The term “Umami” is being tossed around quite a bit in the foodie world these days. You might hear it from a cooking competition judge gushing over fill-in-the-blank with dashi broth or find it in a recipe description for a pasta dish with copious amounts of aged cheese such as pecorino romano or parmigiano reggiano (some people are even naming their blogs after it).
So, why are chefs and foodies across the globe becoming so obsessed with this Japanese term that has been labeled as “the fifth taste” that wasn’t discovered until 1908? (the other 4 basic tastes being saltiness, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness). The reason is that for us (the food/cooking nerds of the world) lies in the fact that Umami is more than just a taste. It’s an experience, in fact – it’s happiness – and we’re addicted to it.
To clarify, I don’t mean happiness in the long lasting, life fulfilling sort of way (although it can help with that). I’m talking about the “I-don’t-know-what’s-happening-to-my-senses-and-in-my-brain-but-I-am-so-happy-eating-this-right-now kind of happiness.” Therefore, as cooks, we are constantly trying to reproduce that experience in order that we can provide it for others.
But why does Umami have this effect on us?
Umami is often described as “deliciousness” or “savory flavor.” And when chefs and cooks taste deliciousness it makes them happy and in turn they want to recreate that experience so that they can make other people happy. It turns out however that Umami is slightly more complicated that simply “deliciousness.” After all, it must have certain qualifying characteristics that have led it to become generally accepted as the “fifth taste,” right?
For those of us who love food these characteristics become all the more intriguing because if we can pinpoint what leads to the experience of Umami, we (not just foodies but everyday home cooks as well) will be able to produce this experience on demand. This is a pretty cool thing because not only will it make our lives and the lives of those we feed more delicious, but there are a few other added bonuses as well. Typically, we think of Umami as something that enhances our meal experience, but it can also lead to better eating habits and a healthier lifestyle (which we will explore a bit later).
Before we dive a little deeper into Umami, let’s first take a look at the original 4 basic tastes (saltiness, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness) for a bit of perspective.
As a chef (and consumer of food) I love salt because it seasons food and seasoned food tastes better than unseasoned food. As a human being however, I love salt because I need it to survive. More specifically I need sodium ions to generate nerve impulses AND for maintenance of electrolyte balance AND fluid balance AND for heart activity AND certain metabolic functions.¹ Damn, that sounds important right?
Anyway, that’s why we taste salt and why just the right amount of saltiness tastes good to us. There is a whole lot more to the salt story and how critical of a role it plays in human survival as well as human history (such as breakthroughs relating to the preservation of food), but suffice it to say that you must consume just the right amount to survive (try not to overthink it).
Follow me here:
- the basic tastes are part of our evolutionary makeup
- this means we developed them in order to survive.
- sweetness is a basic taste.
- ice cream is sweet.
- we need ice cream to survive.
Although I’m pretty sure my son Preston believes that such is the case unfortunately it is not.
Sweetness was however really important to our Paleolithic (aka Stone Age) ancestors. When they tasted something sweet it meant that it was high in carbohydrates, which meant they got more caloric bang for their buck, which meant they would have more rather than less energy before they were able to find food again.
These days we have a different association with sweet foods (i.e. the aforementioned ice cream) but no matter how much we think we love cupcakes for cupcakes-sake our true passion for sweets goes back to our cave man brain. Our brain loves sweet because it thinks we are getting a lot of calories/energy for less effort.
Therefore my brain loves sweetness = I love sweetness.
To me bitterness is the underdog, the dark horse, the black sheep of the basic taste family. Bitterness gets a bad rap but in my experience there has been a direct correlation between my enjoyment of bitter foods and my evolution as a chef. As time goes on I seem to enjoy a little more bitterness in my (gastronomic) life especially in the lettuce department. A straight-up radicchio salad with a somewhat creamy dressing is my go-to these days.
If you do not share the same romantic obsession with bitter greens as I do, odds are you might enjoy other things bitter, such as coffee, chocolate, or beer. The human relationship with bitterness is a peculiar one because originally for us the primary reason for tasting something bitter would often mean one thing – DANGER!
