Umami. You hear about it but what is it, really? Discovered just over 100 years ago in Japan, it’s the fifth taste, along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Together they are known as the primary tastes, because – just like primary colors yellow, blue and red – they cannot be created by mixing other tastes.
Umami is the general term used, scientifically speaking, for food that contains the amino acid glutamate. In a practical sense, you know – and love - umami as that rich “mouthwatering” sensation that spreads across the tongue and lingers longer than the other tastes. It’s often mis-translated as “deliciousness” but actually, it’s the balance of umami along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter (plus aroma, texture, appearance, etc.) that creates the overall sensation of a dish being pleasurable to eat or not.
We all have umami taste buds; being able to sense umami is a universal sensation common to all humans. In fact, our sense of taste is a basic survival skill that tells us if a food is nourishing or harmful: sour tastes indicate unripe fruit or bad meat, while sweet flavors signal energy-boosting sugars. Since protein itself has no taste – we only perceive it when the amino acids in proteins break down - umami is what tells the body that we got some protein!
The good news, if you want to dial up umami at your next summer picnic or burger night, it’s pretty easy to do. Umami lives abundantly in these familiar grocery items:
- Proteins: pork, beef, fish, shellfish, including sardines, and anchovies
- Vegetables: tomatoes, mushrooms, and of course seaweed!
- Dairy: yeast extract, cheeses
- Condiments and seasonings: soy sauce, ketchup, molasses, tomato paste, fish sauce, oyster sauce, miso, truffle oil
Adding umami in just about any dish will give it more depth of flavor, which explains why certain food combinations are so popular, like steaks with Worcestershire - a sauce containing several umami-heroes: molasses, anchovies, garlic, salt.
But it’s worth experimenting with umami-rich foods too. Seaweed is an easy way to start – it combines great with cheese, so layer a few toasted squares on top of that cheddar burger. How about some miso mayo? Sub out the meat patty for a grilled portobello mushroom, marinated in soy sauce: hello, plant-strong umami bomb! Perk up the traditional veggie plate with our Seaweed Ranch Dip - so good with fries, too! Try adding a bit of umami to side dishes or sandwich toppings with fermented foods, cured meats, and aged cheeses – all umami-rich, so a little goes a long way.
Oh, and did we mention umami even makes desserts better? “Nice Cream” is a sweet surprising way to finish out your backyard bash.
So go ahead and crumble seaweed bits on the mac & cheese, and enjoy watching family and friends wonder why your summer barbecues are so delicious. Share your knowledge or keep it secret, but either way, now you know how to umami!