Sweet, salty, sour, bitter . . . and umami. Derived from a Japanese word for deliciousness, the so-called fifth taste has taught us not only about why some foods are so satisfying, but also about the very nature of human appetite.
Many umami-rich foods are some of the most satisfying foods in the world—think of a big sizzling steak with sautéed mushrooms and a baked potato, or a big bowl of pasta and tomato sauce, showered with grated Parmesan cheese. Foods like these have a deep, almost universal appeal; we crave them. That’s umami in action.
Umami (pronounced “oo-MA-mee”) is generally described as the savory taste. Discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda more than 100 years ago, umami is the flavor of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the essential building blocks of protein.
Dr. Ikeda went on to submit a patent to produce monosodium glutamate, or MSG. Despite its reputation for causing the headachy feeling known as Chinese Restaurant Syndrome, there is no credible scientific data supporting this. In fact, many notable chefs, including Grant Achatz and David Chang, use MSG to heighten flavor, and many more have discovered the power of umami in their cooking.
Not coincidentally, many Japanese foods are loaded with umami, including soy, seaweed, green tea, dried bonito flakes, miso, and the ubiquitous stock known as dashi. Italian food, too: Parmesan and other aged cheeses, tomatoes, and olives all have significant umami content, along with mushrooms, truffles, potatoes, and nearly every form of meat and seafood, from sardines and squid to shrimp. Anchovy paste and Asian fish sauces are loaded with it; so are cured meats like prosciutto and even garden-variety condiments like ketchup and Worcestershire.
In fact, many scientists now believe that umami is the taste of protein, and that our ancient caveman ancestors would have sought it out just as they craved foods that were sweet (the flavor of energy-giving carbohydrates) and avoided those that were bitter (poisonous plants). Yet surprisingly, many people denied the very existence of umami until researchers found its receptors in the form of taste buds, paving the way for the discovery of specific taste buds for the other four tastes.
In general, the more umami that is present in food, the more flavorful and satisfying it will be. That applies not just to ingredients, but also to the techniques used to cook or process them, from grilling to drying and aging. Aged cheeses are more flavorful than young ones (or than milk, for that matter); sun-dried tomatoes have a more concentrated tomatoey-ness than fresh ones. That steak with sautéed mushrooms derives flavor not just from the meat and mushrooms themselves, but also from the caramelization and intensifying of flavors that take place on the grill and in the sauté pan, creating a real “u-bomb” of flavor. Fermentation also produces lots of umami, especially when you start with foods that are rich in the stuff to begin with (such as cabbage, turned into sauerkraut and kimchi).
Upping the umami factor in food has a number of benefits, not the least of which is enhanced flavor:
- Umami-rich foods increase the feeling of satiation, causing people to enjoy food more and potentially eat less of it
- The use of umami flavors reduces the need for added salt in food
- Umami piques the appetite; it could serve to counteract the decline in taste and appetite that comes with aging and certain types of illness
- Umami softens the bitterness of foods, which could lead to its use in the formulation of healthier diets for children, who are very sensitive to bitter flavors—such as those present in many vegetables
In everyday cooking, umami can make the difference between a great recipe and one that is merely meh. Many Italian braised and sautéed dishes start with a sofrito that contains a judicious amount of anchovy—including osso buco and sautéed escarole—which really bumps up the flavor factor without being perceived as salted and brined fish. A bit of tomato or aged balsamic vinegar adds not only a lively jolt of acidity to food, but also umami complexity.
Asian foods such as stir-fries and noodle soups are also rich in umami flavor, thanks to such common ingredients as soy sauce and other savory sauces. The Nestlé Professional Soup and Noodle Bar Action Station has lots of recipes and ideas for serving up umami to customers.
An item like Caesar salad is loaded with umami, from the anchovy in the dressing to the flourish of Parmesan cheese that finishes it. You can vary the cheese and add other ingredients, as in this Grilled Latin Caesar Salad with Shrimp, and still offer up an umami powerhouse.
This post is sponsored by Maggi Spicy Seasoning