What is umami? The basic taste you’ve never heard of
A few months ago, I took on an ambitious cooking project that made my wife scratch her head. It left our kitchen a mess and the entire house smelling like smoke; it took up an entire Saturday and, worst of all, it didn’t even produce a viable meal! My poor spouse thought I was crazy: what had I gained from all that effort? But then she tasted the result.
I had created a thick, brown, butter-like paste called “beef extract”—a sort of bone-marrow jelly—by boiling beef stock into oblivion. It tasted amazing. It was earthy and deep—not salty, exactly, but with a hint of filet mignon, portobello mushrooms and homemade broth. It had a roundness and depth to it that filled your entire mouth the way the sound of a foghorn fills your chest. A teaspoon of it imparted an unspeakable savoriness to tomato sauces, added depth to stir-fries and transformed toast into a kind of crispy, hot drug. We couldn’t get enough.
What we were tasting was umami—the fifth basic taste. Like sweet, sour, salty and bitter—those tastes we learned about back in kindergarten—umami is detected by taste buds right on the tongue. It comes from glutamates, a kind of molecule found most often in fatty foods like meats and cheeses but present in many others as well. Ever wonder why some veggie burgers don’t taste quite as satisfying as ground beef? Chances are you’re missing the full-throated taste of umami.
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I learned more about umami when renowned chef David Bonom and his wife Marge Perry wrote a feature for EatingWell on ways to make vegetarian meals that satisfy the way meaty meals do (“Where’s the Beef?” May/June 2012). It turns out that, while umami is prevalent in foods you should eat in moderation, like red meat, you can find it in healthy plant-based ones too. And if you blend flavors the right way, you can really draw the taste of umami out—creating a healthy meatless meal that satisfies like a steak dinner.
The first step, of course, is to learn which ingredients have the most umami. Perry and Bonom identify a number of them: “The process of fermentation enhances umami,” Perry says, “which explains why soy sauce and aged cheeses like Parmesan are so ‘savory.’” Vegetables high in umami include asparagus, tomatoes, seaweed (such as dulse or arame), peas, corn and onions. Soyfoods like tofu and edamame are on that list too.
From here you seek out delicious combinations of these foods—by layering them together in a dish, you can draw out a big umami taste. That’s why tomatoes and Parmesan go so well together, ditto seaweed and tofu. The more umami ingredients you layer together in a dish, the stronger the taste is—and the more satisfying it is to eat.
Baked Parmesan Tomatoes
Active time: 5 minutes | Total time: 20 minutes
A sprinkle of Parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil transform tomatoes into the perfect side dish. Or try sandwiching them between slices of your favorite whole-wheat country bread.
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