For all of us umami lovers, how could we really live without that umami flavor? That deep, savory note that sets off gustatory happiness in our brain—it’s something we crave as part of a complete flavor experience.
But what I just wrote is not completely true. Experiencing umami flavor is not about a select group of people with heightened tasting abilities or people who are dedicated umami aficionados. Rather, it is about all of us as human beings. The simple fact is that we are all hardwired to like umami. It is one of our basic 5 taste sensations, offering as much flavor impact as salty or sweet. Our brains register it as delicious and desirable. So, it really is something that all of us don’t want to live without.
Practically speaking, it is hard to live without umami. Umami flavor is all around us and permeates the food that we eat. It is an essential element to many of the dishes we love. In many instances, it is closely associated with comfort foods. Umami abounds in aged cured salamis and world-class hams. It contributes mightily to the overall flavor of well-aged cheeses. It is found in fermented products like soy sauce and miso as well as sauerkraut and kimchee. It is even present in a ripe tomato, ketchup, seaweed, beef, human breast milk… and the list goes on.
Scientifically, the umami taste starts with a simple molecule made up of “free” glutamic acid and most often bound with sodium. Glutamic acid is nothing more than a specific amino acid, and the most prevalent amino acid in the human body. (Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.) For us to be able to have the “wow!” taste experience associated with umami, the glutamic acid must be free of other amino acids—meaning that it is not part of a larger protein. This is called a free glutamic acid.
As a chef, I focus on umami just as I also pay attention to the other 4 basic tastes when building a dish. When thinking about incorporating umami flavor into a recipe, there are two basic paths I can take. I can add umami along with other flavor profiles, or I can add it in its pure form. If I choose the first technique, I can reach for umami rich ingredients like soy sauce, miso, aged cheeses, cured meats, anchovy, fish sauce, sauerkraut, etc. When I use these ingredients, I get a big umami hit and a host of other flavor compounds which will ideally complement the recipe. If I choose the second umami technique, I simply add monosodium glutamate. MSG is the compound responsible for umami whether it is in a particular food or if it is on its own. When MSG is added to a recipe, the umami taste simply goes up in the same way that a sprinkle of salt increases salinity.
Understanding what umami is and how to incorporate it gives me the ability to greatly increase the enjoyment of a particular dish. After all, none of us wants to live without umami flavor. And really, why would we want to?