It’s that time of year again – time for the Super Bowl. We all know what that means: a football game that will keep you on the edge of your seat, some of the best commercials of the year, Animal Planet’s classic Puppy Bowl, and, most importantly, food. There is no other day of the year as acceptable as the Super Bowl to totally pig out on everything that is greasy. In particular, there is one perfect Super Bowl food trifecta that I simply cannot do without: hot wings, ranch, and beer. What is it about these game day staples that makes them pair so well? Believe it or not, there is a scientific reason why!
When you eat food, the chemical components within the foods, and the sensations you feel while eating them are complex. Some food pairings seem like a match made in heaven, while others do not. There are many theories as to what makes a successful pairing, but the number one principle of what makes a good pairing is balance of flavor intensity. “Harmony” and “complexity” are two terms often used to describe the overall perception of food pairings in relation to how well the flavors and tastes go together, and how much sensory variation there is in the pair. This means that we prefer foods with a high complexity while still maintaining maximum harmony. As anyone who has tried hot wings knows, hot wings by themselves can be anywhere from mildly to unbearably spicy, but with a little help from a beer and a side of ranch dressing, the heat is suddenly much easier to handle, making this trio a perfect combination. But, why?
Most spicy foods, like hot wings, contain a flavor compound found in red peppers called capsaicin. Capsaicin is responsible for the intense, lingering burning feeling felt on your tongue. Like a key in a hole, capsaicin binds with heat receptors on your taste buds that unlock a sensation of warmth. The binding of capsaicin to its receptor allows calcium ions to flow into your cells, which triggers a pain signal. When high concentrations of capsaicin are consumed, this sensation of heat can increase to intolerable pain. Because capsaicin is hydrophobic (fat loving/water hating), it can pass through fatty cell membranes and stay there, causing the spicy flavor to be long-lasting and persistent. As a result of capsaicin being hydrophobic, a glass of water simply will not help remove the spicy capsaicin that is bound in your mouth.
This is where beer and ranch dressing comes in. Although capsaicin is not soluble in water, it is highly soluble in fats and ethanol. This means that when you drink a beer, the capsaicin will dissolve and be washed out of your mouth, relieving you of the relentless burn. However, a Coors Light® contains only 4.2% alcohol which might not be enough in some seriously spicy situations. One option might be to drink a stronger beer, but for relief in extra hot situations, dairy products, like ranch dressing, will definitely do the trick. Dairy products contain high levels of fat and a protein called casein. Casein, like capsaicin, is also a fat-loving substance, and when you smother your hot wing in ranch, the casein surrounds and binds the capsaicin, washing it away just like soap washes away grease.
While hot wings provide intense and complex flavor in the form of spiciness, ranch and beer help that flavor find a better balance and harmony so we are not overwhelmed by our favorite game day snack. So this year during the Super Bowl, if you’re going to order some extra spicy wings like Man v. Food’s Adam Richman, make sure you buy yourself an extra six pack and don’t hold the ranch. Your taste buds won’t regret it!