One of the greatest experiments for a coffee lover has little to do with the coffee itself and everything to do with what it’s served with. Coffee and food match as naturally—and enjoyably—as sun and sand.
While you may find a lot of information about what wine to serve with a dish, we believe that there should be just as much information out there to help you decide what type of coffee goes best with what food. From nutty to smoky, from fruit-forward and beyond, learn more about pairing types of coffees with different foods to deliver a harmonious food and beverage experience.
Overview of Coffee Pairing with Food
One of coffee’s most unique qualities is the mind-boggling number of flavor notes it can boast—more than wine, in fact. Some harbor fruit-forward flavors like citrus and raspberry, while others are altogether nuttier or even smoky.
Which, of course, means the coffee and food pairings can run the spectrum.
Coffee and Chocolate
This is more of a chocolate-meets-peanut-butter combination in that the pairing will feel exceptionally natural; the two flavors combine to suit the tongue like a glove on a hand.
As such, the best coffee pairings with chocolate are a matter of experimentation. As food pairing with coffee goes, there’s really no such thing as a bad coffee and chocolate matchup, but do consider how sweetness, salt, and bitterness interact between the two. A tart or bitter coffee can neutralize the sweetness of a milk chocolate, for example, while a salty coffee might add some variety to a bitter and lightly sweet dark chocolate.
Do, however, use dark chocolate when drinking espresso. The bold flavors are ideal companions with similar notes; they’re the rare 100-percent match on your favorite dating site.
Coffee and Pastries at Breakfast
One consideration for breakfast pairings is your fruit of choice.
Kenyan coffees pair well with most berries, like a blueberry or strawberry. A peach or plum, meanwhile, is a delight alongside many Haitian and Tanzanian coffees. Tart fruits, like grapefruit, are an interesting switch-up for the taste buds and pair well with dark roasts from Brazil or Costa Rica. Ultimately, though, keep these two fundamentals in mind: light roasts are often going to complement fruits well because they draw out fruity flavors to begin with, and an easy cheat sheet for fruit pairings is to take a peek at a coffee’s tasting notes as a point of reference.
With coffee and pastries, biscotti is a classic. Many biscotti choices have nuts, like almonds, in them for a reason: they round out the coffee and enhance the biscotti itself. Try picking out a nutty coffee to go with it. Whether because of the nutty flavor or the action of dunking, it’s perhaps one of the most obvious and made-to-pair choices for coffee outside of chocolate.
Coffee cake is a clear winner for just about any coffee variety but aim for a medium roast if you can. The same is true of doughnuts and muffins, but generally target a coffee that is smooth and not particularly overwhelming with flavor. Many “Donut Blends” are a light breakfast blend that don’t distract from, say, a rich chocolate ring donut.
Croissants are meant to be paired with café au lait—they’re both French, after all.
Scones eschew conventional wisdom of being the tea-drinker’s pastry by being exceptional coffee pairings, if only because of their versatility as baked goods. The bulk of the scone is fairly neutral while its add-ins—think: raisins, citrus, or a guava cream—make pairing with it closer to pairing with fruits. An easy go-to for coffee is a Kenyan, but try an Ethiopian coffee if there’s any citrus involved.
For most savory breakfast items, a medium roast will do just fine with any egg- or wheat-based occasion.
Coffee and Dessert
It’s no secret that coffee is a natural companion for a slice of chocolate cake after dinner. But there are some particularly notes worth taking on what might go with it.
For starters, consider how rich or bitter that cake is: If you’re serving it with espresso, the espresso will likely overwhelm any standard chocolate cake, and you’ll miss out on the cake’s flavor. To adjust, try eating a cake with a more bittersweet chocolate in the mix, or, frankly, something extra indulgent like a dark chocolate fudge cake.
Of course, milk-based espresso drinks go well with—you guessed it—cookies, but also nicely lend to vanilla ice cream. The milky flavors might be similar, but the contrast of the vanilla and the espresso allows the coffee to shine a little brighter. It’s almost like having a vanilla latte with competing cold and hot temperatures.
A café au lait is the perfect pairing for tiramisu—which, of course, has its own built-in coffee flavors. The bit of milk added to the coffee mellows the coffee flavors from both treats so that the rest of the desert still pops.
Coffee and Cheese
Cheese and coffee pairings require some careful consideration. And while the idea might sound a tad off-putting at first glance—No thanks, I’ll stick with the wine—it’s easy to forget how well coffee goes down with, for example, a creamy cheesecake. (Ricotta cheesecake, if we’re talking particulars.)
Coffee and cheese can pair well because they both tout flavor notes like nuts, caramel, and flowers. This makes them ideal candidates for complementary flavors; a general tip is just to use intuition—keep mild coffees for mild cheeses and play around with citrus-heavy coffees that can serve as stand-ins for usual cheese accompaniments like fruit or nuts.
Gouda is a good cheese to start with, finding smoky-sweet coffees to go with it. Cheddars go well with espresso.
In a nutshell: Just don’t drink black coffee with cheese, and never test out coffee with a cheese that’s acidic. Plus: When enjoying a cheese and coffee pairing, lead with the cheese, not the coffee.
Other Coffee and Food Pairing Ideas
The sky's the limit with coffee pairing ideas, truly. And while there are some savory items that it’ll just be downright funky with (see: fish), there are other surprising choices on the menu: a smoky bacon, or a simple avocado toast that fuses creamy flavors. Have fun, and don’t be afraid to surf new waters