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Umami - How Cooking with Umami Rich Foods (Parmesan Cheese, Fish Sauce, Anchovies...) Will Make You a Better Cook!

Updated on August 13, 2008

Umami Love...

Umami - you find it in foods like fish sauce, parmesan cheese and tomatoes, and understanding how glutamate rich foods can create umami will change the way you cook forever! Understand the simple science of our "fifth taste" and bring a bold new weapon into your kitchen arsenal!


Simple mapping diagrams of the tongue (and the taste buds located therein) have long subdivided things pretty neatly into four separate areas, and four separate tastes – sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Scientists now suspect that we may have receptors unique to spicy (capiscacim) and also to fat and know that we have at least a fifth, responding to a taste sensation called Umami.

Umami is best described savory, and is detected in amino acid rich foods that give a sense of lingering mouth-feel and body. Umami is not a strongly detectable taste of itself, but it tends to accentuate and embolden other tastes. Umami intensifies sweet and salty, and rounds out sour and bitter.

It's a bit hard to describe, but imagine you just bit into a good shaved hunk of Parmigiano Reggiano. As you chew the tastes will intensify and fill your mouth with an incredible richness and fullness of feeling and sensation – a taste overload that just keeps lingering on. That incredible length and intensity of taste is all umami at work!

The Umami taste is created by the amino acid Glutamate, and the ribonucleotides inosinate and guanylate

Cooking with Umami

The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami
The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami

A complete explanation of the science of cooking with Umami and a great involved section about how top chefs are using Umami to transform their food. Lots of recipes and ideas for home cooks as well as the pros.


There's a reason why we love pizza...


Whatever your feelings on the synthetic Asian developed seasoning, MSG (Mono sodium glutamate – synthetic glutamate) you in all likelihood cook in such a way as to maximize the use of natural sources of glutamate. You naturally use foods rich in glutamates because they taste good, and they make things that you eat with them taste better.

Cheese, tomatoes, cured meats, wine – everyday foods that are incredible sources of "natural MSG"!!

(Your tongue is hard wired to appreciate rich sources of amino acids!)

The taste buds responsible for the taste of Umami are activated by an amino acid called glutamate (at taste buds T1R1/T1R3, mGluR4 and mGluR1 – if you wanna get technical…). Glutamate is found mostly as a bound up amino acid in proteins. This bound up version of glutamate cannot activate the glutamate receptors in the body, and does not cause Umami. Glutamate is also present in certain foods in it's free, or "unbound" form, called, free glutamate. It is this free glutamate that can react with taste buds on the tongue and create the taste sensation of umami.

Foods with naturally high levels of free glutamate acids have a lot of umami. Certain foods can be modified to increase the numbers of free glutamate within, and fermentation is the principle way that this is achieved.

Fermentation unbinds protein molecules, allowing for the release of otherwise bound up glutamate. Soy sauce, fish sauce, aged cheeses, salamis, cured hams etc. – all so savory and appreciated because of their large quantity of unbound glutamate.

Free Glutamate Levels of Certain Foods (in mgs per 100 grams)

  • Kelp (Kombu) up to 3200
  • Nori Seaweed 1400
  • Parmigianino Reggiano (parmesan) 1200
  • Soy sauce 800 – 1100
  • Vegemite 1400
  • Marmite 1900
  • Fish Sauce 950
  • Oyster sauce 900
  • Green Tea 668
  • Cured has 340
  • Tomato 246

On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen
On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen

The newly updated "Bible" of chefs everywhere. Anyone who is interested in cooking better NEEDS this book.


Inosinate and Guanylate

There are three primary sources of Umami, and in addition to glutamate, there are also Inosinate and guanylate.

Inosinate is found mostly in meat and fish, and guanylate can be found in certain mushrooms. Although the presence of any single element (glutamate, inosinate or guanylate) will give a food umami, there is a synergistic effect that occurs when a food or dish contains more than one umami giving compound.

What this means is that the umami giving molecules seem to interact with each other, and the effect in the mouth of eating a food that contains more than one umami giving molecule is far greater than the additive sum of those foods would indicate – a total greater than the sum of the parts.

Truffle mushrooms are one of the few natural occurring foods containing all three umami giving compounds in any significant amounts.

