We all thought there were only four tastes right? Sweet, Sour, Salty and bitter. But low and behold we find out there is actually a fifth taste that our taste buds like. It is called umami (pronounced ooh-mommy).
Umami, has been around the Japanese since the 1900s. But there is no word to describe this taste in the English language. The best description would be to say it adds a richer, meatier taste to dishes. It is not quite as easy as defining the sweet or salty taste. Perhaps that is why it has gone undefined for so long.
Where did Umami originate?
Umami actually started being used by Japanese when they found that using a certain type of seaweed in their cooking added a very pleasing flavor. They kept on using it until a scientist, Kikunae Ikeda, was able to identify that it was the glutamate in the seaweed that was giving the food the full flavor. Glutamate is a common item which produces the umami flavor.
Monosodium glutamate or MSG as it is commonly referred to is used in many dishes especially Asian dishes today that contain umami. But if umami was discovered so many years ago, why did it take so long to be given the recognition of the fifth taste? That hinged on the debate of whether umami was really a taste or a flavor. You see, a taste exists all by itself. A flavor relies on on stimulus to give the resulting sensation or reaction.
Some scientists argue that to get the full effect of umami, is really a matter of two chemicals reacting on your tongue to produce the savory flavor of umami. In other words, it can only be detected in the while other flavors are present. It sort of wakes up taste buds you never knew you had.
But in 1990, after much debate, it was finally recognized as the fifth taste. And in 2000, scientists at the University of Miami were able to locate the taste but receptors for umami, further validating its existence.
Umami in Food
Although MSG was mentioned earlier, glutimate is not the only substance to contain umami, it is just the most commonly known. Umami is enhanced much of the time by the breaking down of glutimates which occurs during aging, curing or ripening. For example, soy sauce, is made from fermented soy beans which is full of umami. Some examples of umami rich vegetables are artichokes, asparagus and mushrooms. Tomatoes are also very rich in umami.
Who is embracing umami?
Chefs, restaurants and even executives at processed food companies are embracing the concept of umami and the flavor possibilities that are capable by maximizing on this ingredient. Many chefs have jumped on this new trend, offering up dishes that they call “umami bombs” Nestle, Campbell’s and Frito-Lay are in the process of developing more umami-rich foods.
What foods can you find umami in?
But, you don’t have to go to a five star restaurant or eat a bunch of processed food to experience umami, it can also be found in everyday foods. Pizza, Pad Thai, Bacon Cheeseburgers all exhibit umami because of the mixture of ingredients.
The good news about this discovery is that a cooking enthusiast, could really enhance the flavor of dishes without increasing the salt or fat content. A correctly applied dash of cheese, wine or even ketchup can pump up the umami, without overwhelming the dish with the flavor of the added ingredient. So, it is the combination of the right ingredients that adds a fuller flavor, the salt tastes saltier, the sweet tastes sweeter and so on.
What is Umami’s connection to Wine?
For wine aficionado’s the discovery of umami has provided the missing link by answering the question as to why certain foods could not be paired with certain wines. The argument has always been that a bold wine would overpower a light dish. Now the find of umami supports the idea that balance can be added to these dishes via a pinch of salt or a couple drops of lemon juice to balance out the flavors.
The idea sounds good to me, but I think I like pairing my food just fine. I’m not too eager to alter my food to match a wine. What about you? Do you embrace this food altering to suite your wine? Please leave your comments below.
There is an entire book written by a husband and wife team, (he’s a cook she’s a writer) on recipes with umami. Below are 2 recipes that are found in the book. The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami
Asparagus frittata from “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami”
Frittata is an Italian-style open-faced omelet, cooked slowly on the stovetop then finished under the broiler. Although it is a simple, rustic dish, it takes some time and effort. But it pays off with rich, deep flavors and satisfying textures. The asparagus, eggs, cheese, tomatoes and olives are all rich in umami.
Ingredients for this Umami Frittata
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 6 spears pencil-thin asparagus
• 1 medium red onion, 1/4” slices
• 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
• 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
• 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
• 1/2 cup Parmigano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated
• 1 small ripe red Roma tomato, diced
• 1 tablespoon green olives, sliced
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Directions for the Umami Frittata
Wash and trim the asparagus. Cut into ½ inch lengths. Cook in boiling, salted water until al dente, 1½ to 2 minutes. Drain and set aside uncovered.
Heat the olive oil on medium in an 8” nonstick fry pan with a heat-resistant handle. Add the onions, shallots and salt and toss to coat. Caramelize them by cooking them very slowly (they should barely sizzle), stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Drain the onions and shallots thoroughly, leaving as much oil in the pan as you can. Set aside to cool.
Thoroughly mix the cheese, tomato, olives, pepper and cooled onion and shallots into the beaten eggs. Reheat the oil in the pan on medium. When a drop of water tossed into the pan sizzles loudly, add the egg mixture, stirring briefly to distribute the fillings. Turn burner to low and let the mixture cook slowly. You should see just a few lazy bubbles popping up around the edges. Cook undisturbed until the edges are cooked but the middle is still very liquid, about 8 minutes.
Put the pan under a medium broiler until the top of the frittata is golden brown, the edges are puffed up and the center is just set (the center will jiggle slightly but pops right back after you poke it), about 2 minutes. Don’t overcook it! Loosen with a non-scratch spatula, if needed. Move to a warmed platter and serve right away.
Maxed-out meatloaf from “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami”
Serves 6 to 8 for dinner
With apologies to grandmothers everywhere, we humbly suggest that this is going to become your favorite meatloaf ever. Not because it is radically different, because it is not. But rather because it’s more of what you love meatloaf for — umami. If by some odd chance you don’t eat it all for dinner, you’ll want to fry up a slice to go with your eggs and toast for breakfast, and put a slab between two slices of crusty bread for lunch. The mushrooms, eggs, beef, tomato, corn, soy sauce, truffle oil and bacon are all rich in umami.
Ingredients for a delicious and tasty umami meatloaf
• 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
• 2 medium onions, medium diced
• 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
• 5 ounces crimini or other mushrooms, 1/4” sliced
• 1 medium red bell pepper
• 2 eggs
• 2 pounds ground beef
• 1 ripe red tomato, diced and then crushed
• 1 cup cooked corn kernels, frozen or fresh cooked
• 1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
• 3 tablespoons soy sauce
• 2 teaspoons white truffle oil
• 2 teaspoons kosher salt
• 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
• Olive oil for brushing
• 1/2 pound hickory-smoked bacon, sliced
Directions for this delicious Umami meatloaf
Preheat oven to 450° F.
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté until mixture is caramelized, about 6 minutes more. Set aside to cool thoroughly.
Core and cut the red bell pepper into quarters. Coat the pepper pieces with the remaining olive oil and grill on a stovetop grill or under the broiler until barely cooked through.
Beat two eggs in a large bowl. Add ground beef, cooked vegetables, tomato, corn, bread crumbs, soy sauce, truffle oil, salt and pepper. Gently mix by hand until just incorporated. Do not overwork the ground beef. The fat will smear and the meatloaf will be dry and tough.
Brush or spray a medium-size sheet pan with oil. Put the meatloaf mixture onto the pan and shape into a loaf twice as wide as it is tall. Drape bacon diagonally across the entire loaf, overlapping, to completely cover meat. Secure the ends with several toothpicks.
Place in the middle of the preheated oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375° F. Bake for 1 hour or until internal temperature reaches 155° F. Rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.
Now that you know a bit more about Umami it sounds pretty interesting doesn’t it? What dishes will you try next to see if you get that Umami flavor?