All About Umami, the Mysterious Fifth Flavor
Learn how it was discovered, what foods have umami, and how to use it in your own cooking.
Everyone is familiar with the savory, comforting quality found in Asian foods like miso soup and kimchi. The secret ingredient, or rather flavor, is umami, the savory fifth taste. The other four basic tastes humans can discern are salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. High levels of umami are found in miso, a fermented soybean paste that's the key ingredient in many Asian-style dishes, hence the association between umami flavor and Asian food. However, umami is also found in Parmesan cheese, sun-dried tomatoes, anchovies, and certain varieties of mushrooms including shiitakes. Below, an explanation of just what umami is and how to use it in your own cooking.
What Is Umami?
While umami is something of buzzword right now, it's not so new. It was first discovered by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 after he experienced the same savory satisfaction from Asian dishes that we all know and love. Ikeda wanted a way to market umami to the general public, so he created a product called monosodium glutamate, otherwise known as MSG. It's a highly concentrated version of other umami-rich ingredients like soy sauce, miso paste, and dashi, a Japanese fish broth. While MSG has a reputation for being unhealthy, there is no proven evidence that supports that claim, and umami is found in many good-for-you ingredients such as kimchi, shellfish, and some vegetables.
How Is Umami Created?
Umami is made from a combination of proteins and amino acids; the primary amino acid responsible for that savory, satisfying flavor is called glutamic acid. When glutamic acid is fermented, as in miso paste, umami comes alive both literally and figuratively.
Ingredients That Contain Umami
Intensely savory ingredients such as sun-dried tomatoes, Parmesan cheese, anchovies, truffles (not the chocolate kind), soy sauce, and miso all contain umami. Umami is also found in rich dishes made with beef broth and in seared meats. Savor the taste of umami in Creamy Parmesan Oats with Fried Egg, Pasta with Preserved Lemon and Anchovies, Sun-Dried Tomato-Parmesan Crisps, and Warm Spinach Salad with Shiitake Mushrooms and Red Onion. To add more umami flavor to basic dishes, try drizzling truffle oil on top of pasta or mix in truffle butter to your scrambled eggs in the morning. Don't skimp on shavings of parmesan cheese over your favorite pasta dish, or trying using soy sauce in salad dressings and in glazes, like Soy-Honey-Glazed Arctic Char.