Umami is one of the five basic flavors and is best described as a salty or “meaty” flavor. The umami flavor comes from the presence of the amino acid glutamate or glutamic acid or from the compounds inosinate or guanylate, which are usually present in foods with a high protein content.
Umami isa flavor that we always pursue and one that we so often want to add to our kitchen. While some people still attribute only four main flavors* (salty, sweet, sour and bitter), this fifth, more difficult to pinpoint, was named after a Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda more than 100 years ago.
In his guide to monosodium glutamate, Kenji explains how the scientist, when trying to identify what exactly gave dashi, a Japanese broth with the flavor of kombu, its powerful and tasty quality, isolated monosodium glutamate (a sodium salt of glutamic acid). He coined the term umami to describe the taste of glutamic acid and other similar amino acids. Ingredients with a high umami content are a must when you're stocking a pantry. You'll find tons of umami in perishable foods, such as meat and fresh mushrooms, but it's also present in many products that don't go bad before you use them up.
We talk about everything from soy sauce and fish sauce to dried mushrooms and marmita. Often, we use these ingredients to give dishes an extra layer of flavor, such as a hidden dash of fish sauce in a sauce or broth fortified with a handful of dried porcinis. There's not much we don't use fish sauce for. It's great in dipping sauce, stew and even caramel.
Here's another hot sauce that you most likely already have hidden in the back corner of your refrigerator. While fish sauce and soy sauce consist of just a few key ingredients, Worcestershire combines a much longer list of sweet and savory products, such as malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, anchovies, onions and tamarind. In addition, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce also usually contains several hot spices. Just a dash of this will add unidentifiable flavor and richness, while a more generous shake in a Bloody Mary, perhaps? will provide a more pronounced flavor.
If you have free time and the full list of ingredients, you can even make your own Worcestershire sauce. Dashi is, as Sho best says, the incarnation of umami. Japanese chefs will spend years perfecting their version of this seaweed-based broth, but the basic process is very simple. The broth, slightly similar to fish, is usually prepared with kombu (edible slices of dried seaweed) and smoked katsuobushi (fine shavings of tuna or dried and smoked bonito).
Sometimes other fish or dried mushrooms are used. This is not an action of the kind that many Americans are familiar with. Bones and vegetables aren't cooked or simmered for a long time to extract every last ounce of flavor and jelly. On the other hand, dashi is light and fast (although there are methods that require more time if you have patience) and can be used to improve and complement all kinds of dishes, Japanese and otherwise.
To begin with, dashi is the base of miso soup, it adds flavor to tamagoyaki and creates a tasty and comforting broth for gyudon. But its mild, reserved flavor makes it an excellent addition to non-Japanese dishes, as it will enhance and complement an unreplaced dish. For example, shoyu-dashi, a combination of soy sauce and dashi, can enhance salad dressing. We combine soy sauce with marmita in a vegetarian bean chili to provide some of the rich flavor normally provided by meat.
In reality, much of the wealth we seek when we replace meat with vegetables is found in ingredients with a high glutamate content, such as marmite. Spread is also present in meatier dishes, such as our turkey burgers. The burger mix, seasoned with soy sauce, marmita and anchovies (three umami stars) all in one, has a much deeper flavor than turkey alone could provide. A generous spoonful of doenjang is the base of ssamjang, a sweet and savory dip sauce that doesn't cook and combines miso paste with gochujang, Korean rice syrup and sesame oil.
Placed on a piece of lettuce before wrapping it in grilled roasted meat, the sauce adds the kind of depth that only umami-filled ingredients can give. Doenjang is used in all types of Korean soups and stews, and provides a touch of flavor that is often enhanced by soy sauce, gochujang and other intense condiments. Pasta stars in this classic Korean stew, in which mushrooms, anchovies, soy sauce and fermented doenjang come together to create a dish with an intense flavor. This inoculation process creates a variety of flavors, depending on the grains used.
Have you tasted the results of this fermentation in the form of sake and soy sauce?. But, as Sho explains, there are other uses of koji besides making soy sauce or sake. When koji is mixed with salt and water and allowed to ferment, shio koji is produced. The mixture is fruity and sweet, and we use it to marinate and cure meats and season vegetables.
One of its most impressive uses is in this koji rib recipe, in which the pasta is rubbed on the rib and allowed to flavor the meat. Shio koji softens the meat, and natural sugars help brown the roast once it's in the oven. If you want to go off the script, use a small spoonful of shrimp paste to add dimension to salad dressings and dissolve a little in warm water to use with a spicy fish sauce in stir-fries. The umami flavor can be found widely in a large number of foods, so you don't need to go to a specialty store to enjoy the taste of umami.
Foods with umami elements that can be found at the local supermarket include beef, pork, sauces, broths, tomatoes, cheese and soy sauce. Fermented foods such as fish sauce and miso taste especially rich in umami. Made with oysters, it's rich and tasty, and gives an umami flavor to everything from sautéed broccoli and eggplant to beef, chicken and fish. The two types of nucleotides that contribute the most to umami flavor, inosinate and guanylate, are also present in many foods.
Since the beginning of time, food lovers have sought unique flavors and have perfected ways of presenting them to others, even in childhood. This Korean dish of salted and fermented cabbage and vegetables is another fantastic way to enjoy umami. But peanut worms are a great source of umami and are a key ingredient in many chefs' pho preparations. Umami has become popular as a flavor among food manufacturers trying to improve the flavor of low-sodium products.
If you've ever saved the peels from hard cheeses and then added them to a pot of bubbly soup, you'll know how much intense, savory umami flavor they provide. Adding foods that are full of umami flavor to your plate can add an explosion of delicious flavor to your food. Sure, you can make katsuobushi from scratch to make the umami flavor yourself, but it's a labor-intensive dish and you can buy the ingredient online and at most grocery stores. Chefs enrich their kitchen by creating umami bombs, which are dishes made with various umami ingredients, such as fish sauce, mushrooms, oysters and dry-cured hams.
Cheeses such as Parmigiano-Reggiano become richer in umami as they age, acquiring a deeply fruity quality. . .