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Food pairing with truffles - The Science of food pairing and truffles.

Updated: Dec 18, 2023

In past blog posts on food pairing with truffle, we covered aroma and truffle compounds and the way our senses and brain work together to sense and perceive truffle aroma. In this post, we will move to the next step and consider the things we need to know when paring our truffle to the compounds of the ingredients in the recipe. But before we go too far, perhaps its a good idea to have a quick refresher on those previous blog posts.

Food pairing with truffles: the story so far.

In our post on truffle aroma, we looked at the compounds of truffles and explored why truffles taste the way they do. Remember the work of Professor Gary Lee and his flavour wheel? When you are selecting Australian black winter truffles his flavour wheel will help you identify the compounds of a truffle so you can determine if it will match those in the meal you are going to prepare. But it’s not a simple as picking up a truffle and giving it a big sniff then going to the next one and so on. In our second post on truffle appreciation we looked at the experience of our wine and coffee appreciation friends and also dived deep into the way our brain perceives and our senses detect truffle aroma and the related compounds. Like wine, coffee and strawberries, we found that its the combination of compounds in truffles and cooking ingredients that combine to make them taste or smell the way they do. So for us to be able to select the right truffle we need to be both aware of the compounds that might be there (using the aroma wheel) as well as to train our nose and brain to detect those separate compounds. The great Donald Rumsfeld’s profound little speech about known knowns etc is relevant here and worth having a listen to again if you have not come across it before.

The science of food paring: what is it?

At its simplest, earliest terms, food paring theory stated that ingredients sharing flavor compounds were more likely to taste well together than ingredients that do not. This was the original thinking proposed by Hester Blumanthat and his contemporaries Peter Coucquyt, Bernard Lahousse, Johan Langenbick and James Briscone back in the the 1990s, however, with a considerable amount of research since, this has actually found not to be the case across all of the worlds cuisines. For example, across some cuisines, like Indian, combinations of very contrasting flavours are used broadly and it goes without saying, they still work and are wonderfully exciting. Now! this not withstanding, to keep things simple, we are going focus on flavours that complement our truffles, but remember, out there, there are ingredients that don’t compliment our truffles but could work wonderfully. This is actually an exciting finding as it means that food paring is not necessarily reducible to a science but remains a bit of an art that can be arrived at by we humans through experience as well as listening to the traditions of our different cultures which have developed cuisines based on locally found ingredients and customs forged over the course of millennia.

Identifying food compounds

Scientist can identify and quantify the number of separate compounds in food ingredients with the aid of gas chromatographs coupled to mass spectrometers, think Professor Gary Lee's E-nose. Samples of the ingredients being examined are vaporised in the gas chromatographs which then allows the volatiles locked in the ingredient to be passed onto the attached mass spectrometers. Because different volatiles have different molecular weights the gases from each move through the gas spectrometer at different speeds to be graphed as peaks along a time line. The position of each peak or compound along the time axis represents its ‘retention time’ or volatility and the space under the peak represents the quantity of the compound present. Every aroma molecule has its own odor detection threshold which is the level at which we humans can detect it. Concentrations of the compound in ingredients also impact whether we humans can detect them but this varies depending on the compound. For example some compounds can be detected when there are minute amounts in the food while others can be contained in abundance and not be sensed by us.

When it comes to truffles (and all other foods) remember Professor Gary Lee was able to identify over 220 individual compounds however there were five key compounds that he indicated which were mostly responsible for the aroma of Australian black winter truffles we perceive. This not withstanding, remember there are individual human differences when it comes to the ability to detect aromas and tastes as some of us are natural supertasters who are much more sensitive to aromas and tastes in foods and can probably detect more than those five compounds.

Aromas are perceived, they are not real.

