Win tickets to see the smash hit musical Mamma Mia at the Roanoke Civic Center. Two winners will each receive four tickets!
Umami may not be as well known as sweet, salty, bitter or sour, but the “pleasant, savory taste” is essential to understanding well-balanced flavor.
Linguini with asparagus and mushrooms
Ribeye Steak with Asparagus
Wednesday, July 24, 2013
Let’s pretend for a moment that we are contestants on “Jeopardy!”
The category is “The human body” and the answer Alex reads is “The five distinct flavors detected by human taste buds.”
This is easy, you might think, because we learned this in grade school. You can even picture the diagram of the human tongue labeled with the flavors picked up by each region of the organ.
You frantically buzz in and answer: “What are sweet, salty, bitter, sour and … Wait, five?”
Don’t feel badly if you cannot complete the answer — some culinary professionals may not even know that the fifth flavor is called “umami.” But it’s worth grasping the concept of umami because it is essential to understanding well-balanced flavor.
Without delving too deeply into the complex chemistry of umami, I will explain what it is and how you can employ your newfound knowledge in the kitchen.
Around the turn of the century, a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda realized that kelp, a common ingredient in Japanese cuisine, possessed a dimension of flavor that could not be categorized under the four common tastes.
Ikeda set out to isolate the source and, in 1908, determined it was produced by amino acids, most notably glutamic acid (glutamate), an amino acid that is present in large quantities in the human body.
He named the flavor umami, which means “pleasant, savory taste.” Other adjectives often used to describe umami are “meaty” or “mouth-watering.”
Based on his research, Ikeda invented monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is used as a seasoning to give dishes an umami flavor. Although MSG is still heavily used in many food products, particularly Asian dishes and processed foodstuffs, it has been shunned by many as a chemical that can cause headaches and other physical ailments.
If you don’t like MSG, don’t get hung up on its connection to umami. There are plenty of natural ingredients that are rich in umami flavor, including meat, tomatoes, asparagus, mushrooms and seafood. In fact, if an umami ingredient is called for in a recipe but is left out, the finished product will likely not taste as well-rounded as it should.
For example, when I first started making pad Thai, I ignored the fact that authentic recipes call for fish sauce. As a result, my pad Thai always tasted as if something was missing.
It turns out that fermented foods and seafood are rich in umami. When I added the fish sauce, the dish did not taste a bit fishy, but it did taste fuller and richer because it had that essential element of umami.
Cooking with umami
Although Ikeda’s research is now more than 100 years old, it has only been within the past few decades that the concept of umami has strongly taken hold in culinary circles.
The Umami Information Center, an organization devoted entirely to educating the public about umami, was not founded until 1982, nearly 75 years after Ikeda’s work.
At the Culinary Institute of Virginia Western, students learn about umami fairly early in the program, but director James Zeisler Sr. said he doesn’t remember being taught about umami when he was in culinary school.
“I wonder how people described things like meat and mushrooms before we came up with umami,” he said.
Today, he said, “I would hope any culinarian you ask would know what umami is.”
Some are more than aware. In California, a restaurant called Umami Burger, which has four locations, is built around the concept of “the perfect mouthful.” It sells burgers topped with ingredients including shiitake mushrooms, roasted tomatoes, truffles and Parmesan, a cheese with intense umami flavor.
Other ingredients rich in umami include soy beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, carrots, soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.
Experimenting with umami in cooking can be complex and sophisticated, but it can also be as simple as knowing what foods bring the flavor and seeking recipes that highlight those foods — or, even better, combining more than one umami source in one dish. I’ve snagged a couple of easy recipes that harness the fifth flavor, and I’ll share them here.
Now if you’re on “Jeopardy!” and you’re asked about the five flavors detected by human taste buds, you’ll be able to answer appropriately. And if you win a bunch of money, you know where to find me.
On the blog
Find tips to boost flavor in recipes without adding salt at blogs.roanoke.com/fridgemagnet.
Weather JournalStorm track isn't very snowy for us