As food professionals, we want to add dimension (aka complexity) and depth (aka fullness and length of finish) to our dishes. Our guests are looking for that kind of superlative experience. And where does Umami fit in?
I recently was talking with a friend about wine and what makes a great wine great. There is certainly a level of subjectivity and many people may not be able to articulate all the wine’s nuances. At the same time though, it is my experience that people do tend to recognize exceptional wine because of its multi-dimensional complexity and its depth of flavor, which is often perceived as a long finish after swallowing.
I see great food in a similar manner and recently was explaining this to a group of culinary students. As food professionals, we want to add dimension (aka complexity) and depth (aka fullness and length of finish) to our dishes. Our guests are looking for that kind of superlative experience. To do this, we start with quality ingredients. Consider the difference between an unripe and a perfectly ripe tomato. A ripe tomato is bursting with not only higher levels of sweetness, but also with complex flavors that linger well after it is swallowed. Whether produce or protein, higher quality ingredients just taste better.
As a chef, I focus on purposely creating dimension and depth in the food I cook. Dimension, or rather multiple dimensions, makes food interesting that prevents it from being monotonous. This includes sensory clues before actually tasting it. The appearance of the food, the initial smell of it, and even the sound of it contribute to a complete dining experience. Each of these need to be considered when designing a dish. Once food is put in the mouth, chewed, and moved around that palate, the sensory experience is compounded. Aromas are perceived retro-nasally. Textures, temperature and assertive elements are felt. Tastes light up taste receptors. Each of these needs to also be considered when preparing food.
Let’s Focus on Taste
While everything in the preceding paragraph is an important part of an intriguing eating experience, I would like to focus on taste specifically. Unlike aromas, of which we can sense literally thousands of different ones as varying levels of intensity, we only have 5 basic tastes. This means that those 5 tastes have an incredibly important role in making memorable food. It also means that we need to consider all 5 tastes and how they interact in each dish. Most often, people think about sweetness levels in desserts or salt, and to a lesser degree acid, in savory dishes. Chefs instinctively sprinkle salt on food. We add a squeeze of lemon juice here or there to boost acid levels. Pastry chefs commonly add a hint of salt into a chocolate sauce. Bitter is considered less often as it is not innately liked and can be problematic for some people. In small doses in certain recipes, bitter can add an interesting dimension to food.
Umami Taste for Dimension and Depth
The taste that many people find the most elusive and thus not consciously considered in the cooking process is umami. As food professionals, we want to add dimension (aka complexity) and depth (aka fullness and length of finish) to our dishes. Our guests are looking for that kind of superlative experience. After the food is swallowed and the other tastes have dissipated, umami remains long into the finish and helps continue the taste experience.
What prevents people from analyzing the umami levels in a dish is that they were never taught to recognize the taste of umami. It would be like trying to understand the salt level in a dish if no one had taught you that the impression of salinity is called salt.
To better understand umami, the first step is learning how to recognize it in food. The best way to do this is through comparative tastings which are fun and easy to do. For instance, make a soup and divide it in two. Add some MSG, which is the purest form of umami, to one of the soups and taste them side by side. Or, take 2 pieces of salmon seasoned with salt and pepper. Sprinkle some MSG on one, then cook them both, and try them side by side.
After doing this with multiple ingredients, you will start to recognize what umami tastes like and how it contributes depth and dimension to food. You will perceive that delicious bass note. Once you know it, you can then strategically add umami through umami rich ingredients or MSG to many dishes to improve their overall taste and the dining experience.
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For Further Reading…
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