Answer by Joshua Engel, Enthusiastic eater and adventurous cook
Butter, salt, and Parmesan are a pretty universal flavor combination for everything savory. You can slather that on just about anything: meat, mushrooms, chicken, zucchini, peas... as long as it's not something you expect to be sweet, and as long as it's expected to be warm (the butter tastes greasy when cold), it's going to be good.
Pretty much anything that's heavy on the salt and meaty tastes will mix in well, as long as it's not too sour, bitter, or sweet. Those are more "marked" tastes, and tend to connote a particular cuisine, making it easier for them to clash. They're also relatively neutral in the smell components; there's a bit of butteriness in the butter and nuttiness in the cheese, but the flavors are dominated by the taste components.
Chicken broth is another universal flavor additive. It consists mostly of salt and umami flavors. (Commercial bouillon cubes are pretty much nothing but salt and MSG.) Seed oils work in nearly every savory dish.
Other nearly-universal flavors, when used judiciously, include
- Soy sauce
- Fish sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Tomato paste
Beyond that, true flavor components tend to be more cultural rather than universal. They're used together because some cuisine somewhere decided that they liked them. Grassy notes (such as parsley) are liked by nearly everybody, in small amounts, as are slight amounts of sour notes (such as lemons and lemongrass).
But to really find out how it works, I recommend The Flavor Bible, a vast tome of flavor combinations that people have found to work.
Answer by Ariel Williams, Dreamer, Writer, Artist. CEO and Co-Founder of WhatchaNeed inc.
When preparing foodstuff, you can create wonderful meals by playing up contrasts.
Imagine a salty and savory main coarse item with a tangy sweet sauce drizzled on just before being served. This is just one example of complementary contrasts in flavor.
I try to create meals that play to all of the major tastes.
- Salty -- Salt, Salty Cheese, salted preserved foods, olives, pickled foods.
- Sweet -- Sugar, fruit, licorice.
- Savory (Umami) -- cheese and soy sauce. While also found in many other fermented and aged foods, this taste is also present in tomatoes, grains, and beans.
- Bitter -- coffee, unsweetened cocoa, South American mate, bitter gourd, beer (due to hops), bitters, olives, citrus peel, many plants in the Brassicaceae family, dandelion greens, wild chicory, and escarole.
- Sour -- lemon, grape, orange, tamarind, pickled/fermented foods, and sometimes melon. Wine also usually has a sour tinge to its flavor, and if not kept correctly, milk can spoil and develop a sour taste.
- Hot -- chili peppers, Jalapeno peppers, tabasco peppers
- Spice -- (It's extensive)
I try to have at least one of the side items be more tilted towards one of those other flavor categories and away from what the main course item is. You will see many of these foods appear on more than one list. This gives you an idea of flavors that can work well together. If the main course is sweet, I would pair it with a salty side and vice versa. I am not a big fan of bitterness as a flavor, but do use it to enhance other flavors.
Umami almost always needs some salt to enhance its flavor and is commonly found with sour notes as well.
Sweetness and sourness go well together, such as sweet and sour sauce or a sweet orange or lemon sauce.
Hot and sweet (chili sauce) or hot and salty (hot sauce) are always easy combinations.
Marinades or spices for red meat go well with balsamic vinegar, pepper, basil, thyme, and garlic.
Marinades or spices for poultry go well with lemon, basil, thyme, rosemary, and garlic.