Have you ever taken a bite of something that immediately made your mouth water? Maybe it had a savory flavor to it? Maybe it tasted meaty even if it wasn’t meat?
What you just had the pleasure of experiencing is the fabled 5th taste: Umami.
It has been talked about a lot over the years but for many home cooks (especially Western home cooks) it can be a bit confusing on where it comes from and, more importantly, how to get it!
So I figured I would do some research on it and I thought that maybe others could benefit from some background on the great 5th taste: UMAMI!
Breaking Down Flavors
When I was learning about the senses in biology class growing up, I remember learning that there were four main flavors that made up the sense of taste: Sweet, Sour, Bitter, and Salty. Any food or flavor that you taste is made up of a combination of those four things.
Whelp, it turns out that my education didn’t just fail me when it came to U.S. history. It also failed me in the taste department.
Turns out there are actually five flavors. Not four.
While Asian cultures have been defining this taste since the early 1900’s, I guess Westerns thought that Asians somehow tasted food differently than we did. We didn’t add the flavor to our list until pretty recently.
What is Umami?
While the four classic flavors are all pretty easy to isolate and describe, the fifth flavor, umami, is a bit harder to pin down.
In Japanese, Umami translates roughly to “Good Flavor” or “Good Taste.” That seems like as good a definition as you can get for it… it’s the flavor of goodness!
Umami is the savory flavor that makes your mouth water. It’s usually a mild taste (unlike bitter or sour foods), but the flavor is long-lasting.
Umami is almost never good except when combined with other flavors. You wouldn’t want to take a spoonful of straight umami flavor… think about doing a shot of fish sauce for example.
Is It Natural?
I think sometimes people confuse Umami with MSG, or mono-sodium glutamate. MSG has a pretty bad reputation, but whether or not you think MSG is dangerous (I, for one, do not) umami is completely different.
It’s true that MSG gives food the umami, savory flavor, but it’s just one way to get that flavor.
There are actually a ton of foods that naturally have the flavor profile built right in. Here are a few completely natural foods that are jam-packed with umami flavor:
- A very ripe tomato
- Almost any kind of meat
- Many grains
Of course, humans are not known for being cool with natural amounts of things. A lot of the umami flavor that you’ll taste in dishes is actually added to the dish.
Common Umami Additives
The science behind flavors and taste is pretty complicated and I quickly got in over my head when I was looking into the chemical additives that yield this umami flavor. Basically, it’s been traced back to a few amino acids that, in combination, give that savory flavor.
For centuries, Asian cuisine has used many different ingredients that are specifically designed to infuse a dish with this umami flavor. For me, I’m just starting to really play around with some of these ingredients while some of them I have been using for years without actually knowing that they were adding this flavor to my dishes.
There are some exotic umami ingredients, but here’s a breakdown of the things that are readily available that you can add to a dish to get this flavor.
Soy Sauce – Maybe the most popular of umami sauces. The thing about soy sauce is it’s kind of beginner’s umami. It’s also very heavy in sodium so it’s pretty easy to use.
Worcestershire Sauce – A common marinade-type sauce that’s very popular in steakhouses. What most people might not know is where this sauce gets its umami flavor from. The answer: anchovies!
Braggs – This is a great alternative to soy sauce if you are allergic to soy. It’s basically a concentration of those amino acids that are known to produce the umami flavor. It has some sodium, but a fraction of what’s in soy sauce. I’m learning that this stuff is good on loads of things!
Fish Sauce – This stuff is very popular in Asia, but gets mixed reviews here in the states. I think that’s because people don’t get how to use it. It’s not a sauce that you eat on its own. You cook with it. It’s way too strong to just sip. It’s made from fermented fish and it’s delicious.
Oyster Sauce – A simple sauce that’s basically boiled oysters that are then mixed with cornstarch and other stuff to thicken it. It’s very flavorful and a small amount of it can give loads of savory flavor to your dish.
MSG – The long-debated seasoning that is basically pure umami. Some people have a sensitivity to it that causes headaches and other adverse health affects, but after a lot of testing, most of these effects have not been able to be linked to MSG in any way. I feel that it’s safe to eat in moderation and I eat it regularly, but if it gives you a headache, then just don’t use it!
Marmite and Vegemite – Very popular in Britain and Australia, these yeast extract products are basically just super-condensed umami spreads. It’s like umami peanut butter.
Dashi – Dashi normally takes the form of a broth made from dried flakes, but there are a bunch of different variations (kelp/sardines/mushrooms/etc). It’s always umami-packed though!
Here’s a few dishes that I’ve made over the years that are jam-packed with umami flavors.
Kimchi Stir Fry – A simple stir fry with a classic fermented ingredient that is very savory.
Cod Curry Bowls – Any curry is going to be jam-packed with umami flavors but this one is spiked with lots of fish sauce for extra savory notes.
Weeknight Penne Puttanesca – Puttanesca is a classic Italian pasta that has a bunch of umami going on. This one is loaded with capers and tuna and is one of my favorite pasta dishes.
Homemade Baba Ganoush – Eggplant has a lot of savory umami flavor, especially when roasted until smokey and mixed with lots of garlic and olive oil.
Slow Cooker Congee – A classic breakfast in many Asian countries, but something that never really caught on in the states. We are missing out because it’s delicious! Don’t forget the soft eggs!
The next time you eat something that makes your mouth water for more, just remember that there’s a name for that flavor!