Umami – The Delicious 5th Taste You Need to Master!

Though this may seem to be the latest buzzword in the culinary field, the umami taste has been around literally forever. It’s actually one of the five basic tastes, as are sweet, sour, salty and bitter. The umami taste is savory and is most often associated with meats such as cured ham, seafood including anchovies and dried bonito as well as tomatoes, mushrooms, and some cheeses. Would you know it if you tasted it, or would you just think that the dish had that “extra something”? By the end of this article, you’re going to know all about umami so read on!

Literally translated, the Japanese word umami means “delicious taste” or “pleasant savory taste” and was coined by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he discovered that monosodium glutamate, naturally present in some foods, reacts synergistically with some ribonucleotides, including

Umami – how humans experience taste

Inosinate and guanylate. That sounds really scientific but what it basically means is that chemicals in some foods interact in a special way to really impress your taste buds.

Umami has a mild but lasting aftertaste difficult to describe. If a flavor had to be assigned to the term umami, it would be meaty and brothy with a tongue-coating savoriness that causes salivation.

If you want to truly elevate the flavors of your dishes, you need to understand the science behind umami. But don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! We’ll explain you the science, list the naturally rich umami foods you should know about and discuss how some of the top chefs in the world are incorporating umami to their signature dishes.

Dr. Ole Mourtisen, from Center for Biomembrane Physics at the University of Southern Denmark, recently presented “Deliciousness and the Science Behind It” at an Experimental Cuisine Collective meeting. Dr. Mourtisen has written several papers about umami with very interesting findings that we’ll cover here.

The Discovery of Umami

Umami has been recognized as an independent flavor for more than a hundred years in several different cultures. The Romans have actually cooked with glutamate for centuries as have the Japanese but it was just another undefined flavor to add to dishes.

Umami dashi – kombu and katsuobushiAs we’ve already discussed, the actual attempts to define umami started in 1908 when Professor Kikunae discovered that monosodium glutamate (MSG) was one of the main flavor components in dashi, a delicious aqueous Japanese broth that’s used similarly in Japanese cuisine to the way that Westerners use beef stock or bouillon. The glutamate he found in dashi came from kombu, a large brown seaweed used to make dashi.

The other key component in dashi is katsuobushi, dried bonito fish. In 1913, much to the surprise of many, Shintaro Kodama found that it was the inosinate released from the katsoubushi that elevated the umami taste in dashi. In 1957, Akira Kininaka completed the initial round of umami discoveries when he figured out that guarylate, a compound found in dried shiitake mushrooms, was also an umami flavor contributor. Dried shiitake mushrooms are usually used instead of katsoubushi in vegetarian versions of dashi.

Umami synergistic effectPeople began to suspect that these three components interacted with each other in a way that really elevates the umami flavor in many foods such as dashi. The key, then, is to find ingredients that have high amounts of glutamate and either of the nucleotides such as is found in sun-dried tomatoes or dried mushrooms.

The final nail that secured umami as a 5th basic taste right up there with sweet, salty, bitter and sour was the discovery in year 2000 of an actual umami taste receptor in human taste buds that was dubbed taste-mGluR4. It was now officially scientifically proven and umami was formally recognized as an independent basic flavor.

By itself, the taste of pure MSG is not necessarily pleasant and it has been described as salty, soapy and broth-like. But it makes a great variety of foods pleasant especially in the presence of a matching aroma within a relatively narrow concentration range. MSG in excess amounts makes the food less palatable and an optimum amount appears to be around the concentration found in many natural foods, typically 0.1–0.8% by weight.

Umami Isn’t Just Another Taste

One of the reasons that umami was designated as an independent flavor is because the MSG and the ribonucleotides combine to make a flavor that either ingredient alone simply doesn’t contribute. It’s this elevation in taste that leads to such pairings as the bonito and kombu seaweed in dashi.

In addition to rounding out the flavors of dishes such as dashi where it’s the predominant flavor, umami also elevates some of the other basic flavors, sweet and salty in particular. For example, when paired with salty flavors, the saltiness is elevated to the point that you can actually use up to 40% less salt than you typically would without negatively impacting the taste of the dish.

Umami does the same thing for fatty flavors. For instance, just a little bit of dashi added to clam chowder or other soups infuses a slightly smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon without actually using the fatty ingredient.

If you’d like to consciously use umami in order to decrease sodium levels in your fish or meat dishes, using dashi or veal stock are excellent options. Another great umami flavor combination that nearly everybody recognizes is sun dried tomatoes, dried shiitake mushrooms and parmesan cheese, as are found in many different Italian dishes.  Remember that if an umami recipe calls for fermented, dried, or sundried ingredients, it’s important to use those versions instead of the fresh in order to obtain the ultimate umami profile.

Foods That Contain Large Amounts of Natural Umami

Some foods are naturally rich in both glutamate and one of the ribonucleotides and thus deliver a rich, deep umami taste, especially when paired with other umami foods. Glutamate is found in many different foods including meats, seafood and many vegetables. Guanylate is more often found in vegetables and inosinate, if present, will generally be found in meats.

Umami – glutamate in ripening tomatoMost raw meats and vegetables contain high levels of glutamic acid (glutamate in acid form) but it is bound in proteins. Glutamic acid imparts little umami taste; whereas the salts of glutamic acid, known as glutamates, can easily ionize and give the characteristic umami taste. Therefore, the bounded glutamic acid found in many common foods needs to be released to produce umami taste. To provide umami, most raw foods need to be processed to break down the proteins into free amino acids and the nucleic acids into free nucleotides.

Umami – glutamate in aging cheddar cheeseProcesses such as cooking, boiling, steaming, simmering, roasting, braising, broiling, smoking, drying, maturing, marinating, salting, ageing and fermenting all contribute to the degrading of the cells and the macromolecules of which the foodstuff is made. Of these processes, fermenting, by microbes such as yeast and bacteria or by enzymes, is by far the most potent method of freeing umami compounds. That’s one of the reasons why fermentation has become a hot topic for scientists and chefs including Chef Rene Redzepi at his Nordic Food Lab and the momofuku team, led by Chef David Chang.

Umami – The Delicious 5th Taste You Need to Master!

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