Umami Flavor Explained

When selecting snacks for your concessions stand or crafting a bar menu, you’ll want to look for food items that will sell well. Fan-favorite menu options usually include pizza, burgers, mozzarella sticks, nachos, and barbecued meats. But what is it that ties these popular foods together? That mouth-water secret ingredient is umami, and we’ll show you how to use it to take your menu items from good to great. Read on to find out what umami flavor is and where to find it.

What Is Umami?

The Five Basic Tastes chart

Umami is the taste category associated with savory foods. Ingredients with umami are usually high in glutamates, nucleotides, and amino acids that can be naturally occurring or become present when an ingredient is cooked, fermented, or aged. Umami is the fifth flavor that our tongues can taste. We have taste receptors for five distinct flavor profiles that tell our brains what kind of food we are tasting. Those flavors are sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. An umami flavor is triggered when L-glutamate binds to the receptors on your tongue and causes a chemical reaction that tells your brain that your meal is savory.

What Does Umami Taste Like?

Umami tastes like the pleasant savoriness that is usually associated with broths, gravies, and sauces. Many would consider umami to be smoky, earthy, or meaty. Although many have found the taste hard to describe, the term is typically paired with foods that are comforting and addicting, such as cheese or Chinese food. While some foods have natural umami flavoring, it can be triggered in the cooking process through the Maillard reaction. This reaction imparts a smoky, caramelized flavor as the sugars and proteins in amino acids reduce, browning the food.

Umami also creates a mouthfeel with its flavor. When the glutamates coat the tongue, it makes the food feel thicker, leading to a sensation of fullness and overall satisfaction. This fuzzy mouthfeel leaves a lingering aftertaste that provides a sensory memory that can later be triggered by sight or smell, making us crave umami foods regularly. This is why foods with umami are often listed on appetizer menus to boost impulse sales.

Foods with Umami

tofu and broth dish

Umami can be found naturally in ingredients or released in the preparation process. The most common umami-rich foods include:

These ingredients are sure to boost the flavors in your menu.

Cooking with Umami

Chef grating parmesan cheese on pasta

Umami intensifies the other flavors in your dish, so incorporating umami in your cooking is a great way to make your menu selections memorable. Here are some tips you can use to take your recipe to the next level with the addition of umami.

  • Add naturally umami-rich ingredients to your recipes, such as tomatoes, garlic, shiitake mushrooms, soybeans, or corn
  • Blend one anchovy into your pizza sauce for a flavor boost
  • Splash in some soy sauce with your chicken as it sears
  • Drizzle an umami liquid seasoning into your specialty marinades
  • Enrich your dish with pre-made “umami bombs”, made from a combination of fish sauce, mushrooms, oysters, and cured ham
  • Add a squirt of ketchup to your ground beef to bring out the flavors
  • Stir in a spoonful of miso to your soup for a comforting touch
  • Shred some Parmesan cheese over your pasta dish
  • Try some fermented kimchi in your stir fry dish
  • Make specialty mayonnaise or aioli with a splash of fish sauce
  • Sprinkle MSG powder over your entree during the cooking process

What Is MSG?

MSG sprinkled into a sauce

MSG is the crystalline form of monosodium glutamate, which is a known physical form of umami flavoring, just as citric acid is the physical form of sour flavoring. MSG powder can be added to dishes and sauces to boost the flavor of the recipe and amp up the savoriness. It is most commonly used in Chinese, Thai, and Japanese dishes, but it is growing in popularity around the world. MSG is thought to make foods more craveable and harder to stop eating. Adding MSG to a dish means you can add complexity and depth of flavors without needing to add more salt.

Is MSG Safe?

MSG is safe to consume, per the U.S Food and Drug Administration. MSG carries a stigma of causing headaches and nausea. However, it was found that this occurs in only a small percentage of consumers and can be regulated with moderation for those who react to the ingredient.

History of Umami

Umami flavor was discovered by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Ikeda examined Japanese dashi (a stock used in most Japanese dishes) on a molecular level to identify the elements that provided it with its unique flavor. He determined that the flavor molecules in the seaweed (the main ingredient of the stock) was glutamic acid. He named it “umami”, deriving from the word “umai”, which is the Japanese term for “delicious”.

Umami did not gain global recognition until the 1980s, after researchers discovered that umami is a primary flavor, meaning it cannot be made by combining other primary flavors (sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). It was also found that the tongue has specific receptors for umami, officially earning it the title of the “fifth flavor”.

Whether you’re cooking up a classic Asian dish or adding a new potent spin to your burger menu, umami is the crowd-pleasing secret ingredient that makes savory dishes delicious. It may be a flavor that is hard to describe, but by adding it to your recipes, you’ll get your customers talking and coming back for more.

Posted in: Kitchen & Cooking Tips|Menu Tips|By Janine Jones
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