though not completely successful
  • Chemosensory learning and flavour: Perception, preference and intake, John Prescott, 2012, link
  • Sensory and Chemical Interactions of Food Pairings (Basmati Rice, Bacon and Extra Virgin Olive Oil) with Banana, Mark Traynor et al, 2013, link
  • Gastrophysics in the brain and body, Per Moller, 2013, link

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