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Umami 101

by Nick

Have you ever taken a bite of something that immediately made your mouth water?

Maybe it had a savory flavor to it?  Maybe it tasted meaty even if it wasn’t meat?

What you just had the pleasure of experiencing is the fabled 5th taste: Umami.

It’s talked about a lot and I was a bit confused on where it comes from and, more importantly, how to get it!

So I figured I would do some research on it and I thought that maybe others could benefit from some background on the great 5th taste.

Breaking Down Flavors

When I was learning about the senses in biology class growing up, I remember learning that there were four main flavors that made up the sense of taste:  Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Salty.  Any food or flavor that you taste is made up of a combination of those four things.

Whelp, it turns out that my education didn’t just fail me when it came to U.S. history.  It also failed me in the taste department.

Turns out there are actually five flavors.  Not four.

While Asian cultures have been defining this taste since the early 1900’s, I guess Westerns thought that Asians somehow tasted food differently than we did.  We didn’t add the flavor to our list until pretty recently.

What is Umami?

While the four classic flavors are all pretty easy to isolate and describe, the fifth flavor, umami, is a bit harder to pin down.

In Japanese, Umami translates roughly to “Good Flavor” or “Good Taste.”  That seems like as good a definition as you can get for it… it’s the flavor of goodness!

Umami is the savory flavor that makes your mouth water.  It’s usually a mild taste (unlike bitter or sour foods), but the flavor is long-lasting.

Umami is almost never good except when combined with other flavors.  You wouldn’t want to take a spoonful of straight umami flavor… think about doing a shot of fish sauce for example.

Is It Natural?

I think sometimes people confuse Umami with MSG, or mono-sodium glutamate.  MSG has a pretty bad reputation,but whether or not you think MSG is dangerous (I, for one, do not) umami is completely different.

It’s true that MSG gives food the umami, savory flavor, but it’s just one way to get that flavor.

There are actually a ton of foods that naturally have the flavor profile built right in.  Here are a few completely natural foods that are jam-packed with umami flavor:

  • A very ripe tomato
  • Almost any kind of meat
  • Mushrooms
  • Many grains
  • Beans

Of course, humans are not known for being cool with natural amounts of things.  A lot of the umami flavor that you’ll taste in dishes is actually added to the dish.

Umami Additives

The science behind flavors and taste is pretty complicated and I quickly got in over my head when I was looking into the chemical additives that yield this umami flavor.  Basically, it’s been traced back to a few amino acids that, in combination, give that savory flavor.

For over a century now, Asian cuisine has used many different ingredients that are specifically designed to infuse a dish with this umami flavor.  For me, I’m just starting to really play around with some of these ingredients while some of them I have been using for years without actually knowing that they were adding this flavor to my dishes.

There are some exotic umami ingredients, but here’s a break down of the things that are readily available that you can add to a dish to get this flavor.

Soy Sauce – Maybe the most popular of umami sauces.  The thing about soy sauce is it’s kind of beginners umami.  It’s also very heavy in sodium so it’s pretty easy to use.

Worcestershire Sauce – A common marinade type sauce that’s very popular in steakhouses.  What most people might not know is where this sauce gets it’s umami flavor from.  The answer:  anchovies!

Braggs – This is a new product for me that I’m still playing around with (Thanks Sean and Maeve for the intro).  It’s basically a concentration of those amino acids that are known to produce the umami flavor.  It has some sodium, but a fraction of what’s in soy sauce.  I’m learning that this stuff is good on loads of things!

Fish Sauce – This stuff is very popular in Asia, but gets mixed reviews here in the states.  I think that’s because people don’t get how to use it.  It’s not a sauce that you eat on its own.  You cook with it.  It’s way to strong to just sip.  It’s made from fermented fish and it’s delicious.

Oyster Sauce – A simple sauce that’s basically boiled oysters that’s then mixed with cornstarch and other stuff to thicken it.  It’s very flavorful and a small amount of it can gives loads of savory flavor to your dish.

