Sense Series: Umami
How much do you know about Umami: “The Fifth Taste?”
If you enjoy food, chances are you are well aware of the four main categories of taste: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. (And if you’ve been following along on our blog series, you should know even more about some of these, along with the additional flavor “sensation” of spicy.)
These four main types of taste are easily understood and identified. You may have a preferred type of taste; perhaps you would categorize yourself as a “sweet tooth” or “salty snack lover.” You can probably even picture a specific food item that represents each category to you, such as lemons for sour.
But there’s also a fifth taste, called umami, and it’s a bit more complicated to explain.
All About Umami
Umami, which means “delicious taste” in Japanese, is probably best described as “savory.” It was first discovered in 1908 by Japanese chemist, Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who observed a unique quality in Dashi (a seaweed-based soup popular in Japanese cuisine). This taste, he found, was distinct from the other four basic flavors and unable to be produced by combining them. He was able to determine that the taste of umami in a particular food comes from the presence of the amino acid, L-glutamate.
This amino acid, and its umami flavor companion, is present in many plant and animal-based proteins. Its characteristic is accentuated in aged, cured, cooked, and fermented foods—processes which allow for the amino acids to break down, leading to more concentrated flavors.
In general terms, umami makes food taste more flavorful and appetizing. It also helps to balance or emphasize the other four flavors. For example, it can make sugar seem sweeter or reduce the need for salt.
The complexity of this flavor, and reliance on science for its discovery, are a few of the reasons umami was only recently accepted (in the 1980-90s) as the fifth type of taste on a global scale. However, in recent years, it has become increasingly popular and sought after in the culinary world.
Chefs are always look for ways to add umami “flavor-bombs” to their cuisine, by combining unique and intriguing ingredients. But you don’t have to be a high-end cook to enjoy umami-foods.
Here are some everyday foods that are rich in Umami:
- Meats, especially when dry-aged or cured, like charcuterie or salami
- Cheeses, especially aged ones like parmesan
- Tomato products, like sundried tomatoes, ketchup, and tomato paste
- Mushrooms, especially darker-colored varieties like truffles, shiitake, and morels
- Fermented soybean products, like miso paste or soy sauce
- Fish sauces, such as ones made from anchovies, shrimp, or oysters
- (This includes the popular Worcestershire sauce, which is made from anchovies.)
- Potatoes and sweet potatoes
- Fish and shellfish
- Broths, soups, and gravies
- Seaweed and kelp
- Vegetables, such as cabbage, spinach, onions, carrots, celery, asparagus
Curious about ways to incorporate these flavors into your cooking to build powerful, complex dishes? Take a look at some of our featured umami-centric recipes:
Pork Banh Mi
Banh mi is a Vietnamese-style sandwich of marinated meat (in this case, pork) and pickled veggies, and it’s packed full of flavor! The marinade uses fish sauce and soy sauce (two umami-rich ingredients), lemongrass, sugar, sesame oil, shallots, and garlic, among other flavors, giving it a robustness and special depth of flavor. The finishing elements of pickled carrots and daikon radish help to balance out the richness with a hint of sweet-and-sour, plus a bit of textural crunch.
Meatloaf with Mushroom Gravy
Beef in itself has plenty of umami character, but mix in sautéed mushrooms, Worcestershire sauce, a flavorful seasoning blend, plus a comforting mushroom and beef stock gravy (not to mention a side serving of mashed potatoes and roasted carrots), and you have the ultimate umami flavor-bomb.
More Umami Recipes:
- Chicken Pasta Bake with Parmesan Breadcrumbs
- Bacon Mushroom Dip
- Chicken Bacon Ranch Sandwiches
- Grilled Asparagus Subs
- Crispy Baked Shrimp
- Chicken Caesar Sliders
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