Ask anyone what foods they crave the most and you’ll usually end up hearing one of two answers. Some will cop to having a sweet tooth—chocolates, cakes, pies, anything with sugar, really—and some will reveal they can’t live without salt-heavy cuisine like fries or potato chips.
There are five basic tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami. The tongue can distinguish all of these, and, because so much of our sense of taste links back to our survival instinct, it determines which flavors to gravitate towards. According to a study from the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare, the taste of something sweet and/or salty is “often a sign of a food rich in nutrients,” signaling to our bodies and our minds that we should consume, while something bitter was once “an indication of poisonous inedible plants or of rotting protein-rich food.”
While we obviously have evolved enough to know that not every bitter or sour food indicates we’re in danger, we still get the most emotional pleasure out of consuming sweet and salty flavors individually. And when you layer those flavors together, well, it’s often an experience two times as enjoyable.
One of the most famous sweet and salty pairings was written up eight years ago as a trend in the New York Times. “It has been a challenging year for investors, homeowners and Republican candidates, but 2008 was very lucky for sweet caramel seasoned with fancy salt,” reporter Kim Severson wrote.
Much of the credit for the now-ubiquitous treat can be traced back to “1998, [when] the San Francisco chocolate maker Michael Recchiuti was selling his own fleur de sel caramels covered in chocolate,” and Severson notes that the final step of a trend (or in this case, a flavor) going mainstream, is when “it shows up on menus at more-inventive chain restaurants, like the Cheesecake Factory, or at large cookware chains like Williams-Sonoma, which began selling fleur de sel caramels in 2007.” By 2008, salted caramel ice cream flavors had been released by mainstream brands—Haagan Daz, Starbucks, even showing up in Walmart’s Valentine’s Day candy selection.
It was often understood that the tongue was broken up into zones; one zone for each taste, and a cluster of tastebuds that respond to sour tastes, and another cluster for sweet tastes. But that’s actually not true, the same study from the Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Healthcare clarifies — “Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory tastes can actually be sensed by all parts of the tongue.”
There’s a natural balance between the two flavor profiles that works well for how our tastebuds interpret what we’re eating, thus affecting our emotional experience. Too much salt? Inedible. Too much sugar? Sickening. But think of the treats you know and love, like pretzels with chocolate, chocolate and popcorn, and watermelon and feta cheese. Each individual taste goes further and gets better when paired with its flavorful counterpart, creating the kinds of foods we tend to binge on.
Now, salted caramel seems like a safe route when you look at the innovative salt and sugar pairings that have popped up since its recognition in the culinary world. The recipes range from low-brow (Wendy’s fries dipped in a Wendy’s milkshake), to fancy (our chocolate caramel pretzel tart above), but they all boil down to the same concept: Salt + sugar? The combination tends to be too good to pass up.