Bitterness was a tool to detect poisonous plants we had to once forage for in the wild. There was a flip side though in that if you were a cave man and you were overly sensitive to bitter tasting things you might inadvertently omit certain bitter foods that were safe to consume. So, the guys and gals that had just the right sensitivity to bitterness (among other evolutionary advantages) were the ones that got to pass on their genes.
The increasing sophistication of the human diet over millions of years (for instance, we don’t have to guess what we’re eating anymore) has led to a reduced sensitivity to bitterness relative to that of other species – which is fantastic for me because it sounds like I won’t have to worry too much about my radicchio obsession being a dangerous one.
Sourness is all about detecting acid. Let’s go back to the Stone Age for a second: when the cave man detected too much sourness it could have meant too much acid in the food (not something healthy for him to consume) or harmful bacteria are present because the food has spoiled.
In my kitchen however, acid is like a secret weapon. If you ask anyone who works with me in the kitchen at work or at home they will probably tell you that I have a difficult time not adding a squeeze of lemon or a splash of vinegar to nearly everything.
In mainstream culture? Wine, sour candies, the famous (or infamous?) yet addicting Chinese sweet and sour sauce.
The Balance Of Taste
The thing about being human is that we are self aware, which gives us the ability to analyze pretty much everything in the world which means of course that our sense of taste falls into that category. The great thing about being aware of taste, the ability to name it, describe it, and understand the science behind it is that we can apply all of this knowledge to our preparation of food and create something that allows all of the basic tastes to mingle in perfect harmony with one another. At this point, the meal experience goes beyond simply eating to survive and becomes a joyful experience.
How do we do this?
We might add a touch of salt to something that seems too bitter or in turn add bitter to sweet, sweet to sour and sour (in my case a squeeze or a zest of citrus) to many different foods in order to enhance the overall flavor and brighten the dish.
So, where does Umami enter into this equation?
The Discovery of Umami
1908. A Japanese chemist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda was hanging out with his family enjoying his typical bowl of soup with dashi broth. On this particular day however, he noticed something different about his soup. A different taste. A taste that lingered. A taste that was more delicious! As he pondered how this could be he realized, “Ah! we added kombu to the dashi this time!” Kikunae could not let it rest and proceeded to inspect the elements of his dashi under a microscope (or whatever tool you must use to discover the various compounds of food) which led to his discovery of Umami.
The Science of Umami
There have been many descriptors of Umami by chefs, food lovers, scientists, etc.
- meaty or brothy flavor
- savory taste
- a long lasting taste that pleasantly lingers after you have already ingested a bite of food
- a pleasant taste that coats the entire tongue as you enjoy it
- a mouthwatering sensation
These all sound like pretty good reasons to be obsessed with Umami if you enjoy cooking and eating. As it turns out there is a bit of science behind all of this pleasantness.
Here is what you might be tasting when you experience Umami:
Glutamate, inosinate, or guanylate. In his research Kikunae discovered that he was experiencing Umami when his taste receptors were responding to Glutamate. Glutamate is an amino acid, it is essential to our biosynthesis of protein, and it is a key compound in our metabolism. In other words…it’s a pretty big deal.
The following are but a few examples where you might find some of these components:²
- roasted tomatoes
- aged cheese (such as Parmesan)
- kombu seaweed
- bonito flakes
- meats such as poultry, beef, and pork
- dried mushrooms such as shitake or porcini
The Benefits of Umami
If a meal is naturally rich in Umami….
It will taste better and therefore require much less added salt. This could be a big one for those (typically older folks) on a low sodium diet.
When you take in some of the factors listed above, such as the “long lasting taste,” Umami contributes to satiety (or the sensation of feeling full). There is something special (and healthy) about completing a meal where you are satisfied but not overly stuffed.
Babies will enjoy it. Turns out that breast milk, every human’s first meal, is an Umami bomb. The strategy for Jenny and I has been to add a little something Umami to Preston and Chloe’s meals (such as a touch of soy sauce) that might entice them to eat something they otherwise wouldn’t (veggies).
On the flip side of satiety if we go back to the “mouthwatering” and “deliciousness” descriptors for Umami it also has the ability to stimulate the appetite.
