One of our regular question askers, who rarely has questions closed at least that I have noticed, asks:

What spices can be added in an oats dish to make it non-bland?

It is currently in voting for closure.

We closed this question, which seems to be very similar:

Is there a food that doesn't go with cheese

The original poster @AnishaKaul points out this question which is not closed:

What are some good basic soup spices?

It seems like we should close all of these questions, or reopen the closed one to be consistent.

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Very related - not quite the same question, but has basically the same answer - meta.cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/1091/… –  Jefromi Feb 28 '13 at 15:00
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3 Answers

First of all, I don't want to give a single yes/no answer for all questions about flavor pairing; I think it in general depends on how specific the question is. In practice, most (but not all) of them will probably merit closing, but a few well-written, specific ones won't.

Overly broad, open-ended questions should be closed. "What doesn't go with cheese?" is a good example for this, as is something like "what goes with chicken?" You can find examples of lots of questions like this we've closed by searching for "[flavor] closed:yes" on the main site, like questions about chocolate, potato soup, scallops, peas, and so on.

Obviously it's possible to ask much more specific questions about flavor pairing, though. If they're sufficiently specific, they might be too localized, but if you're asking something like "what additional flavors go with X and Y?" where X and Y are fairly different, so combining them restricts the list of possible pairings substantially, then you might have a good question. Some questions about traditional ingredients/pairings are likely also good. (I'm deliberately avoiding saying this is guaranteed to produce a good question.) For example, this question about carrot cake is great - it names a specific goal, and even asks about some specific potential ways to achieve that goal.

With respect to the specific question about oatmeal, I think it falls in the open-ended category. It's not as bad as "what goes with chicken?" but it's not great. While there's something general you can say (we tend to like "warm" spices with oatmeal, the kinds of things you put in spice cakes and apple pie), it has an awful lot of potential answers, and you can find plenty by searching for recipes for spiced oatmeal. The current three answers (including yours!) demonstrate this - there's some consensus between the answers, but given that someone even suggested orange blossom water, it's pretty clear that the list can go on and on.

The soup question is, I think, a red herring here. The actual question that ends up being answered there, and the reason it's helpful, is how to in general turn a bland soup into a good soup. The good answers talk about how to cook the soup, when to add certain things, emphasize the stock, and so on. The unhelpful answers are the ones that take the question at face value and just list some herbs and spices. If it were actually all about just spices, it'd obviously be in the open-ended (close the question) category, but it's turned into something better. I've edited the question to help all this out. It should definitely not be used as a precedent for open-ended flavor pairing questions, and protection via editing is nicer than literal protection.

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I actually asked a meta question similar to this quite some time ago, Should “what can I add to X” questions be closed by default?, in which I maintained that the vast majority of them are just veiled recipe requests. I still think that is the case.

The way I see it, questions of that form can do well on Seasoned Advice, but they start with minus 100 points. In other words, they need to have a lot of other redeeming qualities, and I personally (and I hope most others) hold them to a higher standard than other types of questions because of their inherent capacity for gibbering answer diarrhea. Pairing/garnish questions can't just be OK, they have to be very well-thought-out in order to survive.

We're definitely going to want to see evidence that the person asking the question has actually attempted research or experimentation, rather than just throwing up a list of ingredients in front of us and saying "make this good". Having a specific goal also helps. "Tasting good" or "not being bland" are not specific goals. But, cutting spiciness or bitterness makes for a pretty constructive question, as does changing the colour to a specific hue or changing the texture to a specific firmness.

It's extremely rare to see a "pairing" question along the lines of "what goes with X" that's actually constructive and doesn't degenerate into a poll almost immediately. I can't think of any formulation of "what doesn't go with X" that would ever be constructive, which I pointed out in that particular question. There are an almost infinite number of bad pairings for any ingredient.

With questions like these, when in doubt, vote to close. The vast majority of pairing questions on this site have in fact been closed, and of the ones that survived, the answers don't seem to be particularly impressive or insightful. I don't think they add much value to the site, they're grudgingly tolerated at best.

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I suggest that it'd be nice if someone were to write up a "general reference" question which describes how to go about finding the answer to "what goes with X" questions. It could give suggestions such as:

  • reference books, like the Flavor Bible
  • searching recipes, with links to various sites that make it easy
  • figuring which culinary traditions use those ingredients, and looking up other traditional ingredients

Then we could just close all the overbroad ones as duplicates.

I'm not volunteering to write this reference question; I did the last one. Its someone else's turn!

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I don't think it has a good canonical answer with everything, but: cooking.stackexchange.com/q/12736/1672 –  Jefromi Mar 29 '13 at 13:24
    
@Jefromi yeah, it'd also need a bunch of poll answers deleted. Guess its a moot point until someone volunteers to write it. –  derobert Mar 29 '13 at 16:19
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