High Inosinate Containing Foods (in mgs per 100 grams)

  • Dried bonito flakes 700
  • Sardines 193 (sardines also contain almost 300 mgs of glutamate!)
  • Tuna 188
  • Beef 110 (Glutamate is also about 100)
  • Shrimp 92 (with 45 mgs of glutamate…remember the synergistic effect makes foods with more than one umami containing molecule very potent)

Guanylate containing foods (mgs per 100 grams)

  • Dried shitake mushrooms 150

Cooking with Umami

Foods taste better when they are balanced but also "full" – that is when they offer the palate a spectrum of tastes in harmony. We have all been cooking with umami unconsciously for ever (the ancient Romans were into fish sauce, which they called Garum, in a very big way) but we can often improve the end result of our kitchen labors with a little knowledge of food science.

Stock your pantry with Umami rich ingredients (they are often things that keep very well) and experiment by incorporating these umami flavor bursts into your favorite recipes.

  • Soy sauce in your chili for depth and harmony (and always in your steak marinades!)
  • Fish sauce in your next bloody Mary!
  • Good freshly grated parmesan cheese in anything you can think of!
  • A squeeze of anchovy paste instead of salt in any kind of braised dish
  • Tomatoes in a quick Asian soup
  • These are amazing ingredients, and they bring disparate tastes into real harmonic unity.

Additional Umami rich foods

  • Worcestershire Sauce
  • Sauerkraut
  • Beer
  • Red Wine
  • Pickled herring
  • Broths and stocks
  • Roquefort cheese
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Asparagus
  • Ketchup!

Demonstration video from the Australian Umami Seminar (interesting)

Part 2 of the seminar video


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    • profile image

      Ade 5 years ago

      Is free glutamate dangerous.. I presume it is in excess. Careful not to go overboard. I think it induces excitotoxity to neurons.

    • steveamy profile image

      steveamy 6 years ago from Florida


    • profile image

      dani 6 years ago

      I heard of umami a while ago in connection with asian cooking...never european...very interesting, as i love and have grown up with Sauerkraut,dried meats,and Cheese....we also cook a lot with wine and beer. Now in New Zealand,marroed with familie,I can't get anyone to even tast Sauerkraut!!

    • John D Lee profile image

      John D Lee 6 years ago

      You are very welcome. Umami is pretty interesting and its neat to see how so many of the ingredients we naturally gravitate to in cooking are so high umami.

    • jezebellamina profile image

      Jessica 6 years ago from Dallas, TX

      Very informative! I had only recently heard of umami, when I came across it in a recipe as an ingredient-- it was called 'umami powder', and you make it by grinding up dried shitake mushrooms, bonito flakes, and dried seaweed (kombu). It was delicious sprinkled on a burger that otherwise only consisted of ground beef!

      I am thrilled to learn this new information about umami, and that it applies to so much more than just one specific mixture of ingredients. Thanks for a great hub!

    • philipandrews188 profile image

      philipandrews188 6 years ago

      Speaking of cheese, I love any food with cheese. SO yummy!

    • MarkMAllen15 profile image

      MarkMAllen15 6 years ago

      Yummy, I wanted to cook that one, Thanks for sharing.

    • jtrader profile image

      jtrader 7 years ago

      I know someone who adds ketchup to everything-even curry-and claims it tastes better. This explains why.

      Voted up.

    • John D Lee profile image

      John D Lee 7 years ago

      I agree with the smell comment - you should smell a fermented fish pastes called Pala that my wife's family likes to use in cooking - talk about stinky umami!

      Yes, everyone is hard-wired to appreciate umami

    • ggerner profile image

      ggerner 7 years ago

      How can something that smells so bad make food taste so good? Yummmm. Fish sauce.

      I grew up eating this and anchovies, etc. and just thought it was an acquired taste. Are you saying EVERYONE'S "tongue is hard wired to appreciate rich sources of amino acids"?

    • profile image

      fpunk 7 years ago

      Double blind tests have demonstrated that there are no ill effects from ajinomoto even among individuals believing they are msg sensitive.

    • profile image

      inacio 8 years ago

      "naturally" occurring glutamates are fine and good... adding spoonfulls of ajinomoto (known also in Latin America, both in Spanish and Portuguse, as the powder that MAKES food taste good)is not. Surprisingly, little space is used to explain or discuss the detrimental effects of this usually massive addition to foods(MSG)on older males like myself.

    • chloe.rivera1980 profile image

      chloe.rivera1980 8 years ago from Houston, Texas

      one thing comes to mind: AJINOMOTO!

    • John D Lee profile image

      John D Lee 9 years ago

      It is interesting (to me anyway...) and for those of us that like to cook, immediately practical. Adding umami rich foods into favorite recipes will make things taste better!

    • desert blondie profile image

      desert blondie 9 years ago from Palm trees, swimming pools, lots of sand, lots of sunscreen

      Verrrrry interesting ... there's always something new to learn!