Skip to main content
umami taste bomb

Let’s start with a tasty question. How do you describe the taste of a comforting bowl of chicken soup? We all know the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But none of these accurately captures the essence of chicken soup.

chicken noodle soupThe answer to why chicken soup is so delicious and comforting is umami. Umami is defined as a meaty, savory, satisfying taste, recognized as the fifth taste. Umami is all about flavor, and it’s the inspiration for innovative dishes from every gourmet chef’s kitchen to your own home kitchen.

How do we taste?

The sense of taste affords us the ability to evaluate what we eat and drink. At the most basic level, this assessment promotes ingestion of nutritious substances and prevents consumption of potential (bitter) poisons or toxins.

Taste receptor cells are grouped in clusters called taste buds, and they can detect a wide variety of specific chemicals. When specific taste receptors are activated by these chemicals, they send signals to centers in our brain, enabling us to perceive different flavors.

What are the characteristics of the five types of flavors we all recognize?

umami tasteSweet – usually indicates energy-rich nutrients

Sour – typically the taste of acids

Bitter – allows sensing of diverse natural toxins

Salty – keeps our electrolyte balance

And Umami – the taste of amino acids (e.g., meat broth or aged cheese). Umami is the taste of protein and key to meeting our desire for good-tasting food.

What makes the umami taste?

It’s a protein called glutamic acid, one of the 20 amino acids. Since our body can make it, it is considered a non-essential amino acid. Glutamate, a form of glutamic acid, is found in all living cells, primarily in the bound form as part of proteins. Only a fraction of the glutamate in foods is in its “free” form, and only glutamate in its free form can enhance the flavor of foods.

Little difference exists between the behaviors of glutamic acid and glutamate with regard to function in the body. Think of glutamate and glutamic acid as completely equivalent.

Glutamic acid = glutamate = One of 20 amino acids (protein)

umami taste on tongueIn 2000, researchers at the University of Miami Medical School isolated distinct taste receptor cells in the tongue for detecting umami. Once these receptor cells were identified, acceptance came for umami to be acknowledged as the 5th taste.

How do the receptor cells operate?

Special receptors on the tongue are a perfect fit for glutamate. Think of the receptor as being shaped like a Venus flytrap. Receptors grab hold of glutamate from food and bind it near the hinge of the receptor cell. And then the “flytrap” closes around it, activating the savory taste we call umami.

Where can we find glutamate to provide this umami flavor in our foods?

In the kitchen, glutamate is found in many different ingredients.

  • Fermented sauces like soy sauce and fish sauce. Fermentation breaks down proteins in soybeans, releasing free glutamate and producing the flavor-enhancing effect.
  • Aged cheeses. The taste of cheese becomes stronger and develops character as it ripens. During this maturation the proteins in the cheese are broken down, eventually to free amino acids. In strong, mature cheeses, free glutamate dominates, delivering a powerful umami taste.
  • TomatoesRipe fruits like tomato. Tomatoes are especially rich in glutamate, and this is one of the reasons that tomatoes are widely used throughout the world to impart the taste of umami in a variety of dishes. When tomatoes are concentrated, such as in ketchup, the rich umami flavor develops.
  • Cured meats. The different processes during curing meat or fish result in the breakdown of some of the protein-releasing free amino acids. Curing not only preserves the food but also enhances umami.

How can we take advantage of glutamates to enhance the umami taste of dishes?

  • Use meat or vegetable stock instead of water when liquid is called for in your savory recipes.
  • Parmesan cheese is one of the most glutamate-rich ingredients in the Western diet. Use the cheese rind to enrich soup. And don’t stick with just Parmesan. Most cheese experts consider cheese to be truly aged if it’s cured for more than 6 months. So, grate some Cheddar, Gouda, Parmesan, Gruyere or Manchego on top of your dishes.
  • Make mushroom dust. Dried mushrooms, especially shitake, enhance the umami effect. Grind dried mushrooms to a powder and dust on scallops or chops before grilling.
  • Incorporate a splash of wine to the sauces for meats. Yeasts that ferment wine contribute glutamate.
  • Add soy sauce to sauces, gravies, and braising liquids such as western beef stew.
  • Sprinkle nori, a dried seaweed used to wrap sushi, into dishes to make them more flavorful. Anything alive in the ocean contains glutamate.
  • Sprinkle MSG (aka “umami seasoning”) on your dish. According to nutritionists and FDA, MSG is essentially the same thing as the glutamate found naturally in foods. MSG produces the umami taste valued for its ability to add a rich, full, savory flavor to cooked foods.

With taste a premium consideration for our palates, use glutamate-rich food ingredients and MSG for the explosive taste of the umami bomb. Now, the next step is for you to try MSG on different products – eggs or soup are an easy start – and watch how it elevates the flavor. Experiment, and you’ll be happily surprised with the delicious results.

Happy cooking, and enjoy the umami taste bomb!

Mary Lee Chin is a registered dietitian specializing in health communications. Committed to providing the public with sound nutrition information, she is regularly consulted by local and national media on nutrition trends and significant health and food issues. Her company, Nutrition Edge Communications, specializes in translating peer-reviewed research into realistic and practical recommendations, and countering myths and misinformation. Mary Lee was recently awarded Outstanding Dietitian of the Year by the Colorado Dietetic Association. 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.

Leave a Reply