Umami Flavor

Taste is one of our most powerful senses. When we taste something delicious — or something unpleasant — it can leave us with lasting memories. But many of us have also experienced the sensation when taking a bite has left us with the impression that something was missing.

What bland foods are often missing is a flavor beyond our usual taste sensations of salty, sweet, and bitter. There's a fifth taste sensation, known as umami (pronounced "oo-MAH-mee"), which is often described as meaty, savory, or just "delicious." Umami comprises satisfying, full-bodied, complicated flavors — think about what you'd taste in a slow-braised stew with tomatoes, mushrooms, and savory seasonings, or in the flavor play between a glass of wine and a piece of aged cheese, or between roasted peppers and olives.

Though this fifth taste was "discovered" only in the last century, the flavors and science behind umami are not new. Its attributes have been valued in cuisines throughout the world for more than 3,000 years. In Asia, fish sauce, soy sauce, and fermented or dried seafood make umami a dominant flavor in many traditional meals. In the Mediterranean, umami is derived from cured and brined olives and vegetables — such as one of my all-time favorites, vine-ripened tomatoes. In Latin America, smoked and roasted chiles provide the umami flavor in adobo sauces and salsas.

The flavors of umami are a result of several amino acids and nucleotides (such as glutamate and aspartate) found in food. Their effects are similar to that of MSG (monosodium glutamate), but using natural foods will yield far more complex flavors — not to mention increased health benefits. Sound complicated? It isn't — in fact, you'll find that once you try these easy tips for developing umami in your recipes, you won't need as much salt or as many expensive ingredients to release the complex flavors of your food. All you'll need on hand is a smartly stocked pantry, a little culinary know-how, and a love for savoring great-tasting food!

Foods with natural components of umami:Include these ingredients to boost the flavors of favorite recipes.

  • Broccoli*
  • Tomatoes* — ripe or canned, and also sun-dried
  • Red peppers* — try them roasted
  • Almonds* — if they're already roasted, try roasting them again at home to release even more flavor
  • Meats — braised or slow-cooked
  • Mushrooms — dried
  • Aged cheese, like Parmesan
  • Soy sauce
  • Asian fish sauce — a small amount goes a long way!
  • Olives — brined
  • Wine — use it in your cooking, or pair a glass with meals

Cooking methods that develop umami:

  • Roasting — try it with winter veggies and nuts
  • Slow braising — a good method for meats, with tomatoes, wine, and onions
  • Crock-Pot™ cooking — Worcestershire and mushrooms slow-cook wonderfully
  • Reductions — reduce wine over medium heat before adding other ingredients
  • Sautéing — sauté onions until they are golden brown to bring out their umami flavors
  • Browning and caramelizing — use for vegetables and meats

Umami is just another reason to get excited about savoring delicious meals; it will keep you thinking about food in new and different ways. It's also a reminder of just how easy it is to put together these fabulous meals for your family in mere minutes. The trick is to keep being creative in the kitchen, and to open your mind to new food combinations. Have fun with it!