Umami—The Fifth Taste

Umami ingredients

Umami ingredients

Most of us learned there are four tastes we humans experience: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. What was missing from this list is what gives food a ‘meaty’ taste in the absence of meat.

In 1909, a Japanese physical chemistry professor, Kikunae Ikeda, isolated a white compound from giant sea kelp that Japanese traditionally use to give broths a meaty flavor. The professor named the taste ‘umami’ which means ‘delicious’ or ‘savory’ in Japanese. Professor Ikeda patented his product—Monosodium Glutamate (MSG).

MSG enhances the umami taste and is used in Asian homes and restaurants around the world in its crystalline form.

MSG has had a bad rap for a long time, perhaps unfounded, for causing headaches, dizziness, and chest pains in some people. Commonly called, the racist Chinese restaurant syndrome, multiple studies have found no concrete relationship between MSG and uncomfortable symptoms. Perhaps some people experience symptoms because today MSG on store shelves and restaurants is usually made from fermented sugar beets or sugar cane molasses rather than getting its flavoring enhancement qualities from its original seaweed source.

Taste receptor identified

In any case, in 2000, molecular biologists discovered the taste receptor for glutamate, finally adding umami as the fifth taste—savory or meaty.

Umami flavor without meat

For our purposes as vegetarians, it is possible to get this umami taste without meat. Cook’s Illustrated; the Science of Good Cooking provides a table listing the foods that provide umami. Here’s an explanation of how the chef’s at Cook’s Illustrated did their research. And here is a list of ingredients to enhance the umami flavor of foods.

The Cook’s Illustrated chapter called “Glutamate, Nucleotides Add Meaty Flavor” explains what glutamates and nucleotides are and the relative ratio of each ingredient needed to get the full umami flavor. I now use the list from the book regularly in my bean dishes.

Plenty of meat and seafood derived options are on the list but since I don’t eat meat, I use some combination of the non-meat options.

Best options

My favorite go-to options that I keep on hand are tomato paste that I buy in a tube because it keeps best (refrigerate after opening), ground dried shitake mushrooms, and the seaweeds kombu and nori. I buy the shitakes and seaweeds in bags at a local Asian market and grind the mushrooms in a spice/coffee grinder. Other vegetarian options are marmite and vegemite—brewers’ yeast extracts; brewed fermented soy sauce; onions and garlic; green tea extract; and red wine. Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese is also on the list, though often the recipes in Cook’s Illustrated have just Parmesan rind listed as an ingredient.

Author:Sharon Reese

Lacto-ovo vegetarian for over four decades.

Follow HeathfulCooking

I will be pleased to hear from you. I’ll try to answer questions you might have about cooking or nutrition.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply

CommentLuv badge