Savoring the Science of The Umami taste: How To Master Deliciousness In Your Food
Umami, the fifth basic taste, has been the subject of scientific research for over a century. Described as meaty or brothy, umami is found naturally in certain foods and is created by the presence of glutamate and other compounds. We'll take a deep dive into the science behind umami, exploring why it's so enjoyable and how it can be used to enhance the flavor of our favorite dishes. We'll also examine different sources of umami and explore how to create a harmonious blend of umami-rich ingredients for a well-rounded taste experience.
What is Umami?
Derived from the Japanese word "umai," which translates to "delicious," umami is a savory taste that was first identified by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Unlike the four basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, umami is a bit more enigmatic. It is often described as a rich, brothy, meaty, or savory flavor that imparts a mouthwatering sensation, making dishes more satisfying and crave-worthy. Compared to sugar or acid, it is harder to describe. I also feel it is best explained by the taste “mouthful of rich meaty flavor”. Imagine you eat a piece of parmesan; you will first feel it salty and a bit sweet. But the taste which stays in your mouth after eating the cheese: this is full-on umami.
From a chemical point of view, umami is a general term used mainly for substances combining the amino acid glutamate, and/or the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate, with minerals such as sodium and potassium.
Why do we like umami tastes?
From a biological point of view, when our taste buds detect umami, the brain interprets it as an indication of protein-rich food, which is essential for our survival and overall health. Umami makes our mouth salivate because it stimulates our taste receptors and signals our brain that we're consuming something nutritious and savory, such as proteins. Salivation is an essential part of the digestion process, as it helps to break down food and prepare it for further digestion in the stomach.
Even newborn babies are not immune to the allure of umami. Breast milk, a primary source of nutrition for infants, contains high levels of the umami component glutamate. What's more, amniotic fluid, which surrounds a developing fetus, also contains umami, making it a familiar taste even before birth.
For babies, taste is a crucial signal that helps them determine whether what they have consumed is nutritious or harmful. In a study by J. E. Steiner et al., 1987, involving four-month-old infants transitioning to solid food, researchers found that when sour or bitter solutions were placed in their mouths, their facial expressions indicated rejection of the taste. In contrast, when offered a sweet liquid, the babies appeared calm and content.
Interestingly, when the infants were given vegetable soup, their faces twisted in a slight grimace. But when umami was added to the soup, they exhibited the same degree of satisfaction as when given the sweet liquid. This suggests that umami has a unique appeal, even for developing palates, and can make foods more enjoyable and satisfying.
How Umami Impacts Our Taste buds
Our taste buds, those minuscule marvels of our tongue, house specialized cells called taste receptor cells. These cells are equipped with proteins that act as gatekeepers, detecting and responding to different tastes. When it comes to umami, the star of the show is the amino acid glutamate, which is naturally found in many savory foods such as tomatoes, mushrooms, and aged cheeses. Glutamate is the key that unlocks the umami experience in our mouths.
As glutamate makes its grand entrance onto the taste bud stage, it binds to specific proteins called "umami receptors." These specialized receptors are designed to recognize and latch onto glutamate molecules, initiating a series of chemical reactions. This molecular tango sends an electrical signal to the brain, informing it that we're enjoying something deliciously savory.
The umami taste triggers the production of saliva, as the body prepares to digest and absorb the nutrients from the food. Saliva contains enzymes like amylase and lipase, which help break down carbohydrates and fats, respectively. The increased production of saliva not only aids in digestion but also helps dissolve the food particles, allowing the taste receptors to better recognize the flavors.
Different Sources of Umami in Foods
1. Ingredients rich in Umami
Umami's distinctive taste is attributed to the natural presence of glutamates in foods, particularly the amino acid L-glutamate, and certain nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate.
You should not only look for glutamate-rich foods but rather strive to achieve umami "synergy." In fact, when some umami-rich foods mingle with other umami-rich flavors, they amplify each other's appeal, creating a more intense and satisfying taste experience. In fact, umami's allure extends beyond glutamate: certain nucleotides, such as inosinate and guanylate, also contribute to umami's sensory appeal. Found in ingredients like meat and seafood, these compounds have a synergistic effect when combined with glutamate, boosting umami's impact on our taste buds even further.
This is where the Japanese broth dashi, using both kombu high in glutamate and bonito flakes high in inosinate, unlocks the most umami intensity.
For reference: glutamates are found naturally in various foods, which can be broadly categorized into three groups:
- Animal-based umami sources: Many types of meat, fish, and seafood are rich in umami. Think aged beef, cured ham, anchovies, and shellfish. Dairy products like Parmesan cheese, blue cheese, and even breast milk contain significant levels of umami compounds.
- Plant-based umami sources: Some vegetables and mushrooms are packed with umami goodness. Tomatoes, sweet potatoes, carrots, and peas are excellent examples. Mushrooms, particularly shiitake and porcini, are also umami superstars. Finally, seaweeds such as Kumbu are excellent sources of glutamate. This is key information, especially for vegetarians, to impart fantastic taste to meat-free dishes.
- Fermented and aged products: Many fermented or aged foods, such as soy sauce, miso, Worcestershire sauce, fish sauce, and aged vinegars or red wine, boast high umami levels due to the breakdown of proteins during fermentation or aging.
