You’ve probably heard celebrity chefs talk about creating dishes that are “umami bombs” – food so packed with flavor that diners can’t resist. But what exactly is umami, and what about it makes food so irresistibly delicious? More importantly, how can you capitalize on the unique properties of umami to create your own “umami bombs” to entice even the pickiest of eaters? Read on to learn more about the fascinating history of umami, and some tips on upping the umami factor in your own healthy home cooking.
The History of Umami
Sometimes referred to as the “fifth taste,” – the other four being salty, sweet, bitter, and sour–
umami roughly translated from Japanese means “delicious” or “pleasant savory taste.”
According to the Umami Information Center, the flavor is imparted in food by glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid, along with other naturally occurring compounds. Monosodium glutamate (MSG), a rich source of umami and the culprit behind so-called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome,” is both naturally occurring in various foods and synthesized in the lab as a common food additive. MSG was discovered way back in 1908 by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikea, who found that kombu seaweed, a common ingredient in Japanese stocks like dashi, was a source of naturally occurring MSG. He named the savory taste it imparts “umami,” but wasn’t until recently that scientists finally confirmed that humans do, indeed, have taste receptors on our tongues that account for the special umami flavor, distinct from the other primary tastes of salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. (Commercially made MSG was first produced in Japan in 1909 and continues to be an extremely common food additive today.)
What’s really interesting is that the different compounds that make up the “umami” taste can be combined to create an especially magnified umami flavor. Many cooks all over the world and throughout history have combined these kinds of foods together instinctively, long before umami was scientifically discovered. In Japanese cuisine, dashi soup stock has been used for more than a thousand years in many Japanese dishes. Dashi combines two foods rich in different umami substances, kombu seaweed and dried bonito (fish) flakes. This “synergistic effect,” as the Umami Information Center calls it, is also found in Western cuisine – for example, the combination of onions and browned meat, or tomato sauce, pasta, and Parmesean cheese. Lots of umami flavor in a dish can also help to reduce the amount of sodium needed to make the food flavorful.
Choosing Umami-Rich Foods
If you’re like me, you’re wary of commercially made MSG, sold as a salt-like crystalline powder – it doesn’t really fit in with my personal clean eating ethos. But the good news is that umami flavor occurs naturally in many common delicious and good-for-you foods.
- Fermented and aged foods: Often found in cuisines around the world these foods contain high levels of umami, including many cheeses, cured meats, miso paste, and kimchi.
- Vegetables: High levels of umami are also found in many vegetables – most commonly in ripe tomatoes, asparagus, soybeans, potatoes, Chinese cabbage, sweet potatoes, and mushrooms.
- Seafood: Both fresh and dried seafood are another rich source of umami flavor – especially shellfish, prawns, tuna, and mackerel.
- Condiments:You probably won’t be surprised to learn that many of the most common condiments and sauces have high levels of umami flavor compounds, as well – foods like ketchup, Worcestershire sauce, soy and fish sauces, and tomato sauce. Wheat gluten, too, is high in umami-rich glutamate (“glutamate” comes from the word “gluten”).
Chefs have known for years that foods with lots of umami are practically irresistible, and have recently been combining umami-rich foods in creative ways – far beyond traditional food combinations. Chef Adam Fleischman, founder of the popular Umami Burger, is one of the most famous of these chefs working to capitalize on our innate love of all things umami. His signature burger combines more than 10 umami-rich foods, including beef, slow roasted tomatoes with soy sauce, porcini and shiitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, and ketchup, among others. And Chef David Chang, of Momofuku fame and noted MSG non-hater, has a culinary lab dedicated to understanding umami (among other things) and how to create flavorful dishes from umami-laden foods.
Creating Your Own “Umami-Bombs”
So how can you harness the savory power of umami to boost the flavor of home-cooked meals and create your very own “umami bombs”? Chefs from Momofuku’s test kitchen say that umami-packed food is in our reach without a fancy restaurant kitchen. These are my favorite pro-umami cooking tips:
- Miso paste: Long ago, I stole an umami-bomb idea after eating at Momofuku, where I had a side dish of corn with miso butter. Now, I make miso butter all the time (just combine a tablespoon or two of white miso paste with organic butter) to sauté vegetables in. Even the pickiest of eaters will be hard-pressed to dislike miso-butter sautéed veggies.
- Parmesan: I put real Parmesan cheese in everything for a delicious flavor boost. Aged real Parmesan (not the stuff in the green can) has some of the highest levels of umami of any food. I especially love Parm with beans and grains – try a sprinkle of it grated over brown rice, or toss a small Parmesan cheese rind in with your next batch of lentil soup (discard the rind before you serve) to add a tremendous amount of flavor.
- Ripe tomatoes: This is another one from the Momofuku crew, they suggest you grate a ripe tomato into your next batch of vinaigrette for an easy flavor punch. I love to add a bit of tomato paste, lightly browned in a tiny bit of extra virgin olive oil, to soups and stews to boost flavor without adding too much salt or fat. Harnessing the power of umami is an easy and delicious way to take your home cooking to the next level.