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Five Excellent Plant-Based Sources of Umami

In Brief: Good cooks include umami in their cooking to balance flavors and enhance the overall flavor of a dish. Including umami can also help eliminate that sense of “something is missing” that can happen with vegetarian and vegan cooking.

What Is Umami

umami tasteUmami is one of the five basic tastes alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It’s often described as a savory or meaty taste.

The term “umami” comes from Japanese and roughly translates to “pleasant savory taste.” It was identified as a distinct flavor by Japanese chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda in the early 20th century.

Umami taste is triggered by the presence of glutamate, an amino acid, as well as certain nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate.

Why Include Umami

Good cooks include umami in their cooking to balance flavors and enhance the overall flavor of a dish. Increasing umami in a dish can also help reduce the need for salt, lowering the sodium content of the dish.

Including umami can also help eliminate that sense of “something is missing” that can happen with vegetarian and vegan cooking.

Plant-Based Umami Sources

vegetables with umamiAlthough umami has a meaty flavor, there are actually many excellent plant-based sources of umami. Incorporating these ingredients into plant-based cooking can help create depth and richness in flavor without relying on animal products. Here are five excellent plant-based sources of umami.


Umami is often associated with food derived from animal proteins like aged meats and cheeses. But umami is abundant in many vegetables. In fact, there are so many vegetables with umami that I’ve lumped them together here rather than make this list insanely long.

Common everyday vegetables like spinach, carrots, and onions are good plant-based sources of umami. In particular, tomatoes, potatoes, green peas, lotus root, garlic and corn are the highest plant-based umami sources. Various types of seaweed (kombu, kelp, etc.) are also high in umami.

Within the same vegetable, the amount of umami can vary for a couple different reasons. Ripening increases the amount of umami in a plant. Very ripe plants will have more umami flavor than ones that are still a little green. That change in flavor is why green tomatoes are only tasty if they’re breaded and fried, while juicy red tomatoes are good in a million applications.

Similarly, whether the food is in its original state or dried affects the umami. Drying the food concentrates the umami flavor. For example, sun-dried tomatoes have four times as much umami as regular tomatoes.


umami mushroomsMany mushrooms are high in umami. Shimeji, enoki, and shiitake mushrooms pack the most umami punch. Common mushrooms and truffles are also good sources of umami.

Similar to in vegetables, drying mushrooms concentrates the umami. Dried shiitake mushrooms have about fifteen times as much umami as fresh shiitake mushrooms have.


Nutritional yeast is a type of yeast that is often used as a seasoning. It is a great plant-based source of umami. Frequently used as a cheese substitute in vegan dishes, nutritional yeast has a naturally cheesy, savory flavor profile.

Yeast extracts, yeast cells minus their cell walls, contain a high level of glutamate, the amino acid that signals umami flavor. Examples of foods these are incorporated into are Marmite and Vegemite.


MSG seasoningAnother seasoning rich in umami is MSG. MSG is a purified form of glutamate, the amino acid responsible for umami flavor. It is made from the fermentation of plants, usually sugar beets, sugarcane, tapioca, or molasses.

This seasoning powder is used to flavor when cooking food and/or at the dinner table. It can be used alone or in combination with other umami-rich ingredients.

Miso, Soy Sauce, and Other Fermented Foods

Fermentation increases the amount of umami in a food because the fermentation process breaks down the plants’ proteins and frees the amino acid (glutamate) that is responsible for imparting umami flavor.

That’s why miso and other fermented soybean pastes are great sources of plant-based umami. The same goes for soy sauce, tamari, and fermented tofu.

Ditto for vegan versions of kimchi. Vegan versions of fish and oyster sauces are also good plant-based umami sources as they rely on ingredients like mushrooms and soy sauce to mimic the flavor of those fermented seafoods.

There are plenty of plant-based options for adding umami flavor to your food. Hopefully, this has inspired you to make your own food taste richer and more flavorful. If so, here are some delicious plant-forward umami-rich recipes to try.


Theresa is a dietitian in private practice who specializes in GI disorders and food allergies and intolerances. She is passionate about making nutrition fit within the constraints of the real world. Theresa previously spent years coaching heart patients at Emory University Hospital Midtown through lifestyle changes as well as teaching students at Oregon State University and Georgia State University the basics of nutrition. Read more about her background on the About page. Note: MSGdish bloggers are compensated for their time in writing for MSGdish, but their statements and opinions are their own. They have pledged to blog with integrity, asserting that the trust of their readers and their peers is vitally important to them.

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