2. Umami-rich additives: MSG
We could not talk about the pursuit of umami without mentioning monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a potent, yet contentious, umami flavor enhancer. It is a fact that the sodium salt of glutamic acid, MSG brings forth a concentrated burst of umami, breathing life into the flavors of a dish. So, I asked myself… Why should I bother with all the complexity of umami-rich ingredients when I could just add MSG to a dish for a guaranteed umami boost? As often, easy shortcuts have hidden traps…
The simplicity of MSG's umami enhancement is both its charm and its constraint. While it undeniably amplifies the savory depth of a dish, it lacks the multifaceted flavors and textures offered by ingredients such as mushrooms, tomatoes, or aged cheeses. In this sense, MSG is reminiscent of synthetic vanilla, falling short of the full-bodied experience of the real thing. I like to think of it as the "salt of umami." Like salt, it enhances the overall taste of a dish without significantly changing its inherent flavors. However, layering natural sources of salt, such as anchovies or cheese, will bring much more complexity and depth to a dish.
A note on safety concerns: some individuals have reported experiencing mild symptoms like headaches, flushing, or sweating upon consuming large amounts of MSG. However, scientific studies have yet to corroborate the existence of an "MSG syndrome" or a widespread sensitivity to the additive. Regulatory bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration endorse MSG as safe for consumption, casting aside the myth of the so-called "Chinese restaurant syndrome."
Creating Umami Through Cooking
Umami does not only come from ingredients but rather from cooking techniques as well. For instance:
- Browning and caramelization: The Maillard reaction, a chemical process that occurs when proteins and sugars interact under heat, is the secret behind the rich, complex flavors produced when browning and caramelizing food. By searing meat (the browning on it is the Maillard reaction), roasting vegetables, or toasting grains, you can unlock the umami potential hidden within these ingredients. For example, roasting tomatoes or caramelizing onions intensifies their inherent umami flavors.
- Slow cooking: Slow and steady wins the umami race. Techniques like braising, stewing, or simmering allow the ingredients to meld and develop deeper, more complex flavors over time. The prolonged exposure to low heat helps to break down proteins and release glutamate, the amino acid responsible for umami taste. This method works especially well for dishes like soups, stews, and slow-cooked meats.
- Fermentation and aging: As mentioned before, the process of fermentation and aging can transform the flavor profile of ingredients, often enhancing their umami characteristics. Soy sauce, miso, fish sauce, and aged cheeses like Parmesan are prime examples of fermented or aged foods that boast high umami content. Incorporate these ingredients into your recipes or try fermenting vegetables, like kimchi or sauerkraut, to give your dishes an umami boost.
- Concentrating flavors: Reducing sauces and stocks by simmering them over low heat helps concentrate the flavors, allowing the umami compounds to shine. Similarly, using dried ingredients like mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, or dried seaweed can pack a powerful umami punch in your dishes. Rehydrate them in water, and then use the soaking liquid as a flavorful broth or sauce base.
How to Use Umami in Your Cooking
Now that we've explored umami, let's discuss how you can incorporate this delightful taste into your own day-to-day cooking at home:
- Use umami-rich ingredients: Enhance your recipes by incorporating ingredients high in umami, such as tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, or cured meats. For example, add a splash of soy sauce or fish sauce to your soups and stews for an extra layer of flavor. Grate some Parmesan cheese on your salad or include a handful of sun-dried tomatoes in your sandwich for a delightful umami boost.
- Leverage the umami synergy: Combine multiple umami sources containing both glutamates and inosinate molecules to create a more profound flavor experience. For example, a pasta dish with tomato sauce, mushrooms, olives, and Parmesan cheese will create a rich, savory taste sensation. Don't be afraid to mix umami from different cultures: soy sauce in tomato sauce? I do it all the time.
- Do not shy away from MSG: In my opinion, one should not fear MSG, as it serves as an effective quick shortcut for amplifying umami in a variety of dishes. However, it is crucial to recognize that MSG's role is best suited for enhancing flavors, not solely carrying the umami profile of a dish. Instead, combine MSG with more intricate sources of umami, such as mushrooms, tomatoes, or aged cheeses, to create a harmonious balance of flavors, ensuring that the dish's taste remains rich and satisfying.
- Experiment with cooking techniques: Intentionally leveraging on slow cooking, roasting, and caramelizing can help develop umami flavors in your ingredients. For example, try roasting tomatoes or caramelizing onions to unlock their umami potential. Braise meats or vegetables in a rich sauce to intensify their savory depth. Grilling or searing ingredients like mushrooms, eggplant, or tofu can also bring out their umami characteristics.
- Balance umami with other tastes: Umami works best when balanced with other flavors, such as salt, acidity, sweetness, and heat. Salt will enhance the umami flavor profiles while acidity will counterbalance it. For example, a dash of vinegar or a squeeze of lemon juice can help cut through the richness of an umami-heavy dish.
In conclusion, umami is the key to unlocking flavor perfection in your cooking. By understanding the science behind this fifth basic taste, you can elevate your culinary creations to the next level. Experiment with umami-rich ingredients, combine different sources of umami, and try out different cooking techniques to create dishes that are rich, savory, and satisfying. Don't be afraid to use MSG as a quick shortcut, but remember to balance it with more intricate sources of umami. We hope this guide has inspired you to explore the wonderful world of umami in your own kitchen. Leave me a comment below and share your own tips and tricks for incorporating umami into your cooking!