Umami - What you need to know
It’s that taste that makes you smack your lips and gives you a warm fuzzy feeling, it’s a full-bodied sensation that spreads all over the tongue, it lingers and leaves us salivating for more. These are all key characteristics of umami and characteristics that we chase in our food, that is why chefs around the world have become obsessed with it.
Chef David Chang of Momofuku has dedicated his laboratory kitchen to discovering new and unique umami rich ingredients. With a focus on fermentation he is creating new versions of miso, which is a paste created from fermented soy beans and prominently used in Japanese cuisine. By substituting the soy beans for other legumes Chang’s team are creating new and unique versions of this umami rich ingredient.
Chef Yoshihiro Murata, of the three Michelin star Kikunoi in Kyoto, Japan, describes umami as the basis for all Japanese cooking. Chef Murata believes that umami helps to balance a meal, which would otherwise need increased fats and salts to bring balance. In other words, through proper usage, umami can help us to deliver delicious meals that are also healthier than those without it.
Chef Nobuyuki "Nobu" Matsuhisa, of the world famous Nobu restaurant chain, has made it the basis for every dish he creates. He has even created a menu designed to educate the public and train his chefs in its usage.
Ok so what is it? Umami is essentially glutamate, an amino acid, and it is one of the 5 basic tastes along with sweet, sour, salty and bitter. But what’s the difference between a taste and a flavour? Each ingredient has a unique flavour, which is made up of potentially several tastes, and aromas. We use our nose to sense aroma and our tongue to sense taste, together they sense flavour.
What is Umami? (the sciency stuff)
Umami is not some mystical, secret ingredient extracted from rare and endangered animal species. Umami is simply an amino acid or a combination of amino acids. Amino acids support the lives of all living organisms on earth and are a principal factor in the creation of taste in foods. Glutamate (monosodium glutamate) is the most abundant of all amino acids and it is found in a wide variety of natural ingredients.
Glutamate has a key characteristic of becoming stronger when combined with other amino acids like inosinate (inosine monophosphate) and guanylate (guanosine monophosphate), which are also found in many common natural ingredients. This is very important to understand from the perspective of cooking as it helps us to determine why certain ingredients produce certain flavours when combined.
Chef David Chang’s recipe for ramen broth, for example, contains Kombu (Glutamate), Speck (Inosinate) and Shiitake Mushrooms (Guanylate), not to mention roasted pork bones (Glutamate and Inosinate). He was obviously aiming to create an umami bomb.
At this point it’s important to mention Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) additives, which many readers will absolutely be familiar with. MSG has a long history, in fact it has been a popular food additive in both Chinese and Japanese cuisine since the discovery of umami in 1908. In the 1960s the additive developed a bad reputation in relation to “Chinese restaurant syndrome”. So, to lay this ugly and false aspect of umami’s history to rest it is important to mention that many studies have been conducted on the amino acid glutamate, and MSG additives and toxicologists have determined that MSG is completely safe and for most people even in large amounts. As Harold McGee points out in his book, On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen “ the most unfortunate aspect of the MSG saga is how it has been exploited to provide a cheap, one dimensional substitute for real and remarkable foods.”
As previously stated, glutamate is an amino acid that can be found naturallyin many ingredients. As chefs or home cooks we should only seek to substitute what nature has provided us as a last resort. More often than not, natural produce will give better results than any processed substitute. It is also worth mentioning that using naturally grown, seasonal produce will have a lower impact on the environment and your personal carbon foot print.
If you really want to nerd out on Umami and amino acids you can check out the Umami Information Centre’s list of academic papersand studies that have been written on the subject over the past 100 years.
Being creative with Umami
In every meal you create you are aiming to find a balance that satisfies the 5 senses (Sight, Hearing, Taste, Smell and Touch). The environment you eat in, the people you eat with and the combination of flavours, textures and plating will all play a role in satisfying the senses. Umami simply plays a role in the creative process. How you use umami and the ingredients it is contained within is up to you, and like any ingredient, with experience you will become better at understanding it's usages. However, knowing of its existence and the way Inosinate and Guanylate ingredients affect it, is an important first step in understanding how to use it.
