Umami is a strange flavor. Scientists now claim it is a basic taste alongside salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. But it is not easy to detect. We immediately identify sweetness or saltiness–umami is more subtle. Although much of the world has been unknowingly enjoying it for centuries, until recently, only the Japanese had taken umami seriously as a basic taste. There is in fact no term for umami flavor in many languages and, with the exception of Japanese cuisine, there is no single, free-standing source of it.
The term was coined by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. He had noticed a taste shared by tomatoes, asparagus, cheese and meat that was also most prevalent in dashi—the stock made from Konbu (kelp) which is used widely in Japanese cuisine, especially in miso soup. He was able to isolate the amino acid glutamate as the source of this flavor, leading eventually to its large-scale production as Monosodium Glutamate (MSG). Western scientists were late to the game but have now confirmed that we have taste receptors for umami, and it has been accepted by most of the scientific community as one of the five basic tastes. Of course, in the West we’ve been enjoying it for years. The fermented anchovy sauce beloved by the Romans, Marmite equally beloved by the British, aged cheese, and caramelized meat and vegetables are full of umami.
But it remains illusive and mysterious. It is hard to detect, unless you eat mindfully, and it releases its flavor only under certain conditions.
The Japanese word “umami” has for years been translated as “delicious” or “savory”. But neither term is helpful in distinguishing umami from other flavors. Furthermore, slow-cooking, aging, molding, or fermentation processes are necessary to release the glutamate from its bound form. Umami is most powerful when it is combined with other chemicals found in food called ribonucleotides. When these are combined they act synergistically as a powerful flavor enhancer, often described as 1+1=8, with each flavor component getting a boost, so the whole is much more flavorful than the parts. This is why parmesan cheese on top of a meaty tomato sauce has become so popular.
How to Taste Umami
Because umami is a flavor enhancer, foods that contain umami will taste like what they are only more so. Ripe tomatoes will be full of tomato flavor; caramelized mushrooms will have a rich mushroom flavor. But umami does contribute a distinct flavor element although it takes some concentration to first detect it. Although there is no descriptor that is quite adequate to describe it, the best I’ve heard is “brothy”.
Why “brothy”? Because the tell-tale signature of umami is the kind of palate-broadening, expansiveness that accompanies a good broth. The effect is more a tactile sensation than a distinct flavor, stimulating the roof and sides of the mouth, and the throat as well as the tongue.
I first detected it using fresh, ripe tomatoes which have a significant amount of umami. I compared an ordinary supermarket tomato with quality cherry tomatoes purchased at a farmer’s market. With the cherry tomatoes, in addition to having rich tomato flavor, immediately as that fruity flavor begins to fade, there is an impression of mouthwatering fullness, a fleeting but intense explosion, just as you would experience with homemade chicken broth. That is umami. Ordinary supermarket tomatoes don’t have much of it.
I then compared a young brie (which has very little umami) with aged parmesan and had the same “brothy” sensation in only the aged parmesan. Just after the dominant milky/ fruity/nutty flavors begin to fade you feel your palate expanding and your mouth begins to water followed immediately by a contracting mouthfeel that makes you begin to pucker. That pattern of changes in mouthfeel—expansion, mouthwatering fullness, and contraction—are the common denominator, although the high acidity of the cheese and the presence of tyrosine crystals is also contributing to this evolution.
An A/B comparison help to isolate this taste. (This taste experiment is from Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste.) Canned tuna contains the ribonucleotide inosinate but little glutamate. Tomato paste is a good source of glutamate. Together they should create the umami effect. So divide 1/2 can of inexpensive, water-packed tuna into 2 bowls. In one bowl thoroughly mix in 1/4 teaspoon of tomato paste. (This is not enough tomato paste to stand out as tomato. In a blind tasting I probably would not identify it as tomato.) Now compare the unmixed tuna with the tuna/paste mixture. The unmixed tuna has the flat, vaguely fishy/cardboard flavor we associate with plain canned tuna. When mixed with tomato paste, however, it has a brighter flavor along with a very subtle mouthwatering aspect. Your palate feels stimulated with the same evolution of expansion, mouthwatering, then contraction. Now add an additional 1/4 teaspoon of tomato paste. The effect is even more pronounced with the tomato now standing out as an obvious flavor component. Adding a few sprinkles of MSG to the unmixed tuna has the same effect. (MSG by itself with no ribonucleatides to interact with tastes mild and soapy.)
Of course, the canonical experience of umami is by way of the Japanese soup stock dashi. Dashi is made by extracting umami from seaweed (Konbu) and then adding Bonito flakes which contain inosinate thus producing the synergy characteristic of umami. This is an interesting way of experiencing umami because dashi is a clear broth with a flavor so subtle that that if it weren’t for the fish aroma you would think you’re drinking warm water, until you realize that almost flavorless liquid is stimulating your palate, making your mouth first water and then contract.
In summary, umami flavor is in part tactile. It enlivens the palate making it expand, stimulating the throat and sides of the mouth as well as the tongue, and then contract. It puts flavors in motion.
The value of umami however transcends these palate-stimulating effects. Umami intensifies the sensation of saltiness and sweetness and moderates the sensation of bitterness and sourness. It is thus a valuable aid providing depth and balance to a dish.
To experience these effects prepare the following solutions (adapted from The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami):
• Sweet: 2 individual cups water with 2 teaspoon sugar in each
• Salty: 2 individual cups water with 1 teaspoon salt in each
• Sour: 2 individual cups water with 2 teaspoons lemon juice in each
• Bitter: a small piece of unsweetened chocolate but don’t mix this with water
• Umami: 1 cup water with 1 tablespoon of shredded dried shiitake mushrooms – bring this solution to a boil and then let it cool
Then in one cup of each solution (excluding the chocolate) add a tablespoon of the umami solution.
Sugar/umami taste test: The sugar alone is one-dimensional. It tastes sweet but doesn’t stimulate. With the umami/sugar solution although the intensity of the original impression of sweetness is about the same in each solution, the sugar/umami solution makes the sweetness taste richer filling the mouth with the perception of sweetness and sustaining peak sweetness longer.
Salt/umami taste test: The effect on saltiness was similar to the sugar test but even more pronounced. Greater intensity along with the broad and deep saltiness.
Bitter/umami taste test: Chew the piece of unsweetened chocolate so it coats the mouth and then taste a teaspoon of the umami solution. The bitterness of the chocolate is immediately dampened.
Sour/umami taste test: The lemon water solution is quite sour. With the lemon/umami solution, lemon flavor is still apparent but the tart edge is reduced
Here is a summary of some ingredients that contain glutamate, which triggers umami, and ribonucleotides which intensify the umami effects, from The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami by David and Anna Kasbian.
Sources of Glutamate:
Vegetables: Kombu, corn, peas, tomatoes
Proteins: Dry aged beef, braised or slow cooked proteins, turkey, most seafood, shellfish and all stocks made from these foods.
Cheeses: Aged hard cheeses such as parmesan and blue veined cheeses such as Gorgonzola.
Miscellaneous: Soy sauce, catsup, Worcestershire, miso, green tea and dark mushrooms.
Sources of Ribonucleotides
Vegetables: Asparagus, spinach.
Proteins: Kidneys, liver, veal, venison and cured meats like prosciutto.
Miscellaneous: Pickles, olives, pickled ginger and sauerkraut.