What Is Umami? Plus, How to Use This Savory Flavor in Your Cooking

Some foods naturally contain umami—and some cooking methods can enhance it.

Bowl of mushroom and parmesan pasta on light blue background
Photo: istetiana / GETTY IMAGES

​​Umami has been a buzzword in American cuisine in recent years, but the flavor is nothing new. Colloquially known as the fifth taste (in addition to sweet, sour, salty, and bitter), umami describes the savory notes a diner's palate picks up in their food. It's been studied by food scientists and chefs, so we now have a greater understanding of its power. We consulted experts to learn about umami, where it occurs naturally, and how to use its power in all kinds of cooking.

What Is Umami?

"Umami is an almost intangible savoriness that makes you want to keep eating, and enhances the flavors of other ingredients in the dish," says chef Aaron Israel, owner of Shalom Japan in Brooklyn and author of the forthcoming cookbook Love Japan. And just like foods are known for being sweet and sour or salty and sweet or bitter and sour, food can have umami and be salty, sour, sweet, or bitter.

"It is best described as a savory, meaty, or brothy flavor that can be found in many different foods," says food scientist Michael Murdy, founder of Robust Kitchen. "It is a taste that has been studied extensively in recent years, and we now have a much better understanding of what it is and how to bring it out in our cooking."

Umami isn't an ingredient you can add, but rather an element of an ingredient that boosts flavor. "It is not a single compound or molecule but rather a taste sensation that results from the interaction of certain compounds with taste receptors on the tongue," Murdy says. "The most well-known of these compounds is monosodium glutamate, MSG, which has been used for decades as a flavor enhancer in many different types of food."

Monosodium Glutamate

MSG gets a bad rap, but it's a legitimate way to add umami to food. "There is no significant difference between natural and artificial sources of umami in terms of flavor," Murdy says. "MSG is chemically identical to the glutamate that is naturally present in many foods, and its use has been extensively studied and deemed safe by regulatory agencies around the world." Sold as a seasoning, MSG can be added instead of or in addition to salt in most recipes.

Foods That Have Umami

Plenty of ingredients naturally containing umami can be stocked in your pantry so you can easily add umami to your cooking. "Soy sauce is loaded with umami. So is miso, Parmigiano Reggiano, and other aged cheeses, like a nice cheddar," Israel says. "Clams, fish sauce, and that nice char on a piece of cooked meat all contain umami." In fact, aging and fermenting foods often creates umami. "That is why miso and soy sauce are full of it," Israel says.

Umami is also in vegetables such as tomatoes and asparagus, as well as some meats, but is much more subtle than in the aforementioned ingredients. Umami varies based on the type of food and preparations. "Some ingredients, like soy sauce or Parmesan cheese, have a very strong umami flavor that can be overpowering if used in excess," Murdy says. "Others, like mushrooms or asparagus, may have a more subtle umami flavor that can be difficult to detect without a trained palate."

How to Use Umami in Cooking

Generally, Murdy recommends enjoying umami balanced with tastes such as sweetness or acidity. "Too much umami can make a dish taste heavy or unbalanced, while too little can leave a dish tasting bland," he says. Techniques such as roasting or grilling can enhance an ingredient's umami flavor; additions to a recipe such as tomato paste or anchovies help boost umami at the start of cooking.

In Israel's opinion, it's easy to add umami to most dishes. "Parmigiano grated onto a simple pasta with butter becomes so much more delicious," Israel says. "Even a simple cucumber spread with miso becomes so much more enjoyable."

Less Salt

One expected benefit to umami? It can help reduce the amount of salt needed in a dish, without sacrificing flavor. "By using umami-rich ingredients, such as mushrooms or seaweed, in place of some of the salt, it is possible to create a dish that is just as flavorful and lower in sodium," says Murdy.

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