Your Guide to Effortless Food and Drink Pairing

Curious about the secrets behind a killer food and drink pairing? Our guide is here to break down the basics.

White wine pouring into glasses, closeupAfrica Studio/Shutterstock
Shutterstock/Africa Studio

Pairing food with a drink is a handy skill that absolutely anyone can learn-it’s not as hard as you may think! The same general guidelines apply whether you’re deciding what to enjoy with a glass of wine, a refreshing cocktail, or a non-alcoholic libation like juice, tea, or can of pop. Use this helpful guide to master the art of pairing and you’ll be able to take every meal to the next level.

Acid Brightens Up Your Day

Pro Tip: Acidic drinks are always a good bet. Pair with seafood, salads and heavier food.

Top on your list of considerations when it comes to food and drink pairing is acid. (Think citruses like lemon or lime!) Acid is your best friend, the not-so-secret weapon when you’re tackling pairings. In drinks, whether alcoholic or otherwise, acid refreshes the palate just the way it does when you squeeze some lemon juice on food to brighten up a dish.

Richer fare like pasta with cream sauce or chow mein benefits from high acid drinks, as does salad dressed in a citrus vinaigrette. Seafood like grilled salmon, crab cakes and shrimp cocktails are a few of my personal favorites to pair with a crisp citrus drink.

A citrus-driven cocktail like a mojito, greyhound, or classic daiquiri is an excellent option, or if you’re in the mood for wine, grab a bottle of Italian white. Think pinot grigio, Vermentino, or Verdicchio. A zesty sauvignon blanc would be fantastic as well. Not in the mood for booze? Whip up a fresh batch of lemonade or a fabulous pitcher of punch. You can play around with flavors to complement whatever is on the table.

Alcohol Levels Matter

Pro Tip: Beverages with a high alcohol content can make spicy dishes taste spicier.

If you’re in the mood for something a little more, shall we say, spirituous, you’ll want to make note of the alcohol percentage of your drink. Most of the time this won’t be a problem, but if you’re serving up something with a spicy kick, be sure to avoid beverages that are high in alcohol. A big, full-bodied cabernet sauvignon or Zinfandel is a no-no. Alcohol turns up the heat whenever spice is involved and makes you long for a glass of milk. Instead, have a beer or try something a little sweet, which brings us to…


Pro Tip: Sweet drinks complement spicy and salty foods.

Whether you’re tucking into a hot stir-fry, fajitas, or spicy barbecue, that touch of sweet will go a long way to tame the heat of your dish. An ice-cold glass of sweet tea, off-dry Riesling or Chenin blanc, lemon drop or a rum and coke-all of these drinks should rank high when you’re chowing down on chilies. Serving up a sweet beverage alongside a salty main is ultra satisfying. Just think of the joys of a milkshake and fries. We recommend this stunning strawberry spritzer with soy glazed pork ribs.

Pro Tip: Keep your drink sweeter than your dessert.

This category is also an absolute must when you’re digging into dessert. Rule of thumb: the contents of your glass should have a higher sugar content than whatever is on the end of your spoon. Try pairing a bubbly Moscato (or sweet non-alcoholic spritzer) with stuffed strawberries. Or serve this light almond fudge cake with a glass of port.

Tannins Tantalize

Pro Tip: Fatty foods-like duck and steak-pair well with tannin-laden drinks.

While tannins are mostly associated with red wines (like cabernet, Nebbiolo, or Sangiovese), believe it or not, you’ll find them in plenty of unexpected places. Breaking it down to basics, tannins are natural compounds that taste slightly bitter and astringent on the tongue. Tea, both cranberry and pomegranate juice, even chocolate, all have tannins. So what about food? The answer is fat; tannins and fat essentially make each other better. A marbled steak or roast duck would be out of this world with a glass of wine or fruit juice with tannins. Cocktail lovers, check out this cranberry pomegranate margarita which is also easy to tweak to make a delightful mocktail. Tea with steak? It can be done! Strong black teas are the way to go.

Other Helpful Tips

  • Pairing like with like. If a recipe calls for a specific ingredient, you can incorporate that into the beverages you serve alongside the dish.
  • Texture. Bubbles are brilliant with crunchy, fried foods. Seriously. Crack open a bottle of sparkling wine and dig into some fried chicken. You can thank us later.
  • Beware bitterness. Avoid pairing bitter with bitter. Trust this: The results aren’t pleasant.

Remember, pairing should never be a chore. It’s a fun opportunity to play around with different flavors, get creative, and even learn a thing or two about your own tastes.

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Camille Berry
Part of the third generation in a family of restaurateurs, Camille was born with a passion for cooking and food. She embarked on a career in hospitality where she excelled as a sommelier and wine director. This hospitality experience has given her a wealth of first-hand knowledge about how to pair all manner of drinks with food—plus some serious kitchen skills. These days, she's hung up her wine key in favor of a pen and covers all aspects of food and drink.