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Book Review: The Flavor Matrix

June/July 2018 Issue
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The Flavor Matrix: The Art and Science of Pairing Common Ingredients to Create Extraordinary Dishes
By James Briscione with Brooke Parkhurst (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; $30)


Nothing is as profoundly liberating as knowing how to cook confidently without a recipe. If ever a book could get you there, this is the one. It could be argued that this is an advanced book. And, indeed, expert cooks will find much to geek out over in these pages. But I also think this book—chock full of culinary whats, hows, and whys—is the ultimate primer for the novice.

In The Flavor Matrix, author James Briscione, an instructor at the Institute for Culinary Education in New York City and a two-time Chopped champion, dives deep into the art and science of flavor pairing, exploring the hidden connections between ingredients. He presents 150 of the most commonly used ingredients from A (Allium, Artichoke, Asparagus, Avocado) through V (Vanilla). For each, he pinpoints and quantifies their aromatic compounds and consolidates all of his findings into an infographic that he calls a “flavor matrix.” There is one matrix for every ingredient or ingredient group (e.g., Allium, Brassica, Crustacean, Stone Fruit) that Briscione studied, plus a simple recipe that demonstrates how to put complementary ingredients together.

If you’re curious about food-science research—molecular structures, volatile and aromatic compounds, and the like—you’ll enjoy peeking under the microscope, so to speak. There, you’ll discover the chemistry responsible for the flavors and aromas of your favorite ingredients and learn the scientific reasons why foods that we intuitively put together (e.g., prosciutto and melon) get along so well. More important, you’ll learn how to put this knowledge to good use in your kitchen.

Flavor-pairing theory posits that if two ingredients share significant numbers of aromatic compounds, they’ll taste wonderful together. So we can turn to the flavor matrix for any ingredient in this book, find a few compatible partners, and whip up something delicious. Perhaps something expected (Cocoa- and Chile-Rubbed Beef). Or unexpected (Corn and Coconut Crème Brûlée), surprising (Chicken and Mushroom Burgers with Strawberry “Ketchup”) or downright mind-boggling (Spicy Fish Sauce Peanut Brittle). That a single book makes this sort of innovation accessible to any cook from beginner to pro is certainly something to celebrate. So let’s eat!

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