Cooking With Umami
Umami is a Japanese word that means "yummy" or "delicious" and it's the name that's been given to what is called the fifth taste. The other four tastes are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. In case you wish to squabble with this list as a matter of opinion, in fact it's a matter of science: biologists and chemists have proven that the human tongue has receptors that can distinguish only these five tastes.
So what is the umami taste besides yummy? This fifth taste is essentially what we would call savory. It's what we recognize and love in a piece of roasted meat, or the earthy flavor of truffles or mushrooms. Or the fermented fish flavor that is common in many Asian cuisines. Or certain aged cheeses and paper thin slices of cured prosciutto de Parma.
Umami is also the complexity we strive to create in our foods when we combine certain ingredients and flavors. As when we sprinkle grated Parmesan on a bowl of spaghetti and meat balls, or dip a piece of sushi into soy sauce, or layer flavors when making a stew or sauce.
Umami Is Discovered. And Yummy MSG Is Invented.
In 1908 a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu, a seaweed commonly used in popular Japanese soups and stocks, was a rich source of glutamic acid. He not only isolated glutamate, an amino acid, as the source of the kombu's uniquely appealing and yummy flavor, but also discovered that it could be used as a flavor enhancer because if you loved the kombu flavor in your soup, you may also like it in other foods. Since there was something about the glutamate that made everything it seasoned taste delicious, Kikunae Ikeda called it umami. A half century later we were introduced to it in the form of monosodium glutamate -- or as we often call it, "MSG."
Although it was nearly a century later when in 2001 a biologist working at the University of California in San Diego finally confirmed that our tongues indeed have a fifth receptor for glutamate, Kikunae Ikeda's discovery led to decades of food chemistry, including the 1947 introduction of MSG to the American food industry. Some of us have stories about getting MSG-induced migraines after eating a meal in a Chinese restaurant; I certainly had my share and attribute these headaches to my lack of enthusiasm for Chinese cuisine. Scientists have investigated the health affects of MSG and toxicology studies insist that it's harmless, although I know my headaches were real and to this day only eat home-made egg rolls. I'm digressing …
After World War II when the American food industry began a period of explosive growth and processed foods first had a significant impact on the American kitchen and diet, MSG became a common food additive. And it remains so today. Laboratory-produced MSG is added to salad dressings, barbecue sauces, snack foods, salsa, ketchup, and of course, those little seasoning packs that come with cheap ramen noodles. It has also been packaged and sold as the seasoning product branded as Accent. And why not? As the chemists and marketers know, a little inexpensive, laboratory-created MSG added to even cheaper ingredients will still trigger a taste response that will convince you it's fabulous.
Adding MSG to food is like adding steroids to flavor, as if you're throwing a switch on the fifth taste receptor. It's not any different than adding high fructose corn syrup to activate an intense sweet taste on the sweet receptor. Both are inexpensive one-dimensional triggers that can fake real flavor.
Does that mean umami is bad? On the contrary: Adding chemicals to our food is bad. Achieving umami is deliriously wonderful and it's what our best chefs and we home cooks strive to create.
Creating Umami In Our Cooking
Usually an isolated taste is too intense, as when we get a mouthful of seawater, or watch a child bite a lemon wedge and experience 100% sour for the first time. More often such tastes are used to balance or add complexity to other flavors, as when salt is added to a pot of pasta water, or a spritz of lemon juice brightens mayonnaise. It's the same thing with umami. We can achieve the best savory tastes without ever using the cheap trick of MSG and we can do so without changing the main flavor of what you're cooking. If I can use a music analogy, adding umami to your cooking is like raising the volume or deepening the bass of a piece of music; it doesn't change the melody or construction but it makes it easier or better to listen to.
Umami is naturally found in proteins that have been partially broken down -- aged cheese, cured meats, soy sauce, red wine. Therefore these will be your most umami-intensive ingredients. Others include mushrooms, black olives, balsamic vinegar, anchovies, and garlic. As some of our best recipes already prove, add a little of some of these ingredients and the final dish will taste even better. This is why when we cook a dish using layers of flavor -- garlic and other aromatics to start a gumbo, reduced veal stock to be the base of a sauce, a marinade with soy sauce and red wine, a small portion of dried mushrooms added to stew, bacon or pancetta or a ham hock in soup, anchovy paste in salad dressing -- we are adding umami by using ingredients that have the glutamate amino acid. And it's why we probably love these recipes better than those made without these seemingly inocuous additions.
If this all seems more art than science, you can take a seasoning shortcut by buying umami paste. It comes in a tube, costs about $6 for 2.5 ounces, and a little goes a long way when added to whatever you're cooking (soups, sauces, meatloaf, stews). In a way it's like a tube of all-natural MSG in that it's a paste made of intensely concentrated ingredients that will increase the glutamate action of your cooking. Here's what's in it:
- Tomato paste
- Anchovy paste (which in turn has anchovies, salt and sunflower seed oil)
- Black olives
- Balsamic vinegar
- Dehydrated porcini mushrooms
- Parmesan cheese
- Olive oil
- Wine vinegar
Umami paste is increasingly easy to find; I bought mine at Kalustyan's but it's also available at other markets and at Amazon.
But why use umami paste when you can almost as easily use ingredients that have strong umami characteristics. For example:
- Add a dash or two of Worcestershire sauce (which includes anchovies) to your favorite recipe for Caesar salad dressing or meat loaf.
- Combine both red wine and balsamic vinegar in your favorite vinaigrette dressing.
- Soy sauce is almost pure umami because it is made from fermented soybeans. Use it to add flavor and saltiness to soup, deglaze a pan, season toasted almonds, add taste to a meat or poultry marinade, or when caramelizing vegetables.
- Whether or not you like anchovies, a couple of them dissolved into the early stages of making a daube or stew or tomato sauce can add excellent complexity without any taste of fishiness or added salt.
- Mushroom duxelles, made from finely minced mushrooms that are cooked with shallots and butter and reduced into a paste, is a concentrated and meat-like flavoring for soups, sauces, and baked fish. See our recipe.
- Green vegetables like asparagus, when added to an omelet or frittata, creates a complex umami flavor.
- Sprinkle grated Parmesan on anything sauced with tomatoes, or on braised bitter greens.
- Add a small amount of dry cepes or porcini mushrooms to soups or stews; the mushrooms will almost disappear but their flavor will not.
- Tomato paste adds intensity to dishes made both with and without tomatoes, minus tomatoes' typical bright acidity.
- Adding tangy goat or feta cheese or toasted nuts to a salad combines with the fresh and sometimes slightly bitter taste of lettuce and other salad greens.
- Garlic is a very umami-friendly flavor and even a small amount -- not enough to notice the garlic but enough to add complexity -- can give whatever you're cooking more flavor and you won't even know why. If you cook for someone who claims to hate garlic, the next time you serve them your famous pea soup (or tomato sauce, or lamb daube), add a single clove and I'm sure their response will be, "This is great and better than the last time. What's different?"
Want to know more? The Umami Information Center is a source for lectures, academic papers, scientific research, and of course, recipes. We've added a link below.