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Physicist Explains Why Coffee Could Taste Best with Potatoes

Fancy some caviar and chocolate? The science of perception explains why these unexpected flavor pairings taste better than you'd think.
Photo via Flickr user Kate Fisher

Vanilla-flavored porkchops. Chocolate served with briny little roe. Coffee with creamy mashed potatoes.

You could rush to judgement and assume that these combinations would be terrible, but you would be wrong—at least as far as cutting-edge science is concerned.

Dr. Sebastian Ahnert, a Cambridge physicist specializing in biochemical networks, mapped out a massive web of flavor perception and how ingredients interact. Based on data compiled from 56,498 online recipes and published in Nature's Scientific Reports journal in 2011, his article "Flavor network and the principles of food pairing" offered new insights into counterintuitive flavor combinations.


Addressing a crowd at Oxford during a recent conference entitled Hacking Flavour Perception, Ahnert was even more outspoken about the new culinary boundaries made possible by flavor networks.

"It has led to something called computational gastronomy. We can use datasets about food compounds to change the way we experience food," he said, according to the Daily Mail, before enumerating unconventional combos like coffee and garlic, beef and chocolate, matcha tea and sour cherries, pork and vanilla, and, perhaps, most jarringly, chocolate and caviar.

The scientific basis for these bizarre combinations is chemical compounds that are shared in a variety of foods, which can be seen in this scientific map of Dr. Ahnert's personal version of Flavortown.

But these compounds also vary based on temperature, and that's where chefs enter the picture in this quest for the flavors of the future. There are potential connections between nearly every flavor component, except for the sad trifecta of livers and the Satanic pentagram of mushrooms.

"Cooking can also alter compounds, so we need to do some work predicting how that can change a flavor profile," Ahnert specified. "Coffee and potato share a lot of compounds, so I made mashed potato with milky coffee. It was horrible. But I've had a dish in Paris with coffee and potato that worked. So, the execution is a big part [of it], and that is where chefs can really help."

In other words, leave the data collecting to the scientists and the food prep to the cooks—but keep your mind open.