What is umami?
Umami is a pleasant savory taste that comes from the amino acid glutamate. It’s one of the five basic tastes – the others being sweet, salty, bitter, and sour.
You may have trouble describing the flavor of umami, but you will notice if it’s missing. Umami blends well with other tastes to enhance and round out the flavor of foods.
What does umami taste like?
You’ve tasted umami as early as when you were a newborn, as breast milk is rich in it. You grew up eating it if you ever munched on grilled cheese sandwiches or dunked your fries in ketchup. And it’s in many of the things you eat every day now – ham, soy sauce, parmesan cheese, etc.
But you’ve probably never tasted umami on its own. To do so, try sampling a piece of young (aged 3-6 months) cheddar. Pay attention to the flavor. Next try a piece of aged (>12 months) cheddar. Note the differences. With aging, the cheese flavor becomes stronger, and the umami flavor is more noticeable.
Another great way to learn what umami tastes like is to have scrambled eggs with and without it. Check out Chef Chris Koetke’s blog post on how to do this experiment.
How do you get umami?
Umami is naturally present in many foods. Some of the foods highest in it include: anchovies, cured ham, mackerel, parmesan cheese, Roquefort cheese, dried shiitake mushrooms, walnuts, dried tomatoes, marmite, fish sauce, soy sauce, and miso.
When the amino acid glutamate is “free” – as in not attached to other amino acids like it would be if it was part of a protein – it can connect with the taste buds in our mouths. This triggers the taste buds to tell the brain they’re detecting umami. Thus, the more glutamate a food has, the more umami flavor it will impart. Processes like aging, ripening, and fermentation will break down proteins and increase the free glutamate in a food.
Free glutamate can also be found in MSG, an isolated purified form of glutamate.
Can you make umami?
You can make any dish have more umami by using umami-rich ingredients and/or seasoning with MSG. Check out our list of foods high in umami to see which ingredients will give you the most umami bang for your buck. And take a look at our beginner’s guide to how to cook with MSG if you’re new to using the seasoning.
How to create flavorful umami dishes
It’s easy to make mouthwatering umami meals. Here are four ways to get started.
- Use vegetables at the height of their ripeness. Roast them to further bring out their savory characteristics.
- Use aged and cured meats in place of fresh ones to boost flavor.
- Use fermented foods like miso and soy sauce to make the umami flavor more prominent.
- Use MSG to season foods, enhancing their flavors and increasing their umami.