10 Sensational Food and Spice Pairings Every Home Cook Should Know

Every food needs spice, but some combinations work better than others. We've got the guide to the 10 best food and spice pairings every home cook needs.

Various spices spoons on stone table.Photo: Shutterstock / Evgeny Karandaev

Flavor is the key to great food. Understanding the way flavors work with different foods is the best way to become a strong home cook—and one of the best parts of cooking is being able to intuitively comprehend spice pairings. Even if you’re just starting out as a cook, these flavor pairings will help bring your skills to the next level.

1. Chocolate and Chilies

Pairing chilies with chocolate might not be the first thing you think of when talking about spice combinations, but this surprising pair is more common than you think. This tasty combination helps to highlight aspects of the chilies and the chocolate and bring out their deepest flavors. Nothing makes a treat taste more sweet than adding a little salt, and the same goes for spice. Try this delicious combo in hot chocolate, spicy brownies or in our very own Hot Chocolate Pumpkin Spice Cake.

2. Tomato and Basil

Tomatoes and herbs go hand in hand, raw or cooked. To match the sweetness of tomatoes, it’s best to pair them with an herb that is strong and equally sweet. Basil complements the flavors of tomato and adds another layer of complexity. Try them in pasta or enjoy them raw like these Caprese salad skewers.

3. Poultry and Thyme

This lemony herb can be enjoyed fresh or dried and is most commonly used on poultry dishes. Thyme has a pleasant and subtle flavor that pairs nicely with salty roasted chicken and potatoes. This herb is a staple in French cooking and is a key ingredient in herbs de Provence. The flavor is strong and herbal with a pungent yet understated taste.

4. Apples and Cinnamon

Apples and cinnamon are a natural combination that evokes memories of mom’s apple pie. This warming combo is cozy and sweet and easy to toss together. The spice of the cinnamon complements the tart, crisp, sweetness of the apple and is a tasty topping for ice cream, pancakes or pork chops.

5. Coconut Milk and Curry Powder

Curry powder is a blend of spicy, pungent, fragrant flavors. Too much of it can be overwhelming, but the right amount is the key to giving dishes like apple chicken curry their signature taste. When paired with coconut milk, curry powder adds just the right amount of spice to the cool, creamy milk.

6. Pecorino and Black Pepper

Pecorino cheese is a salty, buttery hard cheese. The rich and creamy flavor needs a bit of spice to balance it out, so Pecorino and cracked black pepper is a delightful combination. This spice pairing is subtle yet rich, and works with a variety of foods. A great addition to pasta, crostini or appetizers (like our very own fried prosciutto tortellini).

7. Oranges and Clove

Orange and clove is such a pungent and delicious combination that the fruit and spice combo is often used as a festive air freshener around the holidays. The earthiness of the clove pairs seamlessly with the sweet, tart citrus flavors of the orange, making for a complex, sophisticated flavor. This combo is great in cocktails, but even better in a main dish like these orange spiced pork chops.

8. Honey and Chipotle

Sweet and spicy are an unbeatable combination. Whether it be on a dessert, cocktail or a dinner like baked ham, honey and chipotle balance each other and add depth to every dish. Chipotle is smokey and spicy pepper that can be found powdered or in a paste and has a rich, deep flavor. The sweet, molasses-like flavor of honey helps to neutralize the spiciness and add intricacy and balance.

9. Chilies and Lime

Think about your favorite fish tacos; what makes them taste so fresh and spicy? Chili and lime is a timeless combination that makes its mark in Mexican food, Thai food and most Asian foods. The tart citrus flavor of the lime brings out the freshness in fish, poultry and rice dishes, and the chilies highlight a complex spiciness. Try this combination in cocktails or in a lime chicken chili.

10. Shrimp and Saffron

For a truly surprising combination that is simple and delicious, try saffron and shrimp. This pairing hails from Spain, where both ingredients are used regularly in dishes like Paella and shrimp and cod stew.

Need more spice combos? Make sure you have essential spices in your kitchen.

Up Next: 13 Easy Food and Wine Pairings Everyone Should Know

Laura Denby
Laura is a New York-based freelance food writer with a degree in Culinary Arts from the Institute of Culinary Education and a degree in Journalism from Penn State. Her work has appeared in Taste of Home, Chowhound, the Culture Trip and Patch.