March 5, 2019
Umami: What It Is and How to Get It
from Chef George Sideras
Umami is a word that’s getting used a lot more lately in cooking, but its role in menu development goes beyond mere flavor.
Sometimes referred to as the “fifth taste” (along with sweet, salty, sour and bitter), umami was first described in 1908 by Professor Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese chemist who noticed that traditional dashi broth tasted more delicious when it was made with dried kombu seaweed.
It turned out that this savory, meaty flavor is the taste of glutamate, an amino acid that is robustly present in protein, as well as foods such as tomatoes and seaweed.
Human desire for umami foods is deeply rooted in biological necessity; in fact, innate preference and rejection of the five basic tastes was critical for survival.
- Sweet is the taste of carbohydrates, necessary for energy
- Salty signals minerals and electrolytes, for homeostasis
- Umami indicates protein, used to build muscles and organs, and to transport molecules within the body
- Sour is the taste of unripe or spoiled food
- Bitter denotes toxicity or poison
Umami is important to chefs because it helps create flavor, aroma, and satiation, and is often present in food that’s described as craveable. Umami helps to minimize overeating, because it makes food more satisfying and filling—it allows you to experience more with less. A great example is ramen: a couple of ounces of noodles and a few vegetables in a rich, savory broth that provides complete satiation and craveability.
In addition, umami can be used to reduce the amount of salt used in food, and to stimulate appetite in the elderly or those with diminished sense of taste, so it has growing applications for healthcare. The aroma component of umami may even have uses in triggering memory among Alzheimer’s patients.
There are many ways to boost the umami component of recipes. Foods that are naturally high in glutamate will provide umami. These include:
* Fish that are heavy swimmers (mackerel, tuna, salmon, sardines), as well as squid and shellfish such as shrimp
* Animal protein including chicken, beef, pork, and lamb—particularly from older animals—as well as milk and eggs
* Non-protein sources of umami such as tomato, corn, leek, celery, onion, cabbage, mushrooms, truffles, and spinach, and also seaweed
Foods that have been aged, ripened, cured, dried, or fermented contain more umami in the form of free glutamate, such as Parmesan or Swiss Gruyère cheese, ham, anchovies, sundried tomatoes, and sauerkraut. Cooking methods such as sautéing, braising, and roasting also intensify umami by increasing the glutamate content of foods.
Principles of Synergistic Taste explain what happens when several umami ingredients are combined, or when umami is manipulated through culinary technique. That’s why a steak or a bacon cheeseburger heaped with sautéed mushrooms and onions makes for an umami bomb of craveability.
Because umami can be thought of as a product of time and temperature (such as the time-consuming process of roasting and simmering bones to make stock) and expense (shiitake mushrooms and aged Parmesan are pricey!), Minor’s® products provide a good alternative.
* Maggi® is umami in a bottle; just add this fermented liquid seasoning wherever a kick of flavor is needed
* Rubbing a chicken breast with a light topical coating of a complementary Minor’s Base —such as chicken, mushroom, or bacon—before cooking boosts umami because the free glutamates disperse immediately on the tongue * Minor’s Classical Reductions can be hydrated to form a paste to brush onto a food after cooking to produce not only topical umami, but also aroma and an appealing shine
* Build and deepen flavor by adding an acid such as lemon juice or sherry vinegar and/or a flavor concentrate such as Minor’s Herb de Provence or Roasted Garlic