Being creative in cooking is often compared to theatre, the person who is consuming the meal is treated to an experience that excites the senses. With regard to taste and aroma, or flavour this is all about creating harmony. Not every culinary creation must possess all five tastes, but the tastes you include should work together to deliver a satisfying sensation. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. Understanding which ingredients contain umami and which ingredients amplify umami will help you to avoid over use and allow you to find the harmony you are looking for.
“What I always keep in mind when using umami in cooking is maintaining a balance with the other four tastes. Combining umami in a balanced way with other basic tastes such as sour and sweet gives flavours a well-rounded quality.”
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa - Owner chef, Nobu
Seasoning our food is something that chefs get drilled into them throughout their training. Salt and pepper, salt and pepper, salt and pepper. Seasoning helps to enhance and bring out the natural character of ingredients. It helps to highlight the various flavours in a dish and balance the taste.
Umami is not salty, but it has a savoury sensation that requires less salt to be enhanced. This is something to keep in mind when using umami rich ingredients and can help to balance and deliver a far more delicious result. For example, Chef Heston Blumenthal suggests utilising anchovies, an umami rich ingredient, in his sous vide lamb leg recipe. The simple combination of rosemary, garlic and anchovies is delicious, and the umami rich anchovies provide a broader more complex taste than monotone salt can. Salt is great at enhancing other flavours, but it lacks the complexity of the other 4 basic tastes, sweet, sour, bitter and umami tend to be able stand on their own quite comfortably, while salt needs the unique traits of the other four tastes.
Some well know, Umami rich, Ingredients
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Umami's history and origin
For over 1000 years the Japanese have been using, umami rich, kombu as basis for their soup stocks. However, it wasn’t until 1908 when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda discovered that kombu was a particularly rich source of glutamate. Through continued study he discovered that glutamate had a rich, savoury taste that was altogether different from the other four tastes. He named the fifth taste Umami, which roughly translates to delicious. In Asia Umami was immediately incorporated into their understanding of cooking and their cuisine, but in the west, it was met with scepticism. Many food scientists believed that umami simply enhanced the other tastes and wasn’t a unique taste of its own.
It wasn’t until almost 100 years later (2001) that Californian scientist Charles Zuker and colleagues demonstrated conclusively that humans and other animals have specific taste receptors for Umami or glutamate.
The Future of Umami
Umami has become a hugely important discovery, especially now that it is catching on in the western world. Many chefs are integrating this new understanding into their culinary process and, as if understanding cooking for the first time, creating new and exciting Umami based flavours.
Perhaps at the forefront of this movement is chef David Chang who describes how, through fermentation experiments in his New York food lab, he is creating a distinct New York umami. These experiments have already yielded results in the form of two new seasonings, which Chef Chang has called hözon and bonji.
Hözon is a fermented, stone-ground seasoning made in the style of miso paste. Unlike traditional miso, hözon does not contain soybeans - instead, nuts, seeds, and legumes undergo fermentation with a koji cultivated with basmati rice. After fermentation, the grains are ground to a smooth, creamy texture. The name hözon is derived from the Japanese word for “preserved”.
Bonji is a fermented, cold-pressed liquid seasoning made in the style of tamari and soy sauce. Unlike traditional soy sauce, bonji does not contain soybeans but is made from fermented hearty grains. Taking cues from whiskey distillers, Chef Chang and his team ferment single-variety, single-origin grains from farms in the northeast united states. After fermentation, the grains are pressed to produce an umami-filled sauce rich in amino acids, sugars, and active enzymes. The name bonji is derived from the korean word for “essence” and alludes to the distinctive and unique flavours extracted from each type of grain.
If you would like to read more about Umami check out some of the sources, which we used in our research for this article.
- On Food and Cooking: The science and lore of the kitchen by Harold McGee
- The Umami Information Centre
- The Umami Project - The New Yorker
- You think you know Umami - The New Yorker
- Momofuku Restaurant