So, if you incorporate the right amount Umami in your life you might….
consume less sodium
lose weight because you are eating more moderate portions
succeed in getting your kids to eat more than just French fries and hot dogs
improve your diet because you are eating healthy foods that actually taste good
How Umami can change lives
The benefits of Umami listed above seem pretty straightforward but if we really dug in and tried to figure out how to make them a reality the answer would require a bit of effort on our part. When I think about human consumption of food there are two primary concepts that come to mind for me.
Necessity and enjoyment.
Like all living beings we NEED food. However unlike most (or all) other living beings we have the capacity to truly enjoy, even indulge, in a meal experience. This is an incredible thing however for many of us the ability to indulge has also been a problematic thing. Here’s a horribly oversimplified version of how and why that is:
If we look at the fact that…
humans were hunter gatherers for millions of years. They then figured out how to domesticate plants so they then became farmers for thousands of years. Then they became industrialists and scientists so food could be produced in factories (i.e. processed foods).
We can recognize that…
the human brain and it’s animal instincts have evolved at a much slower pace than the world humans have built. My example of this earlier was our love for all things sweet. Originally, our brain liked sweet foods because it thought it was going to give our body a lot of energy. Our brain still holds the same beliefs about sweet foods, but it is being deceived when we drink a soda for instance.
which means that the problem for almost everyone healthy or unhealthy, overweight or not, is this:
the best tasting and most desirable foods = less healthy
the lesser delicious foods that we force ourselves to eat = more healthy
People who eat more healthy foods are said to have more self control. But, I think self control is overrated. What I don’t think is overrated is Umami – and I think Umami can help to resolve this particular problematic aspect of the human condition.
Ok, perhaps that was a pretty bold statement with maybe a little ulterior undertone when you take the name of our website into consideration. Maybe I don’t think Umami is THE sole answer to all of our diet problems, but I do believe it can be very helpful for us.
Because Umami is a way to make healthy stuff delicious.
I’m not talking about like when you eat Zoodles and try to convince yourself they are delicious substitute for pasta. The sauce you make with the Zoodles may be delicious, but if you’re anything like me the dish won’t be complete because the Zoodles themselves are not hitting the spot.
I’m talking about the kind of delicious that satisfies your hunger AND your mood. For example, if you are in the mood for something comforting but you want to check off the gluten-free and paleo boxes a dish like Jenny’s Spicy Korean Shredded Beef Stew can actually satisfy your intellectual (I should eat something healthy) and your emotional (I NEED comfort food right now!) needs.
Have you ever made a New Year’s Resolution that you were going to eat healthier, but you only made it to about mid-February at best?
That’s because meal decisions are not rational decisions. Meal decisions are emotional decisions.
In order for a diet to be sustainable the food we eat must satisfy more than just our hunger levels. This is why simply striving to eat “healthy” is an impractical goal and will never work. A more realistic goal would be to learn the concepts and techniques behind developing flavor in order to make healthy foods more delicious (more Umami) so they will satisfy not just your intellectual goals but will satisfy your cravings as well.
Umami and you
(how to become an awesome cook)
When I am working on a dish and it seems to check off the boxes in every category of taste but I feel there is still room to take it over the top, often the answer is Umami.
As someone who cooks a lot of Italian food, the best example I can give is anchovies. If you don’t like anchovies my best advice is to not think of them as anchovies – think of them as a seasoning.
For example, one of my favorite pasta dishes is Puttanesca because it is a typical light, fresh tasting, yet comforting Italian tomato sauce but with a little added Umami. The anchovies are what bring the whole dish together but at the same time you might not even know they are there, rather you taste a certain delicious background flavor (that is slightly salty and tastes of the ocean) you can’t quite put your finger on – but it is something that makes your mouth water. The subtle use of anchovies are one of many possible examples how to apply an Umami-centric ingredient in your cooking.
You don’t need high-level technique to be an awesome home cook, nor do you need to seek out the latest and greatest recipe and follow it’s instructions to a tee. The best home cooks (and professional cooks for that matter) in my opinion are the ones who cook intuitively.
Cooking intuitively means developing your palate (learning to distinguish taste and what you enjoy), tasting your food as you are cooking it, and making the necessary adjustments throughout the process. Keep in mind that if you can identify taste you can manipulate the final outcome – and if you can identify Umami your life is about to get a whole lot more delicious.
Now go cook something.