14 Chef-Approved Flavor Pairings That Will Upgrade Your Watermelon

As the warmer months approach, watermelons begin appearing at supermarkets across the country. This delectable edible, that is considered both a fruit and a vegetable, has been a staple of the human diet since it was first cultivated in Africa some 5,000 years ago. Valued for its many health benefits, watermelon is also one of the most versatile foods on the planet. Because of its distinctive flavor profile, it performs equally as well with sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami-rich ingredients, making it a favorite among professional chefs and home cooks alike.

Indeed, as a chef with nearly 18 years of experience running a restaurant that sourced much of its produce from local farms, summer has always been one of my favorite seasons, and watermelon a highlight of it. When I get that first luscious red or yellow fruit from the farm, my creative juices get flowing with all the exciting ways in which I can pair watermelon to maximize its flavor and texture. The possibilities are virtually endless, but I have narrowed them down to a solid selection with which to arm your culinary arsenal. Now your biggest challenge will be picking the perfect watermelon, not how to use it in the kitchen.

1. Watermelon and cucumber

Combining watermelon with cucumber is not likely to surprise most people. This is a common marriage that makes sense when you consider that both plants come from the same family, known as Cucurbitaceae. Additional members of this family include summer squash, zucchini, winter squash, pumpkin, and cantaloupe, and they are characterized by vines that can range from long and climbing to short and bush-like.

Watermelon and cucumber share a similar texture. They are both crisp and juicy when you bite into them. Where they differ is in taste, with watermelon generally being on the sweet side, and cucumber often being somewhat bitter, though this acrid flavor is generally attributable to its peel. Both work in concert when assembled in a refreshing watermelon and cucumber salad, accompanied by Mediterranean-inspired ingredients and a light vinaigrette. To minimize the bitterness of the cucumber, peel it and remove the seeds before chopping it and adding it into a recipe. This will temper its flavor, making it even more complementary to its sweeter crimson or golden cousin.

2. Watermelon and mint

From salads and salsas to beloved lemonade-inspired fast food creations, the union of watermelon with mint is a well-recognized favorite. The aromatic, cooling attributes of mint juxtapose perfectly with the luscious, sugary characteristics of watermelon for the ultimate invigorating bite for your taste buds.

The key is knowing which kind of mint to use. There are many different types, including spearmint, peppermint, chocolate mint, and apple mint. Each of these is more or less menthol-forward with a distinctive aftertaste. While they can all accompany watermelon, the unique, almost fuzzy texture of some types of mint is perhaps slightly less palatable, due to its unusual mouthfeel, particularly when eaten raw.

And, don't limit yourself to mint when it comes to herbs. Any member of the Lamiaceae family will work beautifully with watermelon, including the many different kinds of basil, oregano, and thyme. While these may seem like herbs that typically accompany savory recipes, they can be incorporated into desserts and cocktails, as a way of tempering the sweetness of watermelon, such as in this watermelon basil kiss recipe.

3. Watermelon and nuts

While there are a number of creative ways to use nuts in the kitchen, coupling them with watermelon is among my favorites. Most nuts are botanically classified as fruits, however, unlike a majority of fruits, the flavor of nuts is widely variable, with some tending to be more bitter and others having a milder, more buttery flavor. This makes them incredibly complex and versatile, like the watermelon, and thus a natural pairing.

Nuts have an additional feature that makes them so desirable when paired with watermelon: their crunchy texture. When I develop recipes, I factor mouthfeel into my decision-making process as much as taste, searching for textures that complement one another and help to create a nuanced dance on my palate.

Regardless of whether you use sweet almonds, buttery cashews, or slightly bitter walnuts, like in this stellar gremolata used to garnish caramelized grilled watermelon, you will want to toast them for maximum flavor and texture. Doing so draws out their oils and enhances their inherent nuttiness, while firming them up, making them easier to chop. Just be sure to monitor your toasting nuts carefully, as they can easily go from supreme to scorched in the blink of an eye.

4. Watermelon and cheese

Pairing fruit with cheese is not exactly a novel concept. Judging by the number of recipes out there for a watermelon and feta salad, plenty of folks have discovered this sweet and salty combination and have fallen in love with it. Though it would be tempting to limit oneself to this union, watermelon's crisp texture and sweet taste can work with virtually any kind of cheese.

Creamy, mild, fresh cheeses, like mozzarella, chevre, and ricotta, have a delicate tanginess and smooth texture that harmonizes well with watermelon. Harder, salty, aged cheeses, like cheddar, Gruyère, Manchego, or Parmesan, have a pungent flavor and often crystallized consistency that contrasts with — yet is enhanced by — watermelon. Other winning pairings include funky and assertive blue cheeses, like Roquefort or Gorgonzola, and those that retain their shape when heated, including halloumi. These are particularly well-suited to serving with watermelon that has been grilled, baked, or pan-fried, which softens its texture and gives it a notable caramel flavor.