This goes to the notion that there is no single taste or smell of strawberries or for that matter truffles. When smelling our truffles its the combination of volatile gases and their quantities that are being detected by our olfactory senses and its your brain that is synthesising them in the process of perceiving. (Go to our post on your brain and senses for an explainer on sensing and perceiving) In a process called synthetic processing, it has been shown that brain cells respond to a mix of volatiles implying that sensing individual compounds on their own are not sufficient to predict how the ingredient or in our case, a truffle will eventually smell to us.

Mixing compounds changes aroma sensing and perception.

The way we mix compounds changes aroma and taste perception. Remember we spoke about the five main or key components that combine to characterise the smell of Australian black winter truffles? Well another property of aroma molecules which changes how we perceive them is how they are combined with other flavour molecules. When we pair aromas that have similar structure or perception, synergies are created which result in previously undetectable compounds becoming detectable by our brain. This ‘additive’ property of compounds has major implications for truffle use. It means that a truffle we select at the markets for a property we hope to match to an ingredient may produce a different taste if a separate compound which was initially undetected pairs with another similar compound in the recipe to raise the molecular threshold of that compound to a level where we can now detect it. Knowing this means that we truffle connoisseurs can now strategise with a bit more understanding the ingredients we may want to avoid if we know, for example, that truffles from a particular region have higher levels of compound we don’t want to emphasise or feature in our recipe.

A food’s matrix influences the expression of individual compounds in the food differently.

For the purpose of our discussion, a food’s matrix are the materials in it that interact with specific constituents (aroma molecules) to provide functionalities and behaviors which are different from those exhibited by the components in isolation or a free state. Things like water, air, alcohol, fat, temperature and synergies between the aroma molecules themselves can facilitate or impede the headspace’s (the location of the olfactory cells) ability to detect them. Hydrophobic aroma molecules which are water averse are better detected in our headspace when they are surrounded by water. On the other hand, if hydrophobic aroma molecules are surrounded by fat molecules they are less detectable in the headspace because they tend to dissolve better into fats. The implication for truffles is that, depending again on the ingredients of your recipe, the aromas that you did not detect at the market may appear in your dish in ways that could argument or not the final taste and therefore enjoyment of your dish.

Truffle and food paring.

Who is finding the science of food paring a bit daunting? I know I do.

Remember our good friend Donald, there are potentially a lot of known knowns but there is also the potential for a lot of known unknowns and unknown unknowns when it comes to our truffles. In a perfect world, it seems for recipe success, we should know the constituents of our truffles, the constituents of our ingredients and how they go together. But do we? more of this later. In the mean time, don’t despair, that work of exploring the makeup of foods has not only begun, as we have seen from Professor Lee’s work on truffles, it has advance immeasurably across an entire raft of ingredients. While we novices can choose to stay on safe ground following tradition and time tested cuisine history combinations, all be it with a bit more understanding as to why they have stood the test of time, Chefs with access data bases of foods broken down by compounds and informed by AI can mix and match ingredients to build new and exciting recipe offerings. If your are interested, we have listed a few of them below in the reference section of the post.

In conclusion

Again let me empathise with you, it is daunting, but you have to admit this level of food understanding opens up a lot of exciting new potential. Not only has this new information explained why truffles go well with cheeses, pastas and eggs but it has taught us that they also go well with less obvious ingredient combinations like lobster and mango. Our work, should we choose to accept it, is to be mindful of the potential paring our truffles offer but as importantly, knowing how ingredients work we can now find answers as to why a particular plate has not worked with our truffles.

I don’t think this is last post I do on paring, the area of truffle appreciation is absolutely fascinating, I hope you found it interesting as well.

Let us know in the comments what you think or give us a like if you think more of these types of posts are of use.

Ciao for now.

References we used

The Art and Science of Foodparing:- Book

The Flavor Bible:- Book

Nose Dive: A field guide to the world's smells:- Book

FlavorDB (food database which includes truffles) (another food component database) (One of the original food compound databases, they have a free consumer account)

Flavor Map (another food matching database)

Flavor bouncing (taking it another step further)

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