October 15, 2016
Pitch the Salt, Add a Dash of Umami
from Chef George Sideras
Approaching food from a nutrition, health & wellness perspective drives many to seek out ways to make food fit the evolving health expectations of our customers. Too often these strategies focused solely on subtraction: “What can I remove from my dish to meet dietary expectations?”
It’s been a long-term position of mine that creating nutritious food is not about reduction or elimination, but finding ingredients that can contribute to flavor in a more impactful way. In the most simplistic terms, instead of relying on the old maxim, “Do more with less,” we should really challenge ourselves to, “Do more with more.”
It’s often been said that a good Chef uses good ingredients, but a great Chef understands the ingredients and how they are related to the dish as a whole. In order to revise a dish to meet specific nutritional guidelines, one needs to fully understand the ingredients and how each one contributes to the dish’s overall flavor.
To plumb the depths of flavor needed, it helps to understand some basic principles and the interrelationship of taste. While we were taught in school that we have four basic tastes— sweet, sour, bitter and salty, what we were not taught was the taste of umami. This fifth taste is described as ‘savory’, ‘meaty’, and ‘brothy’. In fact, umami is the Japanese word for ‘yummy’. It is essentially the concentration of free glutamates, which in turn enhances the flavor of complementary ingredients. The most remarkable characteristic of umami is that it contributes to flavor by enhancing and binding all other tastes. It’s a synergistic effect, and is in the simplest terms a multiplier.
Chefs have known about this effect for centuries, but only in recent times has it been explored in-depth and the functionality of umami really defined. You find it most often in foods that have been cured, fermented, aged and or braised. Through these processes, the amino acids are broken down and the free glutamates and inosinates are made available to the taste receptors in your palate.
Increased levels of umami can be achieved in several ways, but often times they require expensive ingredients or costly culinary solutions. Examples from Italian cuisine include aged Parmesan cheese, truffles, and prosciutto—are all great sources of umami, but pricey. In these pressing times of unskilled labor and rising food costs, it becomes imperative to find a cost-effective solution to meet these goals. I am happy to report that Minor’s products can be utilized to bring about a cost-effective way to deliver umami into every dish.
I know it’s a lot of technical stuff, but here is where it gets interesting. We have come to rely on sodium to enhance flavor for years without giving it much thought— other than insuring that we don’t use too much and make the dish unpalatable. I maintain that the reason most sodium reduction dishes fail to meet customer expectations is that we don’t understand the relationship between salt and flavor. Salt, while a taste in and of itself, has a much more critical function in flavor. Through its chemical composition and how our taste receptors process it, salt allows the other tastes to interact. Where it become becomes a problem is when too much is used. Umami doesn’t have that problem. You can provide the same flavor enhancement with reduced sodium levels by increasing the overall concentration of umami.
You can reduce the total sodium by substituting any of Minor’s protein bases or concentrates as your principal flavoring device in lieu of free salt. Take for example your favorite chicken salad. If the recipe calls for 1 teaspoon of salt (2300 mg of sodium) and you replace it with two teaspoons of Minor’s Natural Gluten Free Chicken Base (1100 mg of sodium) the result will be a net reduction of sodium AND a huge uptick in umami-rich chicken notes. With the additional increase in flavor, the sodium is never missed. This ratio of 2/1 substitution works across the board regardless of cold or hot applications. It’s a very simple solution to a pressing problem. Every recipe in your kitchen can be modified and enhanced to drive higher customer satisfaction and meet contemporary dietary requirements. As Chefs we are focused on flavor, because we know that Flavor Means Business.
Recently, Minor’s has been awarded the ready-to-eat designation by the USDA. What this means is that you can now use all Minor’s bases and concentrates without the need to heat to 165-degrees or reconstitute in boiling water. Now you can use Minor’s protein flavors, which are rich in umami, freely in hot and cold applications as you would any other dry herb or seasoning.