You’re not going to find this in the spice aisle or in the Joy of Cooking. Umami is a Japanese term meaning “delicious”, and is a flavor profile that can’t quite be described, but makes us ask, what is that? If you’ve ever eaten foods that you find yourself in love with, and can’t figure out why then it’s probably high in umami.
Our taste buds are designed to recognize four tastes, sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. Umami is considered a “fifth” sense of taste because it doesn’t fall into any particular category, but is best described as having a savory flavor. The experience that umami provides is due to the amino acid glutamate, that is naturally present in certain foods. Aged cheeses such as parmesan, and Asian fish, and soy sauces, are particularly high in glutamates. Fermented foods like miso, sauerkraut, and vinegar impart umami when added to recipes. There’s something about combining this amino acid with salt that enhances its flavor which is why condiments such as ketchup are so popular.
Adding umami-rich ingredients to meals is a great way to feel satisfied after eating, and curb cravings. Glutamates are highest in animal proteins, but vegetarians, and vegans can experience the same benefit using dried seaweed, mushrooms, and nutritional yeast which gives a savory, cheesy flavor to food. Diets low in salt can still have a depth of flavor using reduced sodium broths, sun-dried tomatoes, vinegar, and red wine.
Cook’s Country has a fantastic link to a list of ingredients that will add that extra something to your recipes when you’re looking for flavor beyond salt and pepper.