Most of us enjoy drinking our coffee with some sort of food to accompany it. But how much thought do you put into the foods you choose to pair with your coffee?
The truth is that, much like wine or beer, pairing food intentionally with coffee can create a whole new taste sensation. Coffee and food pairings can draw out the flavor of a drink, create delightful contrasts, balance the texture of a beverage, and more.
Choosing the right dish to pair with your favorite roast is closer to an art than a science. It requires considering the flavor profile of the coffee you plan to brew and thinking about the sort of experience you wish to create with your pairing.
In this guide, we will walk you through what to consider when planning your pairing, and give you some ideas for coffee and food pairings that bring out the best in your cup.
What To Think Of When Pairing Coffee With Food
The first step to choosing the perfect pairing is to analyze the flavor of the drink you plan to brew. A dark roasted espresso will have a completely different taste than a latte made using medium-roast beans; similarly, your pairing choices should be different as well.
Next, consider the kinds of flavors you want to find in the food you’re pairing with the coffee. In general, you should think of either highlighting similarities or drawing contrasts.
Using similar flavors can accentuate the taste of a drink; for instance, milk often brings out chocolate notes in coffee, so pairing milk drinks with white or milk chocolate can create a delightful symphony of flavor.
Contrasts, on the other hand, can help to balance out some of the more intense aspects of a drink. Biscotti, for instance, can complement the sweet undertones of espresso while balancing some of its intensity.
Contrasts can also help to heighten flavor profiles by drawing attention to the starkness of the difference. Affogatos, for example, juxtapose the heat and intensity of espresso with the chill and sweetness of gelato to highlight the positive traits of both.
Just as temperature is important to consider when planning your pairing, so too is texture. These two factors have a huge impact on how the combination will feel in the mouth, so it’s important to consider them when thinking of the appropriate pairing.
It’s also important to reflect on the situation in which the combination will be served. We want different flavors out of our coffee when sipping a brewed coffee on a relaxed Saturday afternoon than when drinking coffee after dinner or starting your day with a French press. Similarly, each of these situations invite different potential combinations of flavors and foods that can be paired.
Finally, remember that in the end the ideal pairing is something that you will enjoy! Each coffee drinker has their own personal preferences, and these will naturally impact the kinds of pairings they will enjoy as well. With that in mind, consider the following recommendations as suggestions that can help you build a deeper understanding of your own preferences, and experiment to find the combinations you most enjoy.
Food Pairings With Espresso
Since espresso is typically known for bold flavors, it can easily dominate and overpower the food you choose to pair it with. Successful pairings with espresso often either emphasize the bold flavor of the espresso through contrast, as in the example of affogatos, or draw out undertones in the flavor of the espresso through highlighting similar tastes.
In general, however, it’s important to make sure that the dessert or food you serve alongside espresso is strong enough to not be overwhelmed by the coffee.
It’s also important to consider the taste profile of the espresso you plan to serve. When serving a dark-roasted Brazil espresso, serving bittersweet chocolate or a pastry with nuts could help to draw out hints of chocolate and nuts common in Brazilian espresso.
A light-roasted Ethiopian espresso with notes of citrus might pair better with a light cake or pastry, or with a fruity dessert like a tart or scone that mirrors those flavors. In general, consider the flavors in the espresso you want to emphasize, and find a pairing that will either highlight those by reinforcing them or make them stand out through a dramatic contrast.
Food Pairings With Drip Coffee
Black drip coffee can be paired with a wide range of flavors. Almost any chocolate or nutty pastry will work well with drip coffee, as will classic pairings like coffee cake, donuts (especially cake doughnuts), or even beignets or stroopwafels.
All of these traditional pairings have a clear commonality: sugar. Typically, adding a sweet pastry or dessert can help add a bit of richness to drip coffee that elevates the simple drink into something more satisfying.
However, be careful to avoid overpowering your coffee by pairing it with salty or cheesy desserts. Typically, these flavors can dominate the taste of the coffee and leave the entire combination tasting like a disappointing blend.
Food Pairings With French Press Coffee
Brewing coffee with using an immersion brewer like a French press can produce coffee with a full and luscious taste. The thicker coffee produced from the constant contact between water and grounds draws out more of the oils from the coffee and is great for those who prefer a strong brew.
When pairing with such a fully flavored drink, one option is to pair with something light that will allow you to fully enjoy the bold flavor of the drink.
A simple pastry such as a croissant could work well for that purpose. Another option is to pair a French press with a more savory meal; something that can match its intensity of flavor. Consider this the equivalent of pairing a strong, hearty dinner with a brandy. Using two bold flavors in this way can bring out the best in both.
Food Pairings With Pour Over Coffee
Pour over coffee, made using a Chemex or similar coffee maker, tends to produce a smoother, lighter brew then a French press due to the filter that prevents direct contact between the grounds and the water.
While this leads to coffee that is often not quite as strong, the result is typically very flavorful, and many pour over lovers claim that this method makes it possible to focus on more nuanced flavors that might not emerge in a French press brew.
This creates a chance to highlight those subtle flavors in a drink, and draw them out through food pairings. If using lightly or medium roasted Costa Rican beans, for instance, you might choose to pair your pour over with a fruity pastry or something with a light chocolate taste.
A pour over made with dark roast Sumatran beans might instead pair well with a nutty dessert or a darker chocolate taste that can bring up those notes from the drink.
Food Pairings With Cold Brew
Cold brew coffee typically produces a smoother, less acidic drink. This process often highlights different flavors in the drink that might not emerge through a traditional hot water brew.
While cold brew coffee can be made with beans of any roast, the process often tends to emphasize the nutty, chocolately, and earthy notes of a drink. Thus, cold brew coffee made from a dark roast can often pair perfectly with nutty pastries or dark chocolate.
However, the flavors you choose to pair with will also depend on what you choose to ‘cut’ your cold brew with. Using milk instead of water will lead to a smoother and creamier taste, one which you might want to evoke in your food pairing as well. A smoother chocolate cake or milk chocolate might be a better fit for a cold brew cut with milk.
Food Pairings With Milk Drinks
Milk drinks, such as lattes and cappuccinos, emphasize a milky flavor that makes an ideal pairing for soft desserts. Cookies, milk chocolate, or sweet tarts can all pair well, as their delicate flavors can combine smoothly with the flavor of the drink.
Keep in mind the ratio of espresso to milk in these drinks as you consider pairings — more milk-forward drinks, like a cafe au lait, could be overpowered by boldly flavored desserts.
Instead, consider pairing them with a sweet and delicate chocolate, or a coffee flavored dessert. On the other end of the spectrum, a drink with more espresso, like a cortado, could pair nicely with a bolder chocolate flavor, like a chocolate cake or cookie.
Final Thoughts on Pairing Coffee and Food
In general, remember that there is no such thing as one perfect pairing for every drink. Instead, consider the flavor profile of both the drink and the food you plan to pair, and look for either similarities to emphasize or distinctions to draw out through contrast.
Experimenting will help you identify the tastes that you most enjoy and enable you to create a harmony of flavor in your combinations. Happy pairing!