By now you may know that umami is the fifth taste in addition to sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. It’s typically defined as a savory, meaty taste with a mouthwatering sensation. When it occurs in a food ingredient or is added to a recipe, it enhances the flavor in ways both remarkable and subtle.
The real question, and the real trick, is to figure out how you can add those key ingredients to make a meal you’ll remember. To figure that out, you may not have to look farther than your refrigerator of pantry.
Historically, fish sauce was the standard ingredient for umami flavor. The ancient Romans loved the stuff. I don’t know about you, but it smells like rotting fish to me. I guess when you add it to a recipe it loses some of that pungency, but I’ve tried and I can still smell the fish. That all changed when I discovered that soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce are also umami ingredients. That I can handle.
Over time and a lot of reading, I managed to assemble a list of ingredients that impart the umami flavor. I’ve started to use them frequently in most everything I cook. One of these ingredients happens to be anchovies. Fortunately I like them. That’s curious given my aversion to fish sauce.
In case you’re wondering here’s the list of umami foods that I’ve assembled so far:
- Beef (that’s no surprise)
- Shitake mushrooms
- Most other mushrooms
- Napa or Chinese cabbage
- Black and Kalamata olives
- Green tea
- Most cheeses (especially parmesan)
- Soy sauce
- Worcestershire sauce
- Kelp (not easy to find)
- Nori seaweed (a little easier to find)
- Ripe tomatoes
- Fish sauce (if you must)
- Oyster sauce (not bad actually)
- Red wine
- Pickled herring
- Broths and stocks
- Roquefort cheese
- Balsamic vinegar
- Olive oil
I guess it’s pretty obvious that umami is not hard to find. As I continued to add to the list I wasn’t surprised that some of these foods had that distinctive umami flavor. In fact, if you think about the traditional ingredients that define a pizza, you’ll start to understand why it’s so popular.
I’ve been trying to find reasons to add these ingredients to lots of things lately. It’s fun when you can combine quite a few of them for a real umami blast. That blast might concern some people. The reason has to do with the chemical that defines the foundation of umami: glutamate.
Just so you know, naturally occurring glutamate in food does not cause significant issues for most people. The culprit is the artificial version referred to as MSG or monosodium glutamate. MSG does cause varying levels of distress for many people, but it’s the synthetic MSG version that’s given umami a bad name. Stick with the natural umami foods and you most likely won’t have any issues with the natural glutamate.