© Henrik Sorensen / Getty Images

And there is a whole conference devoted flavor perception.

April 12, 2017

At its core, taste is nothing more than the way compounds are interpreted by the taste receptors in our mouths. So a group of scientist came up with a novel idea: Instead of cooking by using what is essentially trial and error, why not determine food pairings by analyzing the similarities in these compounds? The results of their research may leave even some of the most adventurous foodies surprised: beef with chocolate, mussels with strawberries and coffee with potatoes. Maybe that whole trial and error system wasn’t so bad?

Scientists at the University of Cambridge looked at the flavor compounds that made up 56,498 online recipes in an attempt to understand how these individual tastes related to each other chemically. “It’s led to something called computational gastronomy,” said lead researcher Sebastian Ahnert, according to the Daily Mail. “We can use datasets about food compounds to change the way we experience food.” Ahnert presented his findings last week at a conference, “Hacking Flavour Perception: Art, Design, Technology, & Gastrophysics.” The result of this work is a massive web-like chart showing the unexpected ways in which certain flavors are connected.

Ahnert admits many of his findings are bizarre—ideas like pairing caviar with white chocolate or pork with vanilla—and some of his attempts at utilizing this knowledge have been less than successful. “I have tried out a number of things from the datasets,” he said. “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 it and that is where chefs can really help.” Much of the importance of chefs is because their work has a chemical component as well. “Cooking can also alter compounds so we need to do some work predicting how that can change a flavor profile,” Ahnert explained. Though finding a chef open-minded enough to go along with their plan might be a bit tricky.