What Exactly Is Umami? Experts Weigh In On The Science & Flavor Of This Taste
You have five basic tastes—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami (pronounced oo-maa-mee). While the first four are more widely understood, umami is arguably the most important when it comes to developing deep flavor in your cooking.
Have you ever seen a recipe that calls for adding dried shiitake mushrooms, simmering a Parmesan cheese rind, or throwing in a few splashes of soy or Worcestershire sauce? Those are all attempts to add some umami.
But while most culinary experts agree that umami is the key to rich flavor, it's a taste that's pretty difficult to describe. Here, we break down the science behind umami, which foods have it, and how you can use it to elevate your dishes.
What is umami?
Because umami is hard to define, we enlisted the help of Ole G. Mouritsen, Ph.D., DSc, professor of gastrophysics and culinary food innovation and author of Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste.
"Umami is a basic taste (along with sweet, sour, bitter, and salty). Its peculiar characteristic is that it is long-lingering, mouth-filling, and leads to both appetite and satiety," he says. "It is prominent in fermented food (soy sauce, miso, fish sauce, mature cheeses), cured ham, and a range of marine products (fish, shellfish, cephalopods, certain seaweeds)."
Umami was originally "discovered" in 1908 when chemist and food lover Kikunae Ikeda finally put a name to it (even though the flavor had already been part of our palate forever), according to BBC. However, it wasn't until 1990 that it was officially recognized as the fifth taste.
The umami taste mostly comes from an amino acid called glutamate, but two other compounds—inosinate and guanylate—also impart the flavor. Typically, these compounds are found in protein-rich foods (amino acids come from proteins). When you eat foods with umami, these compounds bind with receptors in your mouth and your gastrointestinal tract and send signals to your brain that help you pick up on the flavor.
Interestingly, when umami hits these receptors, it also makes your mouth water and triggers your stomach to increase its production of stomach acid, which helps you digest the proteins in the food you're eating.
The link between umami and MSG.
The name glutamate may be ringing a bell because of monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is actually a commercially produced umami flavor. Shortly after Ikeda discovered umami—or at least put a name to it—he got to work isolating it in a lab.
A year later, after figuring out the molecular formula of the taste that is umami, he was able to mass-produce it, bottle it up, and sell it as Ajinomoto, which means "essence of taste" in Japanese. At the time, it was known as glutamic salt, but now, it's sold as MSG. To this day, it comes in a bottle and resembles salt that you can easily sprinkle into foods that you're cooking.
But isn't MSG bad for you?
The short answer is: No one really knows for sure. There's some research that links MSG to things like anxiety, headaches, weight gain, and metabolic disorders. That's because glutamate is an excitatory neurotransmitter, meaning it turns on your nervous system and revs you up, so to speak.
But most of the studies that connected MSG to ill health effects used a really large amount—more than you would ever normally consume. And a December 2018 report in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism shows that dietary glutamate doesn't cross the blood-brain barrier and, as a result, doesn't actually increase the glutamate levels in your brain.
Nevertheless, it's hard to ignore the anecdotal stories from people who say they experience anxiety, brain fog, fatigue, and mood swings after consuming MSG. It's possible that some people are extra sensitive to the effects of MSG and others do OK with small amounts.
Whether you use MSG as a quick way to add umami to your foods is a personal decision. That being said, if possible, it's best to achieve the flavor with whole food and natural ingredients, just in case.
So, what does it taste like?
There's no easy way to explain what umami tastes like, but integrative dietitian Marisa Moore, MBA, RDN, L.D., says, "When I think of umami, I think deep, savory flavor." And that's the most common descriptor across the board. In addition to "savory," other people say umami is meaty or broth-like.
The best way to describe it is probably to say that it tastes like richly developed Ramen broth. Not the broth you get from the little packets at the store, but the Ramen that comes from a really authentic Asian restaurant. It's flavorful, satisfying, and kind of lingers on your taste buds, even after your food is gone.
How can you add umami to your cooking?
So, how do you get that umami flavor in your own dishes? Moore recommends adding miso to salad dressings, Parmesan cheese rinds to simmering soups, and mushrooms to stews. Here are some more tips for adding umami to your cooking:
- Add miso paste or dried mushroom powder to soups and stews.
- Add fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, and/or Worcestershire sauce to stir fries.
- Add tomato paste or ketchup to ground meats, hamburgers, or meatloaves.
- Roast green vegetables with whole mushrooms. Mouritsen explains that there's very little umami in greens; that's why many people find it difficult to eat their vegetables.
- Add a little cured meat to dishes.
You can also get that umami flavor by adding any of these 40 foods and ingredients to your dishes:
- Cured ham
- Soy sauce
- Parmesan cheese
- Roquefort cheese
- Gouda cheese
- Cheddar cheese
- Comte cheese
- Emmental cheese
- Dried shiitake mushrooms (fresh shiitake mushrooms have it too, just not as much)
- Enoki mushrooms
- Shimeji mushrooms
- Portobello mushrooms
- Kombu seaweeds
- Nori seaweeds
- Soy sauce
- Fish sauce/oyster sauce
- Yellowtail tuna
The bottom line.
Umami is the least familiar (and probably toughest to explain) of the primary flavors, but most people describe it as savory, meaty, or broth-like. When you concentrate on adding umami to your cooking, your food will almost certainly taste better.
MSG is a commercial form of umami that makes it easy to achieve the flavor in any dish, but with mixed opinions on how it affects your health, it may be best to rely on whole food ingredients, like dried mushrooms, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, and miso, instead.
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