There has been a lot of talk lately about the discovery of the fifth taste, umami (oo-MA-mee), also described as savory, meaty, or deliciousness. The elusive taste is created on the tongue when carboxylate anion of glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid common in meat, cheese, stock, and other protein-rich foods, is detected.
Derived primarily from glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid, umami is a distinct flavor and can’t be produced by combining other flavors. This means it’s one of the primary flavors, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
In retrospect, I have always been aware of umami. It’s that elusive, mouth filling, long lingering, savory something that separates a bland dish from a dish you just can’t stop eating.
At the Northwest Culinary Academy in the 1980’s, I named this elusive something “intensity” and taught my humble theory to hundreds of students over the years. I was always aiming for a felt balance between sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and the thing I called intensity.
Another way I described intensity was “big taste.” I even gave students a short list of processes and ingredients that could potentially amplify this aspect of a dish. However, there is no “magic bullet” ingredient or combination of ingredients that will elevate umami in just the right way in every dish. Each dish should be considered on its own.
Flavor Balancing: Cheap Tricks
If I am making a sauce, soup, stew, or braise, and the flavor is not fully developed, the first thing I consider is reducing the liquid. With sauces, this almost always does the trick.
The second thing I consider is salt level. Without enough salt, flavor does not come through.
The third thing I check is the balance between sweet and sour. You may be surprised by how truly sweet some savory dishes are; for instance, a soup made of butternut squash, carrots, or corn. If not brought into balance with a sour (acidic) partner, the soup will taste bland, and the palate will tire of it rapidly. My first choice for a balancing acid is lemon or lime juice, my second choice is vinegar (but this often must be reduced to soften the more aggressive acids). Wine will also work, but it should be added at the beginning of the cooking process to evaporate the alcohol.
If every element is in balance and the dish still lacks umami, a judicious amount of one or two of these ingredients may save the day: Asian fish sauce, anchovy paste, demi-glace (my favorite), dried shitake mushrooms, Parmesan, reduced brown stock, soy sauce, tomato paste, #5 Taste Umami Paste, or Worcestershire sauce. But, it is very easy to ruin a dish by overdoing any of these, so caution is the rule. And what is appropriate for one dish may not be appropriate for another.
To broaden the possibilities even more, here is a list of ingredients and processes that are now thought to contain considerable umami:
· aged cheese
· anchovy paste
· bean paste
· bell peppers
· beef, aged and tougher cuts
· black beans
· black olives
· bonito flakes
· bread, slow-risen, artisanal
· browning (Maillard reaction)
· cheese, aged
· cured ham
· cured meats
· dashi (dried kelp and bonito)
· duck, long cooked
· fish sauce, Asian
· green tea
· ham hock
· mushroom paste
· mushrooms, dried
· mushrooms, shiitake, portobello, morel, porcini
· olive oil
· olives, black
· oyster sauce
· parmesan cheese
· porcini mushrooms, dehydrated
· red wine
· salt pork
· sausage, cured
· sea vegetables, usually dried
· seaweed, dried
· shrimp, dried
· soy beans
· soy sauce
· steak, aged
· stock, meat-based
· sunflower seeds
· sweet potatoes
· tea, green
· tempeh (fermented soybean curd)
· Thai fish sauce
· tomato paste
· tomatoes, dried
· vinegar, balsamic
· vinegar, red wine
· winter squash
· Worcestershire sauce
Enter Laura Santtini and Taste #5 Umami Paste
Then, as if on cue, restaurateur, Laura Santtini, launches Taste #5 Umami Paste and takes the media by storm. Ms. Santtini describes her paste as a “little tube of magic” and suggests that you slather it on just about everything, from steak to prawns, it makes no difference. She suggests this magical paste will “transform your life in the kitchen.” A blurb on her website says, “Tasty and transformational, this powerful natural “flavour bomb” is designed to empower cooks of all levels, making novice cooks good cooks, good cooks great cooks, and great cooks extraordinary cooks.” Wow, all that from a TUBE?
Well, who am I to doubt the transformational powers of umami? I quickly order three tubes from Amazon, and they arrive a couple of days later. I rip open a package, puncture the seal, and squeeze an oozing, brick-red blob of magic onto my forefinger.
Expecting to be BLOWN AWAY, I taste: Intense. Anchovies in the lead, with tomato paste, dried mushrooms, Calamata olives, something cheesy, and salt playing close backup. Good balance between sweet and acidic. Not bad. In fact, it has a fuller, rounder flavor that anchovy paste, which it could supplant. But I am sadly not transformed. (In fact, I feel foolish for buying 3 tubes, which will surely last a decade or longer.)
To test my palate, I check the ingredients listed on the package.
Ingredients in Umami Paste #5 (in order of weight):
· tomato paste
· anchovy paste (which in turn has anchovies, salt and sunflower seed oil)
· black olives
· balsamic vinegar
· dehydrated porcini mushrooms
· parmesan cheese
· olive oil
· wine vinegar
I got close. But here’s the kicker. I don’t put anchovy paste in every dish. Not by a long shot. But if all the hype is to be believed, perhaps I should. Taste #5 Umami Paste Ice Cream Sundae anyone?
Nevertheless, during this exploration of umami, the idea of a super-savory pesto grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. The only thing I knew for sure was that I didn’t want the pesto to contain anchovies or dried seafood of any kind. Those elements are distinctively assertive and can be added easily if and when needed.
Stay tuned for Umami Potion #9, coming up next. It will not transform you into an instantly better cook, but I think you will find it delicious and useful nonetheless.
- Delicious Days: Umami Butter – Your Fridge is your
- Fidgety Fingers: Make Your Own Umami Ketchup with
- Foodie with Family: Bacon Jam
- Island Vittles: Five Ways to Up Your Umami
- Laura Santtini: Taste #5 Umami Paste
- Leite’s Culinaria: Leite’s Loves…Taste No. 5 Umami
- Mail Online: You’ve tried sweet, sour, bitter and
salty … now tubes of the fifth taste to be sold in supermarkets
- NPR: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter … and Umami
- Nuts about Fruit: Black Garlic: Umami to the Max
- Onlifemag: What Breast Milk, Parmesan Cheese and
Seaweed have in Common
- The City Cook: Cooking with Umami
- The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami
- The Nibble: Trends: Umami, the Fifth Taste
- The Rooter to the Tooter: Give & Take: Pain Perdu Farci (with Bacon Jam)
- The Sense of Taste
- The Umami Information Center
- Umami Girl: Mark Bittman’s Tomato Jam
- Umami Information Center
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Copyright 2011 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.