What Is Umami?

What is umami, and why are so many foodies going nuts about it?

The other day, I got my friend to try a Vegemite sandwich. Though I'm American, I absolutely love Vegemite. I love the umami taste it offers, and I tried to explain why it's so tasty to people who aren't from New Zealand and Australia before. It's not easy. The conversation usually goes like this:

Them: "So, you like the saltiness?" 
Me: "No, I like the...well, umami of Vegemite."
Them: "What is umami? Is it an ingredient?" 
Me: "No, it's a flavor."
Them: "What does umami taste like?"

Basically, it turns into a circular conversation in many cases. Many people don't know what umami is, what is umami supposed to do in cooking, or how to get its mystery flavor in their food. 

In order to help people understand umami, I decided it's time to make an article that explains it all in-depth. 

So, What Is Umami?

Umami is a flavor profile. 

The human tongue can detect five basic tastes, also called flavor profiles or flavors. Four of those tastes, you already know: sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. 

However, those flavor profiles don't explain how we can call something savory and know what that would taste like. It doesn't explain that odd, subtle dimension of food that we enjoy so much. That savory, rich taste that we so often love is umami. 

More scientifically, the answer to the question of "What is umami?" deals with glutamate. Glutamate is a naturally-occurring amino acid found in a wealth of foods, as well as in the artificial food additive MSG. Glutamate is a neurotransmitter that gets us thinking that something is yummy, plain and simple.

Naturally occurring glutamate, which is created when you cure meats or prepare certain foods, is what imparts that taste, as well as that signal to our brain. It's totally safe to eat, and it's also essential for life. Oh, and it makes food taste savory. 

If you want to get very technical, umami is the flavor that comes from glutamate's interaction with other enzymes found in food. But, for all intents and purposes, just saying umami is the flavor of glutamate is understandable enough. 

In other words, umami is the reason why that rich beef chili tastes so darn good. It's why sun-dried tomatoes are so satisfying, and why that delicious asparagus salad is so delicious.

Why Doesn't The World Know About Umami?

Umami was still hotly debated as a flavor for several centuries. Escoffier, a famous French chef from the 18th century, noted that he believed that "savory" was a fifth flavor people were able to taste. He even credited the flavor to his success. Despite being famous in Europe for his command of food, no one believed him. 

In 1909, a Japanese scientist by the name of Kikunae Ikeda noticed that the soup that he was drinking was savory - and that it had a unique flavor that was neither sweet, bitter, salty, or sour. As a result, he began to look at the composition of the seaweed soup. 

“Those who pay careful attention to their tastebuds will discover in the complex flavor of asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat, a common and yet absolutely singular taste which cannot be called sweet, or sour, or salty, or bitter...” - Kikunae Ikeda

The end result of his research was evidence of a new, savory flavor profile. He called it umami, and it became part of Japanese culinary culture soon after. They later were able to commercialize the flavor of umami by creating Monosodium Glutamate - a food additive that mimics natural glutamate. Most people know it as MSG. 

Oddly enough, it took the Western culinary world several decades - almost a century - before they came to the conclusion that Ikeda had come to. 

What Is Umami Good For?

Umami is good for a lot of things, actually. It's really amazing for making great food that tastes incredible - and when umami is added to food correctly, it turns into an amazingly rich, multi-layered dish. 

One of the reasons why restaurant food tends to taste better than the food you cook at home is because of the fact that chefs often will learn about adding umami elements to their food. Simply put, it's an advanced cooking skill most people don't learn. 

This is why many chef recipes will include parmesan cheese in unique ways, why many chefs focus so heavily on cured meats, and why their steak sauces might have a little fish sauce in them. 

Adding paste that has a lot of umami, or even adding a dollop of MSG additive can spice up a meal significantly. However, most people don't really cook with MSG. 

Oddly enough, you might actually be employing one of the most common ways to get umami into your food: umami pairings. After all, umami is a reaction between glutamate and other enzymes. So, if you pair high glutamate foods with the right items, you get awesome, umami tasting treats.

Some of the most umami-rich pairings include... 

  • Cured meats with cheeses. Think cheese plates. Cured meats and aged cheese both have high levels of umami flavor. 
  • Cheeseburgers. Tomatoes, beef, and cheese are an umami trifecta. That's why cheeseburgers taste so good - and why any burger seems to taste so yummy, actually. 
  • Parmesan cheese in tomato sauce. Parmesan cheese actually has the highest levels of glutamate in Western culinary items.
  • Miso soup. Almost every ingredient in this soup has glutamate or umami-rich potential. When you mix it all together, it's great!

What Is The Future Of Umami Going To Look Like?

What is umami's future? Well, it's hard to say. It's only recently that the West has started to embrace umami as a flavor. So far, it's only really heavily discussed by foodies who enjoy that rich umami taste. 

However, it's a safe bet that umami will probably become way more popular in the future. More and more people will learn how to cook with umami in mind. 

In fact, one company even created an umami-rich paste (called Umami Paste) to help people cook better food at home. So, perhaps we'll be seeing more people describing food as umami in flavor - or more guides on how to cook umami-tasting food. 

We won't know until it happens, but it's safe to say that the future's going to be tasty. 

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What Is Umami?