A bird may love a fish—but where would they make their home? Well, if the "bird" is tomatoes, and the "fish" is dairy (bear with me), they'll make their home quite happily in thousands and thousands of configurations: a classic Caprese, a creamy tomato soup, many a nacho plate. In grilled cheeses. On pizza, for crying out loud.
It's undeniable: Tomatoes love dairy. Dairy loves tomatoes. Somewhere, there's a tree with a heart carved around their names.
So many tomato-dairy foods are such a part of daily eating the world over (see: dollar-slice pizza places more common in New York even than Starbucks) that the pairing might not even seem worth mentioning. If that is the case, I'd like you to do this thought experiment:
Imagine taking a bite of a tomato, and then gulping from a glass of milk.
I would take a ball of burrata cozied up to sliced tomato over that any day. If a glass of milk with a tomato sounds curious, why do all of the creamy tomato soups and the pizzas and the Capreses work so beautifully? Turns out, despite their initial bird-fish appearances, the two are soul mates. Made for each other.
"Flavor science is pretty slippery," Peter Kim, the Museum of Food and Drink's Executive Director, said, which makes it hard to say exactly why the two have such an affinity for each other. But "the tomato-milk combo hits on umami, sweetness, and sourness from the tomato, and fattiness and saltiness from the cheese"—ticking off all the taste, texture, and mouthfeel sensations that make a food delicious to us.
Think about it: Biting into a slice of tomato is electric—it's acidic and sweet, crunchy-firm where it's fleshy and juicy in the middle. Meanwhile, dairy has a totally different profile, the yin to tomatoes' yang: It's creamy and buttery and umami and (in many cases) salty, qualities that complement the tomatoes' sweetness, tame their acidity, and contribute the salt that brings out the fruit's best.
For teacher, cook, and author of the forthcoming Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat Samin Nosrat, it's this balance of opposites that makes dairy and tomatoes such happy companions: Tomatoes and dairy products are themselves multidimensional, "power-packed ingredients on their own," but put together, "there are so many contrasts happening at the same time." And the pairing is so special to eaters because that explosion of variances—the same ones Peter posited—is a rare find. "Put together, tomato and dairy make up all the flavor contrasts we’re looking for in all our cooking," Samin explained. This is even more true of tomatoes and cheese than tomato and plain milk—both flavorwise (cheese contributes salt and umami that milk doesn't have) and texturally.
And so, we throw them together more often, maybe, than we realize. Tomato jam shows up in rosy dots on cheese boards. We fill cakes with slashes of that jam and thick yogurt. We even whirl tomatoes into yogurt—you can buy little cartons of tomato yogurt from Blue Hill, which has a whole line of savory yogurts flavored with vegetable purées.
Valerie Christy manages the yogurt project at Blue Hill; the tomato happens to be her favorite flavor, though it's arguably the most divisive of the line. Blue Hill chef Adam Kaye, who developed the yogurts, saw it like this: Like dairy, tomatoes are something we can eat in both savory and sweet preparations. The creamy fattiness of yogurt was a natural fit for tomatoes, and so they began developing a recipe. (It turns out to be the most savory of the six yogurts, the tomato flavor nudged forward by salt and spices.)
Peter wisely pointed out that "many milk combinations seem odd in their most elemental form: Butter, flour, and milk make a great bechamel, but it would be odd to eat those together, uncooked." The same could be said of milk and cucumbers, which together make tzatziki—or milk and zucchini, without which there would be no zucchini gratin. What's so amazing about milk and tomatoes is that they appear so ubiquitously.
The two are fused across all kinds of cuisines: Think of feta cheese served with tomatoes, thick spoonfuls of yogurt dolloped onto shakshuka, paneer simmered in tomato gravy, crumbly queso fresco over salsa-laden tacos, or ricotta-stuffed into zucchini blossoms and braised in tomato sauce, as chef Sara Jenkins does.
"I can’t think of a culture that cooks with tomatoes and doesn’t combine them with some kind of dairy. One of the original mother sauces is a tomato sauce made with a roux," Samin noted.
And if you need even more convincing, here's where you should start:
Sara Jenkins told me she wants to make coeur à la crème and serve it with a tomato purée (!!!). How else do you pair milk and tomatoes together? Tell us in the comments.
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