Ever feel your cooking is too bland? Want to give your dishes the X factor? Yearning to add a meaty taste to your vegetarian dishes? Learn what umami is and how you can add complexity to your cooking with a few tricks.
What Is Umami?
Humans have taste receptions on our tongue that glutamate molecules bind to, which allows us to register the savory, “umami” taste.
Umami is the X factor that makes a dish taste delicious, pleasant, and complex. The umami taste makes you crave more of a food. That’s why it’s a critical concept to understand if you want to make tastier food that rivals takeout from your favorite restaurants.
What is the Flavor of Umami?
Words used to describe umami include savory, meaty, deliciousness, and well-rounded harmony. From my experience, I’ve heard umami described in Chinese cooking as 鲜味, which means “seafoody”, aromatic, and appetizing.
A lot of Chinese and Japanese dishes are crafted to inject umami flavors and balance them in harmony with salty, sweet, sour, and bitter flavors.
Let’s dive into umami-containing ingredients to learn how you can add this savory taste to your food. If you’re curious about the science of umami, read to the end where we dive into the nerdy details.
What Ingredients Are Rich in Umami?
Many ingredients have naturally occurring free glutamate, which provides the umami taste to food. “Aged, fermented, cured and/or ripened foods will give you more of an umami flavor,” according to Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, who serves on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living.
Here are common ingredients you should add to your dishes to pack them with a savory taste.
- Cured meats (salami, ham)
- Nutritional yeast
- Fish sauce
- Oyster sauce
- Shrimp paste
- Beef broth
- Chicken broth
- Turkey broth
- Boullion cubes
- Homemade gravy (could the store-bought gravies taste umami because of the MSG?)
- Dried shiitake mushrooms
- Dried porcini mushrooms
- Dried morels
- Fermented foods
- Rice vinegar
- Rice wine (mirin)
- Fermented barley sauce (murri)
- Soy products
- Soy sauce
- MSG seasoning
Glutamate Concentration in Food
Check out the following resources to find a list of ingredients rich in glutamates to inspire your cooking.
- Umami Information Center’s database of foods rich in umami
- Wikipedia’s Glutamate Flavorings page with free glutamate concentrations
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand 2003 report on Monosodium Glutamate (see page 13)
What Dishes Are Rich in Umami?
While scientists have fiercely debated whether umami should be considered a basic taste since it was proposed by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908, it appears that umami flavors have a long history in many cuisines. Umami-rich dishes go back as far as ancient Roman, medieval Arab, and Chinese cuisines with fermented sauces, soy sauce, fish sauce, and barley sauce.
One cool discovery made by Kikunae Ikeda’s disciple, Shintaro Kodama, is that foods high in glutamates can have their flavors intensified when paired with ingredients that have ribonucleotides.
Mixing foods high in glutamate with foods high in the nucleotides inosinate and guanylate further enhances the umami taste, according to Umami Information Center.
Let’s simplify the amino and ribonucleic acids to focus on the everyday ingredients that are rich in umami taste. These are the ingredients rich in free glutamate. Meats, poultry, and seafood are high in inosinate whereas mushrooms are high in guanylate.
Let’s explore classic foods that emphasize the glutamate and nucleotide pairings to intensify the taste of umami. Then we’ll explore how we can introduce these flavor pairings into our home-cooked meals.
What Classic Food Pairings Are Rich in Umami?
- American-inspired umami
- European-style umami
- Pasta (tomato-based sauce with mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano)
- French onion soup
- Cioppino (seafood stew)
- Any recipe with mirepoix as a base (onion, celery, carrots)
- Asian-inspired umami
- New Zealand-style umami
- Marmite and cheese sandwich
What Foods Benefit From Umami?
Some dishes and foods will benefit greatly when you cook them with umami-rich ingredients. Tofu, vegan, leafy greens, salads, and plain foods, such as rice and oatmeal without toppings, can taste bland on their own. But these foods taste amazing when you braised them with broth and soy sauce or serve them with umami-rich sauces and condiments.
How to Start Adding Umami to Your Cooking
Glutamic acid is the amino acid that is still bound to proteins. Glutamic acid doesn’t give food the umami taste. Your tongue needs to taste free glutamates to enjoy the umami sensation.
I turned to my friend Fritz for advice on how to add umami to cooking.
“Glutamate is a fundamental building block shared by all life on Earth. Cooking probably helps liberate glutamate by denaturing proteins,” Fritz texted me. “I think just eating higher protein is good enough.”
Meat is naturally packed with free glutamate and inosinate, which makes meat dishes flavorful without much effort.
Let’s explore how to boost flavor in vegetarian, vegan, and bland foods by intentionally cooking with umami-rich ingredients.
How to Add Umami Taste to Your Food
There are 2 main approaches to adding umami to your cooking. You can be firmly in one camp or the other. Or you can use both approaches depending on your mood and the ingredients in your fridge.
Let’s learn the 2 approaches to how you can add umami to your cooking and how to get started today.
