How Umami Works


Adding Umami to Recipes
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
© Patrick Pleul/dpa/Corbis

Given its universality, it's no surprise that umami shows up in a world of cuisines, from the Danish smorrebrod (open-faced sandwich) of roast beef and pickles on sourdough rye bread, to the American BLT. Just the same, here are a few culinary tricks to maximize umami:

  • Use the rinds of Parmesan and other aged cheeses in a soup or stew. Drying condenses the glutamate content in the rind [source: Georgia Public Radio].
  • When using tomatoes in cooked dishes, include the jelly, the viscous, seed-containing part. Jelly contains up to four times as much MSG and nucleotides as the flesh [source: McGee]. Seed and roast the tomato flesh in uncooked dishes, such as salads or appetizers [source: Marcus].
  • Caramelize onions. As a bonus, slow-cooking in butter or oil also brings out the veggie's natural sweetness [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Make stock from animal bones, including fish. If possible, roast the bones first [source: Marcus].
  • Eat active critters. Older hens and cows get a rap for being tough, but exercise requires enzymes to break down and rebuild muscle tissue, which frees amino acids. Likewise, choose distance-swimming fish like tuna and mackerel [source: Marcus].
  • Sauté or roast mushrooms before adding to recipes. Heat treatment brings out the umami notes of mushrooms [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Cook with wine. As a fermented drink, wine itself provides umami. As an alcohol, it dissolves other foods' flavor molecules, including fats, adding flavor depth and body [source: Marcus].

In cultivating the umami in foods, you may also expand your repertoire of culinary skills. In a sense, you are developing your own personal umami: your ability to coax out and magnify food's natural flavors.

Author's Note: How Umami Works

I think the umami story's possible role as a nutritional guide is most intriguing. It seems to be pointing to fermented foods, which, incidentally, are being recognized for their importance in supplying probiotics for digestive health. Digestion, in turn, may play a greater role in overall mental and physical well-being than was previously thought. When Omar Khayyam claimed in "The Rubaiyat" that a jug of wine and a loaf of bread (both products of yeast fermentation) could turn wilderness into paradise, he was on to something.

Related Articles

More Great Links

Sources

  • Freeman, M. "Reconsidering the Effects of Monosodium Glutamate: A Literature Review." Journal of the American Academy of Nurse Practitioners. October 2006. (July 5, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16999713#
  • Geiling, Natasha. "It's the Umami, Stupid. Why the Truth About MSG Is So Easy to Swallow." Smithsonian.com. Nov. 8, 2013. (June 23, 2015) http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/its-the-umami-stupid-why-the-truth-about-msg-is-so-easy-to-swallow-180947626/
  • Georgia Public Radio. "'Test Kitchen': How to Make Vegetarian Dishes Pop with a Little Umami." March 10, 2015. (June 23, 2015) http://www.gpb.org/news/2015/03/10/test-kitchen-how-make-vegetarian-dishes-pop-little-umami
  • Lindemann, Bernd, et al. "The Discovery of Umami." Letter. Chemical Senses. Vol. 27, Issue 9. 2002. (June 23, 2015) http://chemse.oxfordjournals.org/content/27/9/843.full
  • Kats, Rebecca and Edelson, Mat. "Grilled Bison Burgers with Caramelized Onions and Roasted Mushrooms." Food Republic. April 15, 2015. (July 6, 2015) http://www.foodrepublic.com/recipes/grilled-bison-burgers-with-caramelized-onions-and-crispy-shiitakes/
  • Kiger, Patrick. "How Cooking Has Changed Us." NationalGeographic.com. Oct. 17, 2014. (July 6, 2015) http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/eat-the-story-of-food/articles/how-cooking-has-changed-us/
  • Koetke, Christopher. "Umami: MSG Enhances Flavor." Prepared Foods. July 17, 2013. (June 27, 2015) http://www.preparedfoods.com/articles/112932-umami-facts-and-fiction
  • Kurihara, Kenzo. "Glutamate: From Discovery as a Food Flavor to Role as a Basic Taste (Umami)." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. July 29, 2009. (June 29, 2015) http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/90/3/719S.full#ref-5
  • Marcus, Jacqueline B. "Unleashing the Power of Umami." Food Technology. November 2009. Vol. 63, No. 11. http://www.ift.org/knowledge-center/learn-about-food-science/food-facts/unleashing-the-power-of-umami.aspx
  • McGee, Harold. "New Developments in Tomato Flavor, Part I: Save the Seeds." Curiouscook.com. July 3, 2007. (June 23, 2015) http://www.curiouscook.com/site/2007/07/new-developments-in-tomato-flavor-part-1-save-the-seeds.html#more
  • Monell Chemical Senses Center. "Monell Taste Primer." (June 30, 2015) http://www.monell.org/news/fact_sheets/monell_taste_primer
  • National Library of Medicine. "How Does Our Sense of Taste Work?" PubMed Health. Jan. 6, 2012. (June 29, 2015) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0072592/
  • Ninomiya, Akira. "Science of Umami Taste: Adaptation to Gastronomic Culture." Flavour. Vol.4. Jan. 26, 2015. (July 1, 2015) http://www.flavourjournal.com/content/4/1/13#B10
  • Roth-Johnson, Liz. "Understanding Umami." Science & Food. July 9, 2013. (July 2, 2015) https://scienceandfooducla.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/understanding-umami/
  • Souza, Dan. "Why Nacho Cheese Doritos Taste Like Heaven." SeriousEats.com. June 12, 2012. (June 29, 2015) http://www.seriouseats.com/2012/06/science-of-chips-ingredients-msg-why-nacho-cheese-doritos-taste-like-heaven.html
  • Steinman, Harris. "Cinnamon." Thermo Fisher Scientific, Inc. (July 3, 2015) http://www.phadia.com/en/Products/Allergy-testing-products/ImmunoCAP-Allergens/Food-of-Plant-Origin/Spices/Cinnamon-/
  • Wang, Chichi. "Seriously Asian: A Guide to Dashi." SeriousEats.com. Oct. 9, 2009. (June 29, 2015) http://www.seriouseats.com/recipes/2009/10/how-to-make-dashi-asian-miso-soup-bonito-flakes-kelp-kombu.html
  • Yacoubou, Jeanne. "Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate Are All-Vegetable Flavor Enhancers." Vegetarian Resource Group. March 21, 2011. (July 1, 2015) http://www.vrg.org/blog/2011/03/21/disodium-inosinate-and-disodium-guanylate-are-all-vegetable-flavor-enhancers/

More to Explore