The whole point of pairing drinks with food is to take an already magical experience (eating) to the next level. The right drink can cut through the fattiness of a dish, cleanse your palate, and complement ingredients in ways your sweet little head could never imagine.
Yet, there is a real fear of missing out on fine dining and culinary experiences when you choose not to drink alcohol. I’m here to tell you that going booze-free absolutely does not hinder your dining experience. In fact, drinking alcohol can significantly impair your sense of taste. There are so many creative ways to use non-alcoholic drinks in order to enhance your meal (that won’t destroy your taste buds).
Properly pairing drinks with food starts with science—you need a basic understanding of how one ingredient interacts with another. And most importantly, how, together, they impact your tastebuds. To help you get started, I’ve found the perfect drink pairing for 10 of the most popular types of meals. Many of the drinks I’ve recommended can be found ready-made at the grocery store, which is my little gift to you during the busy week ahead.
Pasta: Sparkling water
A delicious plate of pasta is the perfect excuse to crack open a frosty can of sparkling water. Whether you’re team San Pellegrino or LaCroix, pour your bubbles into a chilled glass and tuck in. The slightly bitter flavor of sparkling water works well with any pasta dish and will make you feel like you’re dining in Italy.
Sushi: Green tea
The reason your sushi comes with ginger is because it’s meant to cleanse your palate. Sushi can be a casual dinner, but the art of sushi has everything to do with the quality and detail of the fish. Next time you order sushi, notice new flavors and textures with each bite. Try sipping a glass of green tea between bites of sushi and savor the taste. The delicate, earthy flavor of the tea pairs beautifully with the fresh sushi and will allow the fish to remain the star of the show. Just remember to order green tea and not matcha, as matcha is much stronger in flavor and could overwhelm the dish.
Pizza: Grape juice
Pairing drinks with pizza is all in the sauce. If your pizza has a tomato sauce base, pair it with a glass of red grape juice. Despite your gut reaction, this pairing isn’t a sad swap for another kind of grape juice we all know; it’s based in both pop culture and science. People around the country love this pairing, including a 1970’s Sesame Street episode with a cult following that features Bert and Ernie sharing a meal of pizza and grape juice.
And on the science side, red grape juice can handle the acidity of the tomatoes and helps expose the complex flavors within the sauce, making the sauce pop. For cheesier pizzas with a white base, go with white grape juice, lemonade, or lemon seltzer. Cheesy slices need more tart beverages to balance them out.
Indian food: Ginger ale
Love Indian food but can’t handle the spice? The trick to finishing a plate of curry without sweating like Tony Soprano is to sip on something that will dissolve the capsaicin in the dish. Capsaicin is the molecular compound that makes peppers spicy. When the capsaicin bonds with the pain receptors in your mouth, it creates a burning sensation that few of us can handle for long. To cool your mouth down, opt for a sugary drink like ginger ale.
According to Greatist, the Scoville scale was originally based on the amount of sugar water needed to dilute a chili pepper, so it only makes sense that you should drink something sugary with your spicy meal. But, this super fun chemistry doesn’t work for diet soda, because there’s no sugar in diet soda. Le sigh.
If you’re dining out, a traditional Indian lassi would be another good option. Lassi is a yogurt-based drink that’s usually flavored with various fruits. The dairy-rich yogurt will dissolve the capsaicin and neutralize the burning sensation in your mouth.
If you like squeezing fresh lemon juice over your fish, you’ll enjoy this fish and lemonade combo. The acidity from the lemon juice cuts through rich, fatty fish and prevents seafood dishes from feeling too heavy. But, if lemonade isn’t your fave, opt for another citrus juice instead. Just make sure to choose a juice that’s slightly tart, as a sugary drink can easily overwhelm the delicate flavor of seafood.
Steak: Unsweetened iced tea
Tannins are the compounds that create a drying sensation in your mouth. Yes, tannins are usually referred to when describing wine, but they exist in other drinks as well. Meet my good friend, tea. By pairing your steak with a cold glass of tea, you’ll soften the fat in the meat and have a more balanced bite. Go for a lightly sweetened or unsweetened iced tea for the best flavor, and sip it slowly in between bites of steak.
Fried chicken: Sparkling white grape juice
Because fried chicken is high in fat, it’s best enjoyed with a drink that can cut through the grease and cleanse your palate. Enter: sparkling white grape juice. The carbonation and sweetness of the juice balances out the salty fried chicken and is the ultimate refresher in between bites. If you can’t find any sparkling juice at the store, buy a bottle of plain sparkling water and mix it with a bit of regular grape juice.
BBQ: Sweet tea
Southern barbecue and sweet tea is a classic combination for good reason. Sweet tea cuts through the fattiness in meat without overpowering the sweet or smoky barbecue sauce. For an extra punch of flavor, mix some lemonade into your tea to make an Arnold Palmer. The acidic lemonade combined with the tannin-rich tea will make it easier to finish your plate of pulled pork.
Tacos: Agua fresca
A popular Mexican drink, agua fresca is a refreshing combination of fruit, sugar, and water. Read: exactly what you need to balance your plate of al pastor, beef, or chicken tacos. Making your own agua fresca is beyond simple; just add your ingredients to a blender and mix until smooth. Pour over ice and dive into your new favorite Tuesday night meal.
Chocolate: Cranberry or pomegranate juice
Both cranberry and pomegranate juice are quite tart, which makes them ideal for offsetting super sweet or decadent chocolate treats. Red grape juice would also work in a pinch, but some brands of grape juice are too sweet and might make you feel a bit queasy if you drink them alongside something chocolatey.
Pairing food with the right drink isn’t that hard once you know the basics. When in doubt, experiment! You know what you like better than anyone. In the end, enjoying the meal is what really what matters. Happy pairing!