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Behind the Cup |June 1, 2021

Donuts And Coffee (and Other Amazing Coffee Pairings)

Donuts and coffee are a common enough pairing. The American “breakfast of champions” and the break time delight that helps many hard-working employees get through the day.

Now I am not going to comment on health (you can read that here), nutrition, or anything like that, but on why coffee changes taste when paired with various foods. Also, to give you some insight into what coffees to serve or order depending on which food you are consuming.

Whether you are getting your fix at Dunkin, Tim Hortons, or Mr. Donuts, the one thing you can be sure of is that your mouth will be happy, and even perhaps your brain. Why are donuts and coffee so appealing to our taste buds and give us that rush of pleasure? The answer is simple…fats, sugar, caffeine.

In fact, there is research out of Spain’s University of Barcelona that has shown that a combination of glucose and caffeine increased memory, manual dexterity, and reaction time. The study does not mention anything about a possible crash a couple of hours later.

Let’s ignore for a moment how this affects the body and focus more on why your coffee tastes so darn good when paired with something oily like a donut.

Fats

Fats have several unique characteristics that make them appealing to our natural senses. Here is a little science. Lipids, which can include fats, oils, and hormones, are hydrophobic, meaning they cannot be dissolved in water.

This also means that fatty food tends to concentrate flavor on our palettes as flavor and aroma compounds are dissolved into the fat and the fat will hold them and transport them to our tongues without being diluted. Try making your risotto without butter, cream, and cheese and see if you get the same result. (Spoiler alert…you won’t)

Fats also have a texture that most people enjoy, think chocolate, custard, and milkshakes.

There is also an evolutionary aspect to our fat enjoyment. Of all of the various foods that our hunter and gatherer ancestors could get their hands on, fat gave them the most bang for their buck. Higher in calories and absorbed more slowly by our bodies. The slow absorption rate makes us feel full and feeling full triggers our bodies to create feelings of contentment and relaxation.

Knowing this now, you have some insight into why your coffee tastes so different when eaten with fatty foods. My morning coffee tastes way better with peanut butter on toast than it does with slices of pineapple.

Sugar

How about sugars? Do they enhance or detract from the flavor of our coffee? It actually can go either way depending on which type of coffee you are using. More on that in a second.

Like fats, there is an evolutionary component to sugar and it is based on our reward system. Glucose is the fuel of our cells. In nature, when our ancestors found something sweet, it was an immediate source of energy and the body said, “try to get more.” It did this by rewarding our brains with a hit of dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical that indicates to our body that something is pleasurable and that we should do it again. The problem is that finding sugar long ago in nature was a much rarer experience and now, it is ubiquitous.

Caffeine/Coffee Pairings

So how does all this manifest into pairing our coffees with the perfect food? Think for a moment about how you order your wine to match the food you are eating. That is how specialty coffee has evolved and we are more and more finding cafes and restaurants that are suggesting pairings so that you get the best flavors from both the food and the coffee. Here is my simple guide that includes both sweet and savory items.

Our 100% Kona Peaberry is a very light coffee with exceptional natural sweetness and subtle fruit tones. I have found (and this is one man’s opinion) that almost always, these coffees pair better with savory or very lightly sweet foods. For example, a simple butter croissant, a scone, buttered toast, bacon, and eggs. In these cases, I have the required fats on my palette but have left a space for the sweetness of the coffee to be without overcrowding it.

In Light and Medium Roasts, there is a lot of citrus and origin character. Those origins usually have some sweetness, so again I want something mild, slightly oily, and not overpowering. Avocado toast, grilled cheese, butter, or shortbread cookies. I also find they pair well with baked fruit pies (apple/pear/peach) and cobblers.

As we move toward the darker end of the roast spectrum and enjoy our dark and French roasts, you have cooked away most of the citrus tones of the coffee and find more caramelized, toasted nuts and a baker’s chocolate flavor profile which will stand up to more bold pairings. Try it with a slice of cheesecake, a custard-filled donut, or a bacon egg and cheese sandwich. Freshly baked cinnamon rolls with cream cheese frosting and even spicy foods like chili beans can be complemented by dark roasted coffee.

In the end, you will have to experiment and see where your preferences lie. The thought of spending a pleasant year sampling different foods with coffee sounds quite appealing. Let me know your favorite coffee pairings and which type of roasts you enjoy. Bon Appetit!

About the Author
Matt Carter is a retired teacher (1989-2018), a part-time musician, farmer, and currently manages Greenwell Farms Tour and Retail Store Operations.

3 thoughts on “Donuts and Coffee (And Other Amazing Coffee Pairings)

  1. Patti Langsdale says:

    Love your blog. So much useful information.

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