MSG – The long debated seasoning that is basically pure umami.  Some people have a sensitivity to it that causes headaches and other adverse health affects, but after a lot of testing, most of these affects have not been able to be linked to MSG in any way.  I feel that it’s safe to eat in moderation and I eat it regularly, but if it gives you a headache, then just don’t use it!

Marmite and Vegemite – Very popular in Britain and Australia, these yeast extract products are basically just super-condensed umami spreads.  It’s like umami peanut butter.

Dashi – Dashi normally takes the form of a broth made from dried flakes, but there are a bunch of different variations (kelp/sardines/mushrooms/etc).  It’s always umami-packed though!

Macheesmo Umami

Here’s a few dishes that I’ve made over the years that are jam-packed with umami flavors.

Kimchi Stir Fry – A simple stir fry with a classic fermented ingredient that is very savory.

Potstickers – While anything meat is normally very umami-filled, the sauce for these guys just kicks it up a notch.

Bourbon Glaze – I made this just last week and while it has some sweet flavors, the Braggs gives it lots of savory goodness.

Viatnamese Noodle Salad – I love this salad for so many reasons, but one of them is because it’s got a lot of umami flavor.

Mushroom Meatloaf – No Asian flavors here, but anytime you cram this many mushrooms into one dish, you’ll be blessed with umami.

What’s your favorite Umami dish or ingredient?  Leave a comment!

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23 comments on “Umami 101

  1. Surprisingly, umami is also highly present in mangoes as well. We did an umami tasting at school the other day, and I was surprised to see them included.

    Apparently research is being done as to whether fattiness (the taste of fatty foods) would end up being the sixth flavor.

  2. I probably use 3 bottles of Worsh a year, so it’s probably my favorite, with soy sauce coming in a close second. I thought I had read/heard somewhere that garlic was a source of Umami? And pretty much everything in my house that’s not a dessert or breakfast has at least a little garlic in it, so it might be my favorite…… ;-)

  3. I’ve been hearing more and more about this mysterious “umami” lately and hadn’t been able to wrap my head around what exactly it is … Thanks for doing all the research and explaining it so clearly, this is really helpful!

  4. Mmm, umami! I’m willing to bet Sriracha has some umami in it. That could help explain it’s devoted fans.

  5. I think that the definition of umami has to be flavours that go brilliantly on a grilled cheese. Marmite’s the best, but I also love tom yum paste.

    I do wonder, however, if the pleasure isn’t simply down to salt. I love salt.

  6. Great article! Thanks for the information! I’ve been hearing of Umami for a while and feel like I had a pretty good grasp on it, but this cleared some things up too!

  7. Have you read Cooking for Geeks? You might really enjoy it! He talks quite a bit about umami.

    My favourite umami ingredient is parmesan cheese!

  8. Hey Nick – Did you know that celery has a good bunch of MSG? Same with onions, etc. This is why you see a lot of traditional recipes that use onions, celery, and carrots as a base. You cook these foods with the meats and they impart their flavor, and make things just… better.

    Same goes with soffritto, and cooking onions in a pan before searing your meat.

    Interesting stuff if you get into it.

    1. Hey Jason, thanks for that info. Always used the combos, and just love all of the above mentioned, and love MSG. Didn’t know that about some of my favs. Thanks for sharing

  9. Hi Nick,

    I was just reading about umani the other day on Dr. Andrew Weil’s website. Your explanation was far better as it made the taste more real in my mind. Great post!

  10. The real problem with flavorings like MSG and glutamate is that, when added injudiciously, it’s a great way to trick people’s brains into thinking what they’re eating is a) tasty and b) worthy of repeated enjoyment. This is why we have such a problem with junk food in America–clever companies have figured out that if they can just add enough of those magical umami chemical flavorings, everyone will snap it up and keep snapping it up. Why else would people eat Chicken McNuggets at McDonald’s? You really should read Michael Pollan’s “In Defense of Food” if you haven’t, as it’s an excellent book, as well as Brian Wansink’s “Mindless Eating.”

