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.
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.
Jacqueline 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.