Umami: All About the Fifth Taste
October 17, 2017
Why are tomato sauce and Parmesan such a timeless pairing? In addition to being a perfect complement to pasta, they’re rich in umami, a delicious savory flavor that you’ve definitely tasted before (even if you can’t quite describe it).
What Is Umami?
Umami is a complex, full-bodied flavor often described as brothy, meaty, or savory.
It’s known as the fifth basic taste, right after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami was discovered by Japanese researchers a century ago, who named it appropriately: the word umami loosely translates to “pleasant savory taste” in Japanese.
Umami is found in foods that are rich in certain compounds: an amino acid called glutamate and two others compounds called inosinate and guanylate (try to say that three times fast). When these food are ripened, fermented, aged, or dried, their umami level goes up a few notches.
Why Your Dishes Need Umami
If you’re looking for an easy way to boost flavor, look no further than an umami-rich ingredient. We love cooking with high-umami foods because they can often serve as a partial substitute for salt. They also add a deep, complex flavor that makes savory dishes even more savory.
You’ll find umami in most meats and many plant foods, but there are certain umami-rich ingredients we love most. These five are our favorites because they’re versatile, packed with flavor, and will last a while in your fridge or pantry.
Soy Sauce & Tamari
Both are umami-rich condiments made from fermented soybeans. The main difference is that soy sauce typically has gluten, while certain brands of tamari can be gluten free. Tamari is also a Japanese product, while there are many types of soy sauce found across Asia, each with a slightly different flavor.
All tomatoes have some amount of umami, but you’ll find the most in sun-dried tomatoes, canned tomatoes, and ketchup. The reason is that processing and preserving tend to concentrate the umami flavor. These products are also usually made from peak-season tomatoes.
Dried Shiitake Mushrooms
All mushrooms have some amount of umami, with the richest varieties being shiitake, portobello, and crimini. We love cooking with dried shiitakes because they tend to have more umami than fresh ones. And when you rehydrate the mushrooms, you can use the leftover liquid as a flavor-booster in soups, stews, or sauces.
Parmesan cheese, especially an aged variety like Parmigiano-Reggiano, is rich in umami. Parmigiano-Reggianos are aged for at least two years, while a generic Parmesan may not be aged as long.
In addition to grating Parmesan over dishes, you can also use the rind as an umami-booster in soups and stews. Simmer it with the other ingredients and the umami flavor will infuse into the broth. Since many store-bought broths tend to be salty, adding the rind is a great way to boost flavor without adding more sodium.
You’ve probably tried this salty, flavorful paste in Japanese miso soup. We love adding miso to salad dressings, marinades, and sauces for an extra punch of flavor. When shopping for miso, you’ll notice it comes in a few different colors. In general, the lighter-colored misos have a milder flavor, while the darker ones are more robust and intense.