Flavor pairing: Try lime and melon or berries and basil for a big flavor boost

July 29, 2020
lime and watermelon on a table, a great flavor pairing idea
Learn about flavor pairing. Use salt, acidity and sweetness to make great summertime foods. Photo: Getty Images.

This is the time of the year when a squeeze of lime or lemon just tastes perfect with that wedge of watermelon. Or a slather of mayonnaise or sweet cream butter simply must be the coat for that cob of corn.

Sure, summer is a sort of Tinder app for food and flavor pairings because so many of them pop ‘round just now. Slices of chin-dripping juicy tomato? Swipe right on the fresh basil.

But reasons other than seasonality underlie many matches of a particular food with its perfect flavor or ingredient partner. Understanding why can help us recreate delicious marriages of foods all year long.

Flavor pairing: acidity and sweetness

We’re going to make some lemonade here, but in steps. Water plus sugar tastes OK, if a bit boring after the third sip. Water plus lemon juice tastes interesting, if a tad difficult from even the first sip. Water plus sugar plus lemon juice tastes great. All three elements are in there just as they were when merely paired, but they’re best all three together.

That’s because the balance of certain tastes is best. Balance done right is most refreshing, most interesting.

Plain melon or mango is delicious enough, but with a splash of something acidic (citrus juice, cider or rice vinegar, aged balsamic, plain yogurt) there’s not only more flavor, there’s more electricity, more awesomeness.

Learn more cooking tips and great recipes from Bill St. John.

Keep the happy marriage of acidity and sweetness in mind in your yearlong cooking, especially when fashioning desserts. Ice cream is great, but even better with the acidity that chocolate provides. Ripe (even overripe) fruit makes for terrific tarts, pies, and confections, but honey’s acid or the tang of citrus or buttermilk can tame what might cloy.

Acidity isn’t just for dessert, though, It balances, even enhances, other cooked foods that are sweet on the plate even before the final course. Just so, a squeeze of lemon over roasted winter root vegetables (with their sugars caramelized from the heat of the oven) is the kind of bad math that works: 1+1=3. Caramel plus citrus makes for many additional flavors on the tongue. Try it.

Flavor pairing: sweet and salty flavors enhance one another

Salt provides similar balance in matches of foods that are either sweet or tart alone.

It isn’t the fat in the prosciutto that is “cut” with the sweetness of the melon that it wraps. It’s the salt in the ham (from its cure) that balances the fruit sugar. Likewise, a zip-line of lemon juice doesn’t eliminate the brininess of the oyster or clam, it balances salt against acid, thereby making the taste of the whole more interesting.

If the combination of prosciutto and melon rings your chimes, try prosciutto with any of many other sweet or ripe fruits: mango, papaya, stone fruit (peach, plum, apricot, nectarine), pineapple, orange, muscat grapes, kiwi, star fruit, and so on.

We can reach the apex of flavor pairing saltiness with both acidity and sweetness when marrying cheeses (major depositories of salt) with foods such as marmalade, honey, ripe fruits such as figs or dates, and drops of aged balsamic, all foods that marry both sweetness and acidity to the salt of cheese.

This is also why the Hawaiian pizza (cheese, pineapple, ham or Canadian bacon) shall not perish from the earth.

cutting lemons, with other vegetables on the table, as part of flavor pairing.
Acidity from lemon, lime and vinegar brings out other flavors. Photo: Getty Images.

Flavor pairing: the accents

I like to think that the real reason that we pair ripe summer tomatoes with basil (or, for that matter, lamb with mint sauce or salmon with lemon) is diversion, even distraction.

A truly magnificent ripe tomato is just too. much. beauty. Its overwhelming aesthetic must be tamed in order to process it all. Basil snaps the mind back to attention, plants it back on earth.

So does mint on ripe berry, or mint with the funk of lamb. Succulent, oil-rich salmon, well, it can pile on too much to matter in the mouth. Thank you, edge of lemon, you frame this baroque so well.

And what is it, then, with melted butter on corn, or the great Mexican combination of grilled corn (elote) with mayonnaise or crema? Aren’t these examples of too much “too much,” with nothing such as something green or acid to balance the richness?

Well, that is simply the human thing to do come summertime, pile rich on rich, throw sweet on top of sweet.

You have a problem with that?

Balsamic and Basil Berry Salad

From barefeetinthekitchen.com; serves 6-8

Note: The sugar in the recipe below is optional. Only add it if the berries aren’t quite as ripe or as sweet as you would like.


2 pounds fresh strawberries quartered or cut bite-size

12 ounces fresh blueberries

2 tablespoons traditional or white balsamic vinegar

1 tablespoon olive oil

1/8 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon white sugar (optional)

8 basil leaves sliced very thin


Combine the strawberries and blueberries in a medium-size bowl. Drizzle with balsamic and oil. Sprinkle with salt, and with sugar if desired. Stir gently to coat. Sprinkle with basil and toss once more. Serve immediately, or refrigerate for up to an hour.

Lime-Mint Melon Salad

From tablespoon.com; serves 6


1 1/2 cups 1/2-inch cubes honeydew melon (1/2 medium)

1 1/2 cups 1/2-inch cubes cantaloupe (1/2 medium)

1 teaspoon grated lime peel

3 tablespoons lime juice

2 tablespoons chopped fresh or 1 tablespoon dried mint leaves

1 teaspoon honey

1/4 teaspoon salt


In medium glass or plastic bowl, toss ingredients. Cover; refrigerate about 2 hours or until chilled.

You may reach Bill St John at [email protected]

About the author

For more than 40 years, Bill St. John’s specialties have been as varied as they are cultured. He writes and teaches about restaurants, wine, food & wine, the history of the cuisines of several countries (France, Italy, Spain, Belgium, and the USA), about religion and its nexus with food, culture, history, or philosophy, and on books, travel, food writing, op-ed, and language.

Bill has lent (and lends) his subject matter expertise to such outlets as The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Chicago Tribune, 5280 Magazine, and for various entities such as food markets, wine shops, schools & hospitals, and, for its brief life, Microsoft’s sidewalk.com. In 2001 he was nominated for a James Beard Award in Journalism for his 12 years of writing for Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Bill's experience also includes teaching at Regis University and the University of Chicago and in classrooms of his own devising; working as on-air talent with Denver's KCNC-TV, where he scripted and presented a travel & lifestyle program called "Wine at 45"; a one-week stint as a Trappist monk; and offering his shoulder as a headrest for Julia Child for 20 minutes.

Bill has also visited 54 countries, 42 of the United States, and all 10 Canadian provinces.