Confident home cooking

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!