How to Create Umami Rich Vegetable Dishes

vegetarian dishes with umami

Enhance your vegetarian dishes with umami and no one will miss the meat.

When I worked at a hospital in the southern part of the U.S., I frequently heard, “I’m not eating rabbit food” in response to introducing myself.

Putting people on an all-carrot diet was never my intention, but it did make me wonder… Why did people have such a visceral response to the idea that they were going to be asked to eat more vegetables? Did they not like the thought of change? Are vegetables gross? Or was something else going on?

I think it had something to do with what they thought they’d be giving up – meat.

It’s all about the umami

Imagine biting into a juicy burger or popping your favorite kind of sushi into your mouth. Delicious, right? But the reason those foods taste good isn’t because they’re sweet, salty or bitter. It’s the savory flavor, or umami, that you’re loving in that moment.

Umami is a complex flavor that’s hard to describe. It’s often described as the flavor of broth. And I think it’s one of the things people feared they’d be giving up in an effort to eat healthier.

Umami from plants

Umami is a meaty flavor. It is found in many animal proteins, especially aged meats. But it’s also found in a wide variety of plants. Tomatoes, peas, garlic, corn, spinach, carrots, cabbage, ginger, mushrooms, and potatoes are just a handful of the vegetables that are rich in umami.

To taste delicious and well-rounded, a meatless dish will need to contain some of these ingredients that provide umami.

Umami is free glutamate

All savory foods contain glutamate. Free glutamate in the mouth signals umami flavor to the brain. Free-glutamate means the glutamate is not attached to other amino acids in the form of a protein (bound). The more free-glutamate there is, the more savory a food will taste.

Several processes increase the amount of free-glutamate in a food. Ripening is one of those. A red ripe tomato will have more free glutamate than a firm pale one. Fermentation is another process that increases free-glutamate. That is why miso paste, soy sauce, and beer are high in umami. And drying will increase it too – dried mushrooms have so much more umami than fresh ones.

Umami from MSG

Another way to get free glutamate is by adding monosodium glutamate (MSG, sometimes referred to as “umami seasoning”). MSG is made by fermenting corn starch to get glutamate. Sodium is added to neutralize it.

Because MSG is a flavor-enhancer, adding it to foods that inherently have some umami flavor works the best. That means MSG will go well with vegetables, eggs, and sauces.

About ½ teaspoon of MSG is enough to season a dish that serves 4 to 6 people. You may want to cut back on the salt you add when using MSG. MSG can help you use less salt because of its flavor enhancing effect. You’ll be able to lower the amount of sodium needed to make a food taste good by up to 40%.

Building flavors in vegetarian dishes with umami

Make Vegetable Dishes SavoryTo create a vegetarian recipe in which no one misses the meat, focus on umami. You may want to layer in umami from more than one source to up the flavor.

Check out How to Make Vegetable Dishes More Savory for a great overview of how to make sure your meatless cooking is still tasty.

In general, to ensure enough umami in vegetarian dishes, do the following:

  • Use fruits and vegetables at the peak of their ripeness
  • Use dried mushrooms or dried tomatoes
  • Use broth, miso paste, soy sauce and other condiments loaded with umami
  • Use nutritional yeast as a cheese substitute
  • Use MSG

Vegan umami recipes

Ready to try some umami-rich vegan recipes? Check out this recipe roundup:

About Theresa Hedrick, MS, RD

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.

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