5. Watermelon and booze

If you have ever heard of a myth that combining alcohol and watermelon can be lethal, this is a story that needs to be debunked immediately. There are plenty of delectable cocktail recipes that combine watermelon with everything from tequila to rum to vodka that are not only safe to drink (in moderation, obviously), but highly potable. In fact, few combinations are as pleasurable on a hot summer day as a boozy, watermelon-infused cocktail, designed to quench your thirst and cool your overheated body, like this watermelon margarita. And, if you really want to get creative, try serving it up in a crafty watermelon keg that is sure to wow your party guests.

Don't stop at cocktails, though. Alcohol and watermelon can easily be transformed into a delicious, refreshing salad that might leave you feeling a bit buzzed, but satiated. It can also be fused in conjunction with lime juice to cure fish for a summery spin on a classic ceviche that will knock your socks off. I recommend a clear liquor, like tequila or vodka, and use it in moderation, so as not to overpower the taste of the fish.

6. Watermelon and citrus fruits

Watermelon with a spritz of freshly squeezed lemon juice has long been heralded as a revered specialty among some Southern Italians. Its purported health benefits, ranging from improved digestion to being an aphrodisiac, are reason enough to try it, but its flavor is what will really sell it. There is something incredibly eye opening about the combination of citrus fruit with watermelon. The acidity of the citrus mellows the sweetness of the watermelon, and vice versa.

While lemons may be the go-to for Italians, it is by no means the only citrus fruit worth marrying with watermelon. Grapefruit, oranges, and limes are all ideal accompaniments in recipes ranging from salad dressings to a cooling watermelon granita. Other citrus-flavored ingredients can also enhance watermelon, including kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Lastly, if you are searching for something with a North African flair, try garnishing a watermelon carpaccio with thin slices of preserved lemon rind for a salty and tangy lift bursting with exotic flavor.

7. Watermelon and seafood

If you have ever had a chance to catch a sniff of the belly of freshly-caught salmon, some fishmongers swear that it smells like ripe slices of raw watermelon. And, watermelon has become the ingredient of choice for many vegan chefs seeking to recreate the aroma and flavor of tuna in sushi or as a facsimile for a mock poke bowl. Indeed, when properly marinated and prepared, the resemblance is uncanny. It should come as no shock, then, that watermelon is an ideal pairing with seafood of all kinds.

The brininess of many types of fish and seafood is offset by the sweetness of watermelon, allowing it to shine in more subtle, nuanced ways. In fact, it is not unheard of for fresh oysters on the half shell to be served with a sauce made from watermelon, and we have already established the efficacy of curing fish along with watermelon for a brightly-flavored ceviche. Watermelon is also the perfect ingredient for a sweet, yet fiery salsa served alongside a smoky and flaky grilled piece of sea bass, cod, or halibut.

8. Watermelon and chili peppers

It would be difficult to say which benefits more from the pairing of watermelon with chili peppers. While the watermelon, with its 92% water-content, helps to cool the heat of spicy chili peppers, the sweet melon itself benefits from a little pick-me-up in the form of some heat. It is worth noting, just like drinking a glass of water after consuming something spicy, watermelon can amplify spice in your mouth, by swishing the capsaicin around your taste buds, so keep this in mind when consuming particularly hot peppers.

While you can season watermelon with chili-infused spice blends, like Tajin or a smoky Cajun mix, the fruit also responds well to hot sauces of all kinds, including sriracha and gochujang. Besides just being spicy, many hot sauces also contain robust umami notes that confer an almost meaty taste, which makes watermelon seem more satiating. Lastly, combine watermelon with chili peppers in recipes from salsas and chutneys to a homemade kimchi made from the rind of the fruit. This condiment eliminates food waste, while producing a flavorful accompaniment to just about any savory dish.

9. Watermelon and berries

In case you were unaware, despite their size, watermelons are botanically classified as berries, thanks to their numerous seeds. In contrast, a number of fruits we label as "berries," including strawberries, raspberries, and blackberries, are not berries at all. While this may sound confusing, it is a fact that has zero relevance when it comes to the suitability of pairing watermelon with what we generally classify as berries of all kinds.

The sweet flavor and crisp texture of watermelon, along with its high moisture content, make it the ideal accompaniment to the often tart, and occasionally seedy, flesh of many types of berries. This can play well in recipes ranging from salads or salsas to smoothies of all kinds. When using watermelon for smoothies, consider pre-cubing the fruit into chunks and freezing them, or puréeing it and pouring it into ice cube trays to create watermelon ice cubes. This eliminates the need for adding plain ice cubes to a smoothie or blended cocktail to obtain a rich texture, thereby creating a more potent, less watered-down, beverage.