    1. Yea. That’s a great point Arielle. Those additives on an industrial scale can lead to some deceptive flavorings. I don’t really have an issue using them at home though because I can easily moderate and control how much I’m adding. I’m also able to control quality of other ingredients.

      Here’s my review of In Defense of Food: http://www.macheesmo.com/2009/05/review-in-defense-of-food/

      I’ll check out the Wansink book also. Thanks for the rec!

  11. My newest favorite is the Lion’s mane mushroom, but the shitake is more readily available and is a natural source of two umami ingredients – MSG and guanosine monophosphate.

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  13. Cocoa umami! Heavy on the savory and just a touch of sweetness.
    The strength of umami vastly reduces / eliminates the need for “best” quality (costly) ingredients.

    The simplest entry to cocoa umami is avocado / mushroom / mocha pudding. Strong umami that never fails. Barely even tastes of avocado!
    Texture is a slightly thin pudding. After tasting you’ll be convinced to try the next (Black bean / tomato) dish.

    Takes about 10 mins to prepare; Single portion (about 150 cals, very healthy, mostly monounsatured fat profile)
    1/2 ripe avocado (about 65gram), peel and mash in a bowl (simply use a fork).
    1/2 tsp (cheap) instant coffee.
    1/2 tsp (cheap) vanilla (imitation vanilin OK)
    1 Tbsp (unsweetened) cocoa (I use Tollhouse brand)
    1 Tbsp sweetener (I use sucralose. Substitute if desired)
    1 to 1.5 Fl oz milk (to adjust final thickness)
    Mix well.
    Grate 50grams fresh (white button / portobella etc) mushroom.
    Stir in.
    Experience that Umami!

    For those that are comfortable with cooking legumes a very luxuriously textured and complexly flavored cocoa umami dish can be made.
    While it takes time and some planning, it is actually quite convenient to make, store and serve several times afterwards. You won’t call it leftovers! In fact , you’ll be hard pressed to make enough to be left over!

    Black bean / Tomato with mushroom, onion and garlic. Finished with mocha mix in.

    Makes 12 servings, of 225grams – about 150 cals each (Divide amts if you wish / but you may be sorry that you didn’t make enough the first time!)
    Base Ingredients;
    575 grams black (turtle) beans.
    15g (Dried) Dashi Konbu (Sea kelp / Laminaria japonica). Found in typical asian markets.
    1Kg Italian plum tomatoes. (Low salt if possible. Less than 100mg sodium / 125g portion. Read the nutrition facts!). I have used Russo Jr and La Fede economy brands (I’ve never used the expensive “Marzano” tomatoes)
    225grams (1/2 lb) white button mushrooms (fresh is better, canned if you must).
    300 grams (Spanish / yellow) onions.
    50grams chopped garlic + more for topping (Jarred in water is OK)

    Method for Base;
    Soak beans – 4+ hours w/7-8 cups water.
    Rinse til water runs clear.
    Cut dried kelp (Konbu) into 1/2 inch x 2 inch strips.
    Place beans in crockpot with 7.5 cups water and Konbu
    Crockpot on high for 7-9 hours. (Take a nap)
    Coarsely chop onion, mushroom and garlic

    Mix in onion, mushroom and garlic. (Don’t be afraid to break a few beans)
    Layer tomatoes on top to cover, sprinkle generously with more chopped garlic.
    move to 350deg oven for 2-3 hours. Top will darken (Strong tomato / garlic aroma).
    Dark bean broth will thicken considerably.

    Serve from the pot or divide and store separate portions in refridgerator.
    [Easily reheated in microwave - 60% power (1100 watt microwave) 3:45 per portion]

    To finish each portion individually; Mix in;
    1/2 tsp vanilla extract (imitation vanillin OK)
    1/2 tsp (cheap) instant coffee
    1 Tbsp (unsweetened) cocoa (I use Tollhouse brand)
    1 Tbsp sweetener (I use Sucralose, substitute if desired)

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