Umami - How Cooking with Umami Rich Foods (Parmesan Cheese, Fish Sauce, Anchovies...) Will Make You a Better Cook!
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
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
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
- The Umami Information Center
A comprehensive site on all things Umami - includes a recipe search for Umami rich meals.
- Interesting article on cooking with Umami, from Winegeeks
- Good Umami blog post
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
- Red Wine
- Pickled herring
- Broths and stocks
- Roquefort cheese