What is umami?
Umami might seem mysterious but you're already familiar with it. Taste a perfectly ripe tomato, a luscious slice of prosciutto, a farmhouse cheddar or even a juicy burger lathered with ketchup. What irresistible sensations do they give you? Savoriness, depth, a satisfying, mouthwatering, mmm-that's-good feeling? All of these, in fact, are characteristics of the abundant umami lurking in these foods. Umami is the term for flavor compounds naturally produced by curing, cooking, drying, fermenting or ripening ingredients. When a ham is salted and cured, for example, fermentation breaks down the meat's proteins into constituent amino acids, releasing glutamate flavor compounds. When a rich beef stock is slowly simmered to yield its sublime essence, it also yields flavor compounds, these called inosinates. And when porcini and morels are sun-dried and naturally preserved, their enzymes create another series of flavor compounds, named guanylates. This trio of amino acids and nucleotides-glutamates, insonates and guanylates-are the primary substances that impart the flavor we call umami.
Umami and Japanese cuisine
If umami is found in foods everywhere, why is this flavor profile so closely associated with Japanese cuisine? It has to do with that country's singular eating culture. For most of Japan's history, eating meat and dairy was considered taboo by Buddhist edict. So instead of relying on fat, butter, oil or a veal or chicken stock to create flavor, like in Western cooking, Japanese turned to naturally preserved ingredients like kombu, dried, shaved bonito and dried shiitake. These traditional foods, in effect, impart a meat-like savoriness in dishes, but without the meat. The reason? In these three ingredients you will find the highest concentrations of umami compounds of any foods in the world. As Japanese cooking evolved, umami, or savoriness, became its essence, the signature characteristic of the cooking. Every fundamental flavoring in the cuisine-especially fermented foods like miso, soy sauce, mirin and sake-brims with umami.
What does umami taste like?
While it's straightforward to wrap your taste buds around sweet, salty, bitter and sour, umami presents a different challenge. That's because unlike the other basic tastes, umami is an underlying sensation, one that magnifies the flavors of other ingredients rather than standing on its own. To understand what this means, consider how Japanese cuisine creates flavor through dashi. Cooking with dashi, traditional stock, is the cardinal Japanese method to transmit umami into ingredients. There are a number of different dashi, all created with umami-rich naturally preserved ingredients. Kombu dashi is teased from a type of sun-dried kombu, or kelp, which is especially umami-potent, containing the world's greatest degree of glutamate compounds. On its own, though, this stock doesn't taste like much. But when you infuse a vegetable or protein in kombu dashi, you immediately notice the difference-the food comes alive with savorines.
Umami and your cooking
A key distinction between Japanese and Western cooking can be summed up as "subtraction versus addition." While Japanese cooking strives to distill foods to their natural essence and balance subtle flavors, Western cuisine takes a different approach, layering fats, butter and spices to create a resonant flavor impact. Within both of these cooking traditions umami plays a critical role. Within both cooking traditions, too, applying simple Japanese umami-enhancing techniques can boost the savoriness of a dish without impacting its inherent taste. Understanding how to do this can help you create dishes even more pleasing, palate-popping and spectacular, no matter what your culinary milieu.
The Most Umami-Rich Foods in the World
One of the most remarkable effects of umami is when you combine foods rich in glutamates with those loaded with inosinates. Pairing these two umami compounds, incredibly, creates a taste explosion even greater than the sum of its parts. Japanese chefs have known about this effect for centuries, and have intuitively coupled foods loaded with these two compounds to create more intense-and satisfying-umami tastes.
How does salt interact with umami? Think of biting into a beautiful, ripe tomato, then biting into it again, but this time after you sprinkled a little salt on it. With salt, that tomato is even more savory, sublime and satisfying, right? That's because salt interacts with umami to boost flavors in foods. But here's the best part: All you need is a touch of salt to pop that umami. So if you understand how to work with umami, like Japanese chefs do, you can reduce the amount of salt you need to turn food delicious.