The holidays have a special way of taking me to my happy place: the kitchen. There’s nothing I enjoy more than cooking my favorite recipes for my loved ones.
The delicious flavors that come from carefully combining ingredients in our family recipes are what make them irresistible and keep everyone coming back for more. Let’s take a closer look at those culinary flavors.
In the realm of culinary delights, taste is king. The foundation of flavors, as we know them, is built upon five fundamental tastes: salty, sweet, bitter, sour, and the often misunderstood, umami. This blog aims to unravel the secrets of umami, its receptor mechanisms, and its transformative potential in your holiday cooking.
Umami is often the underappreciated sibling of the basic tastes. It’s elusive because it often blends seamlessly with other taste characteristics like mouthfeel, complexity, and kokumi (richness). In Western cuisine, understanding and appreciating umami can be a challenge. It wasn’t until 1985 that umami was recognized as a basic taste.
The journey to understanding umami begins with paying attention to the distinctive taste found in a variety of foods. Think about the savory richness of matured cheeses, cured ham, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, and even ketchup. What sets umami apart is its lingering taste sensation, which stands in stark contrast to the fleeting experiences of salty, sour, and sweet. For a do-it-yourself umami taste test, watch this video.
The Magic of Umami Synergy
To truly grasp the essence of umami, experiment by pairing ingredients. Take tomato puree and dried shiitake powder, for instance. Before and after they are mixed in a sauce, you’ll witness the magic of umami synergy. Free glutamate from the tomatoes combines with free guanylate, magnifying the umami taste manifold. This is the same principle behind classic pairings like eggs with bacon or cheese with ham.
The Role of Seaweeds
Seaweed is gaining a lot of traction in the field of nutrition, and for many good reasons. Seaweeds, known for their “taste of the ocean,” played a pivotal role in the discovery of umami as a basic taste in 1908. High levels of free glutamate were found in large Japanese brown seaweed species known as konbu.
Appetite Stimulation with Umami
Recent experiments have showcased the appetite-satisfying power of umami. For example, encapsulating ponzu (a mixture of dashi, soy sauce, and yuzu (citrus) juice) demonstrates how combining an intriguing mouthfeel with umami can enhance the release of saliva (aiding in digestion). If you’re feeling unsatisfied after a meal, perhaps it wasn’t flavorful enough. Recent research suggests that the taste of umami may actually make you feel more full and satisfied after a meal.
Reducing Sodium with Umami
A recent trend in the culinary world is exploring whether monosodium glutamate (MSG), the purest form of umami, can reduce sodium in meal preparation. This is particularly significant given the potential harms of excess sodium in the body. MSG provides the umami taste we are looking for, and with two-thirds less sodium than table salt. Find out here how to use MSG to reduce sodium in foods you love.
Natural and Processed Umami Sources
You can find umami in various forms in both natural and processed foods. Naturally savory umami-rich foods include dried mushrooms, anchovies, ripe tomatoes, and a range of vegetables. Processed items such as soy sauce, oyster sauce, miso, and cheese varieties like Parmesan, Comte, and Roquefort are loaded with umami.
Umami Meal Ideas for Your Holiday Cooking
- Umami-Wow Burger: Top your burger with melted cheese, sautéed mushrooms, and a drizzle of soy sauce.
- Roasted Umami Chicken: Marinate chicken in miso paste and soy sauce before roasting and serve with a side of roasted tomatoes.
- Umami-Infused Pasta: Make a creamy mushroom and Parmesan Alfredo sauce for your favorite pasta.
- Umami Quinoa Salad: Combine cooked quinoa with sun-dried tomatoes, olives, and feta cheese for a Mediterranean-inspired dish.
Umami is the secret ingredient that can take your holiday cooking to the next level. Experiment with these ideas and savor the depth and complexity of flavors that umami brings to your dishes.
Here is a recipe I use to wake up my family during the holidays or for easy entertainment:
Leek, Spinach & Feta Cheese Quiche
A savory quiche recipe for breakfast during the holidays and for easy holiday cooking.
- 1 teaspoon butter or margarine
- 1 cup onion leeks chopped
- 1 ½ cups crumbled feta cheese or gorgonzola cheese shredded
- 1 cup fresh baby spinach leaves
- 4 eggs or 1 cup egg substitute
- 1 teaspoon MSG umami seasoning
- 1 cup skim milk
Preheat oven to 375° F.
In a medium skillet, melt butter and cook onions for 1 to 2 minutes or until tender.
In a greased pie pan, layer onions, cheese, and spinach. Set aside.
In a medium bowl, mix eggs, umami seasoning, and milk until well blended. Pour over vegetable/cheese mixture. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes or until knife inserted in center comes out clean. Let stand 5 minutes before serving.
NOTE: You may use a pie crust, if desired.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Lesley Edwards.