10. Watermelon and salt

Any discussion about ideal pairings with watermelon would be incomplete without talking about one of the most well-known combinations: watermelon and salt. While the precise origins of this tradition remain murky, the act of eating watermelon sprinkled with salt is one conducted in countries and cultures across the globe. The reasons for this may be multifold, with salt enhancing the natural hydrating capacity of watermelon and acting as a means of tempering the potential bitterness of less-than-ripe fruit.

When considering the types of salt to add to watermelon, think beyond plain table salt or even kosher salt. Various finishing salts and flavored varieties can completely transform the taste of watermelon. One popular combination is the use of Himalayan pink salt, which has its own host of purported physical and mental health benefits. Smoked salts are also ideal for topping watermelon. Their distinctive woody, charred aroma and flavor creates a depth of flavor that simultaneously amplifies and sophisticates the sweetness within watermelon.

When using salt with watermelon, the key is a steady hand and restraint. You don't want to drown the inherent flavor of the watermelon or saturate your taste buds with salt; this will mute anything else you may consume. You simply want a delicate, even sprinkling atop the fruit.

11. Watermelon and honey

While it may seem counterintuitive to pair something sweet with another ingredient that is on the saccharine spectrum, honey may be the exception to that rule. Because it is produced by bees from the nectar of different flowering plants, the flavor of every kind of honey is distinct, with some being grassy or floral and others smoky or slightly bitter. When it is drizzled atop a fresh slice or added into a recipe, like a salad, cocktail, or dessert, this complexity among various kinds of honey can completely transform the flavor of watermelon.

If you really want to explore the vast possibilities of this pairing, and of honey itself, I recommend keeping different types on hand. Personal favorites include orange blossom, lavender, buckwheat, and wildflower honeys. Though rare, you can even obtain watermelon honey, which is produced from bees that have fed exclusively on the flowers of the watermelon vine. And, for something luxurious, try some manuka honey. Its dense texture and intense herbaceous flavor profile make it a real delicacy.

12. Watermelon and cured meats

The combination of melon with cured meats is well-beloved and likely dates back to Roman times, when a system of medicine known as Humorism, or Humoralism, was observed. This theory assumed that any physical ailment represented an imbalance in one of four bodily fluids (blood, yellow bile, black bile, and phlegm), and that these could be rebalanced by consuming the right foods in harmony. One such harmonious pairing was that of consuming warm, salty cured meat with cool, refreshing fruit. The combination of salty and sweet may or may not boost your immune system, but it will surely perk up your taste buds.

Though the classic recipe combines prosciutto with cantaloupe, watermelon is equally as delectable and versatile. Indeed, watermelon can withstand the flavor of even more robust cured meats, like soppressata or pancetta. And, let us not ignore one of the most beloved cured meats in the U.S. — bacon. Crispy bacon paired with watermelon in a salad, appetizer, sandwich, or pizza is a winning marriage that is sure to transform your bacon and watermelon game.

13. Watermelon and bitter greens

Bitter greens, like arugula, watercress, radicchio, and endive, are well known for their purported health benefits, which include powerful antioxidant capabilities conferred by phytochemicals that are responsible for their acrid flavor. These greens can be notoriously hard to pair with other ingredients, and an acquired taste for some. While you can grill or sauté them to make them more palatable, they are also remarkably well suited to being prepared alongside sweeter ingredients, including watermelon. Indeed, the sweetness can help to offset some of the excessive bitterness of these greens, giving them a pleasant herbaceous quality, rather than a medicinal or potentially toxic one.

Just as heat can help transform bitter greens, it can elevate watermelon by caramelizing its natural sugars and giving them a richer, more complex flavor. When assembling a salad with bitter greens and watermelon, make sure to incorporate ingredients with different textures, like crunchy nuts and chewy dried cranberries. You will also want to take advantage of sweeter acids, like blood orange juice, and flavorful honeys, like orange blossom, to create a dressing that can marry your bitter greens with your sweet watermelon.

14. Watermelon and coconut

The marriage of watermelon and coconut is one that has culinary and nutritional advantages. From a culinary perspective, the sweet, juicy watermelon is balanced out by the nutty, slightly chewy texture of coconut, whether consumed raw or in dehydrated form. Nutritionally, this combination may be the ultimate rehydrating powerhouse. With a moisture content of 92%, watermelon provides the water, while coconuts are loaded with electrolytes that, in concert with the liquid, help us stay hydrated.

One ideal way to enjoy this decidedly dynamic duo is in beverages, including smoothies and cocktails. Coconut water or milk can also be fused with fresh watermelon in desserts, like popsicles and a vegan iteration of ice cream. When it comes to salads, you might consider using shredded or shaved dried coconut, alongside your fresh or grilled watermelon. The act of toasting coconut helps to firm up its texture, making it easier to chew, and gives it a more intense, nutty flavor. A great method for toasting coconut is to toss it in the air fryer. The even heat exerted on all sides of the coconut meat helps to toast it quickly and uniformly.