Demystifying Umami

Name the five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and . . . having trouble? The fifth you’re looking for is umami. My mother, who is Japanese, translated the word for me as “good taste.” But umami also connotes a deeper meaning in both Japan and here in the West; savory, delicious, the “something” you can’t put your finger on that just makes a dish.

umami-post How Does Umami Taste?

It's a sensation as much as it is a flavor. When something feels full in your mouth, like it coats your tongue with “mmmm, that’s umami.” It’s what gives wine mouthfeel and deglazed sauces their richness. It’s why a tomato sauce with mushrooms has so much depth and why a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano does wonders to just about anything. These are foods and cooking techniques that unleash the power of umami.

What is Umami?

Our tongue is covered with receptors that are designed to perceive certain flavors. The most specialized receptors are those that identify the amino acid called glutamate (the amino acid most plentiful in protein), which creates the basic umami inherent in some foods. Other foods, when combined with ingredients that already have basic umami, activate nucleotides to send messages to the brain amplifying the umami effect in what’s called “synergizing umami.” Certain chemical reactions, too, can exponentially increase the umami sensation by breaking down the proteins of a food into its amino acid building blocks.

How Do I Create Umami?

This can be as simple as choosing foods already rich in basic umami, like ripe tomatoes and late-summer corn. But learning how to use “synergizing umami” techniques and ingredients will help you enhance the umami of almost any dish.

  • Use cooking techniques—Searing, roasting, stewing and braising are all techniques that develop umami; those little browned bits at the bottom of the pan that make the sauce so flavorful are denatured proteins—including glutamate—that our bodies can instantly use, cranking up a food’s umami index. Aging, curing and fermenting are other techniques that break down proteins into “free” amino acids and develops the umami in foods. Think aged cheese and steaks, cured meats, and fermented foods like kimchi and sourdough bread (wine and beer too).
  • Add ingredients—You can also amp up the umami and balance flavors in a dish by adding a dash of a synergizing umami ingredient. Mushrooms are renowned for their ability to enhance umami, which is why even a little bit of minced porcini added to a sauce can make such a grand impact. Darker fin fishes, like anchovies, also add umami; try adding a minced anchovy to a dressing and see how the flavor changes. Small amounts of cured meats can amplify the flavor of foods without making a meal meat-centric. Think of a lentil or pea soup with a bit of ham or bacon; much richer with than without. And if you’ve ever heard of someone’s grandmother adding a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind to a soup, now you know why—it’s for the umami it imparts. A splash of soy sauce, ketchup, fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce are also ways to heighten umami.

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.

Share The Love!

NOURISH-EVOLUTION-recipe-download-img

Lorem ipsum dolor

Consectetur Adipiscing Elit, Sed Do Eiusmod Tempor Incididunt Ut Labore Et Dolore Magna Aliqua.

Hey there ... I'm Lia Huber

Hey there ... I'm Lia Huber

My mission is to inspire and equip you to live a richer life through real food by becoming a more competent, confident home cook.


I’m the author of Nourished: A Memoir of Food, Faith, and Enduring Love, founder and CEO of Nourish Evolution, and the creator of Cook the Seasons, Home Cooking School, and the Real Food Reset, and I empower intentional women to cook in a way that brings them (and their families) joy, health, and ease.

Making the shift from processed food to real food doesn’t happen overnight. It’s an evolution that occurs over time, with effort, intention, and belief. And it will change the course of your life. Are you ready to take the first step? I’m so glad you’re here … and I’m honored to be with you on the journey to becoming nourished!

Nourish Evolution video

Watch the video and download the customized action plan to take the first step on your nourish evolution now.

Watch the video and download my customized action plan to take the first step on your nourish evolution now.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE:

Sticky-Sweet Sugar Snap Peas

This simple side dish adds Asian flair to any meal. These sugar snaps are delicious hot out of the pan or at room temperature for lunch the next day. Mirin is a sweet wine made from glutinous rice that’s a staple of Japanese cooking.

Read More

Radish and Feta Flatbread

This is based on a bar snack Alison spotted while, well, sitting at the counter at a local wine bar watching the bartender turn out quick pizza-like snacks with lavash (a type of Armenian flatbread), a variety of toppings and a toaster oven.

Read More

Sauteed Spring Mushrooms

Use any combo of wild spring mushrooms you find for this simple saute—porcini, shiitake, oyster, morel, hedgehog, etc. Or add creminis (brown mushrooms) to the mix.

Read More

Privacy Policy

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Proin vel ullamcorper nisl. Praesent tincidunt nibh sit amet sagittis porttitor. Class aptent taciti sociosqu ad litora torquent per conubia nostra, per inceptos himenaeos. Maecenas euismod ullamcorper libero, quis sollicitudin metus ullamcorper et. Curabitur elementum tincidunt fringilla. Vestibulum a ligula vitae dui rutrum consectetur non nec quam. Aliquam gravida ornare erat, sit amet lobortis massa sagittis pellentesque. Sed dapibus sed est nec blandit. Curabitur tellus felis, porttitor et odio nec, elementum aliquam sem. Nam ut dui enim. Nullam ac ornare odio. Nullam pulvinar purus porttitor dolor gravida lobortis.

Ut pulvinar pulvinar neque ut euismod. In tempor placerat risus, ut tempus eros congue vel. Ut venenatis ultricies magna, porta hendrerit dolor posuere ut. In sit amet tempor ante, eget lacinia ipsum. Nunc in condimentum ex. Sed sit amet urna ultrices, euismod urna vitae, sollicitudin orci. Quisque non justo convallis, scelerisque nulla sit amet, tincidunt augue.