The Bold Approach
The bold approach looks at all the umami-rich ingredients available and aims to maximize them in a dish to boost the savory taste. This can get to almost comical levels of extreme, such as the Serious Eats All-American Meatloaf recipe by J. Kenji López-Alt, which calls for Marmite, anchovies, soy sauce, and mushrooms.
I discovered Umami Burger, founded by chef Adam Fleischman, was inspired by research he did on ingredients containing umami, according to The New Yorker. He crafted the menu with the mindset of how to pack as much umami as possible. I’ve eaten at the Umami Burger in San Francisco and enjoyed the unexpected ingredient pairings. The “truffle cheese, miso mustard, baked tomatoes in soy sauce, soy pickles, ketchup laced with truffles” and very meaty burgers exploded flavor bombs in my mouth (and left a feeling of being very thirsty).
The Subtle Approach
The subtle approach eschews extremes. Rather it focuses on adding one or two umami-rich ingredients targeted at adding depth and savoriness to a dish. It is all about balance, harmony, and well-roundedness. A tablespoon of soy sauce here and a teaspoon of tomato paste there.
The subtle approach is a lot less work because you don’t have to source exotic ingredients like anchovies and Marmite if those are not already part of your weekly diet.
Instead of packing all kinds of free glutamate-rich ingredients into your cooking, it looks more like the following:
- Adding a teaspoon of tomato paste to your stews
- Adding a dried shiitake mushroom or two to your broths
- Replacing some salt with soy sauce in your savory dishes
- Grating Parmigiano-Reggiano over pasta, casseroles, and garlic bread
How to Get Started Cooking Umami Dishes Today
If you want the easiest way to add umami flavors to your cooking, I suggest picking up 3 of these ingredients next time you go to the grocery store:
- Tomatoes, tomato paste, or ketchup
- Broth or miso paste
- Dried shiitake mushrooms
- Parmigiano-Reggiano (get the real deal if you can afford it, the salt crystals are packed with umami, and a little goes a long way)
- Soy sauce (replace some of the salt with soy sauce)
The next time you cook anything, put a tablespoon or a handful of these umami-rich ingredients in your dish. Can you taste a difference?
In time, you’ll grow your cooking confidence and be able to pack umami into your dishes without thinking about it.
Recipes Packed With Umami Flavors
Nerdy Notes About Glutamates
I recruited my friend Fritz Seidl’s help with this article because he’s a medicinal chemist based in South San Francisco. I first met Fritz at Stanford while he was getting his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry. Fritz was incredibly helpful in explaining how glutamate works.
He mentioned that it’s easy to find the concentration of free glutamate using in vitro assays. But the hard question is how much total glutamate gets metabolized into free glutamate and this is an almost impossible question to answer with current technology.
So don’t worry about optimizing for the maximum amount of free glutamate. The most important things to focus on to add umami to your food are:
- Cook your food: Cooking increases the amount of free glutamate in your food.
- Buy ripe food that is in season: Ripe food is much higher in free glutamate.
- Eat foods high in protein: High-protein foods can be meat or vegetarian. You can find high-protein vegetables that will deliver umami tastiness to your food.
Finally, if your brain works like mine, you’ll be wondering WHY are protein-rich ingredients are responsible for the umami taste.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics explains that “the taste of umami suggests the presence of amino acids and proteins in food.” This could be why your tongue has umami receptions as the sensation of umami indicates to your body that it should get ready to digest protein.
FAQ About Umami Taste
Are Umami and MSG the Same Thing?
Where sugar provides sweetness and salt provides saltiness, MSG provides umami to your food. MSG is monosodium glutamate, the crystalline form of glutamic acid. Some cooks will add MSG the same way they add salt to their cooking. Some celebrity chefs have embraced MSG. Many cooks and nutritionists are debunking myths and fears around MSG.
Is MSG Bad for You?
I grew up learning that MSG was going to addle my brain or give me brain cancer. I don’t know if this was my mum’s ploy to fight my addiction to instant ramen or if she truly believed it. But she wasn’t alone.
Many people avoid MSG. A lot of food packaging and restaurant menus are labeled “No MSG” or “MSG free”. This myth that MSG is bad has even led to the unfortunately dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” to describe symptoms of headaches and allergies blamed on take-out Chinese food that had too much MSG.
The fear of MSG can be traced as far back as the 1960s and remains controversial even after the FDA classified MSG as “generally recognized as safe”.
Scientific studies and reviews have debunked a lot of the myths and fears around MSG. The lethal dose (LD50) of MSG is “five times the LD50 of sodium chloride, meaning table salt is more toxic than MSG. Check out this video from the American Chemical Society that debunks the myth that MSG is bad for you.
I’ll continue eating instant ramen with enthusiasm. That said, my stomach still churns when I see family members sprinkling little crystals of MSG when cooking. It’s a complex, emotional issue. And while MSG sure makes food taste damn good, I just can’t bring myself to buy a bag of it.
Thanks to Amanda A. Kostro Miller, RD, LDN, from Smart Healthy Living, Michael Murdy, food scientist and creator of Robust Kitchen, and Fritz Siedl for their input on this article. Thanks to HARO for connecting me to excellent sources, more than I could give credit to here. And thanks to Wikipedia, obviously.