Who's Umami? Ok, so umami is a what, not a who, but I just couldn't resist! It may seem like the latest buzzword but umami has literally been around forever. Everyone knows the basic tastes of sweet, salty, sour and bitter but there are actually five basic tastes, with umami being the fifth. Astringent and spicy, at least for the time being, aren't considered distinct basic tastes. Unlike the other four basic tastes which are location specific, the taste buds on the tongue and in other areas of the mouth can detect umami irrespective of their position.
Umami can best be described as a savory, earthy, pleasant deliciousness. It is most often associated with cured meats, seafood, tomatoes, mushrooms and some aged cheeses, particularly parmesan. Would you be able to identify umami when you tasted it, or would you just think that the dish had a certain 'oomph', a 'je ne sais quoi', if you will? Hopefully, by the end of this blog, you're going to know all there is to know about umami, that 'extra little something' that elevates a dish to absolutely delicious!
The term umami was first coined in 1908 by Japanese Professor Kikunae Ikeda when he discovered that the glutamates in certain food reacted synergetically with some ribonucleotides in other foods. I know...scientific mumbo jumbo...but in order to establish the existence of umami, the science stuff is important to mention! Basically, that synergy between foods means that chemicals in some foods intereact in a very unique way to really WOW your tastebuds.
Literally translated, umami means 'delicious taste'. When Ikeda discovered this fifth taste, he set out to produce it in industrial quantities and patented the notorious flavor enhancer, MSG, (monosodium glutamate). But lacing cheap, fattening, nutritionally bankrupt food with MSG, while making them virtually irresistable, clearly isn't nutritionally responsible.
Umami isn't just another taste - it's the combination of glutamates and ribonucleotides that makes a flavor that neither ingredient can accomplish on its own - an elevation in taste, the perfect marriage! Umami rounds out flavors and elevates the basics, sweet and salty in particular. When paired with salty food, it elevates the saltiness to the point where you can actually use 40% less salt than you normally would in the preparation of your food without negatively impacting the taste of the dish. Umami does the same thing for fat: just a little bit of dashi, a Japanese stock made from edible kelp (seaweed) and shavings of preserved skipjack tuna, added to clam chowder or other soups infuses a slightly smoky flavor reminiscent of bacon without actually adding the fatty ingredient!
Most humans actually have their first taste of umami in breast milk, which roughly contains the same amount of umami as broth. Some theorists believe the reason humans now crave umami is a matter of evolution. Umami is a marker of protein that is best served by cooked or preserved proteins because the cooking and preserving actually detoxifies the food and it is, therefore, a natural evolutionary affinity.
The popularity of umami is clearly on the rise, with Michelin Star chefs consciously creating umami laced dishes. A fast growing Los Angeles-born chain, Umami Burger, is famous for its burgers that center around this fifth taste, from the seaweed ink 'U' on the bun, to the ingredients in and on the burger. There are even products commercially available designed to give 'instant umami' to dishes such as tomato paste, Shitake mushrooms, anchovy paste and 'seafood enhancers' like fish and oyster sauces.
Fear not, though, there are foods that are readily available that are naturally rich in umami:
Seafood - Edible seaweeds like Kombu and Nori, mackerel, tuna, cod, prawns, squid, oysters, mussels, clams, scallops and anchovies
Vegetables - Tomatoes, Shitake mushrooms, truffles, soy beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, Chinese cabbage, carrots, asparagus, peas, corn, onions and edamame.
Meats - Bone in beef, pork and chicken, cured meats such as bacon, prosciutto, pancetta and serrano ham
Other - Parmesan cheese, feta, blue cheese, green tea, soya sauce, chicken eggs, oyster sauce, fish sauce, olives, Worcestershire sauce, dashi.
Is there any wonder that a charcuterie board of cured meats and aged cheeses is always such a big hit or that freshly grated Parmesan kicks pastas and salads up a notch? Need I even mention that ever popular classic, Caesar's Salad?
Yes, Virginia, there is a fifth taste and it's name is umami. All this time I thought it was my culinary aptitude and love of mushrooms, tomatoes and bacon and the love I add to all I cook that kept 'em coming back when, quite possibly, it was a synergetic interaction of ingredients that resulted in umami!! Irregardless, I am now armed with new knowledge and there's no dispute for me that umami exists. I'm quite happy to incorporate it into my arsenal of culinary weapons and tools and take full advantage of the mouthwatering, intensely pleasurable deliciousness that umami triggers in the mouths of those I feed!
With all that in mind, the question of the day yesterday was, 'What's for supper tonight?", my plan being to educate my husband and daughter on umami after they ate and their accolades were received! It needed to be easy, inexpensive, delicious and healthy and I wasn't really in the mood for anything too labour intensive. I decided on grilled beef tenderloin marinated with Worcestershire, carmelized Shitake mushrooms and onions, oven roasted cherry tomatoes and Parmesan Panko Potato Croquettes! Sounds impressive but was really just healthied-up and umamisized steak and potatoes!
I chose tenderloin because the portions are in keeping with my aim to keep them to the size of a pack of playing cards. For a perfecttly cooked medium rare steak, check out my recipe for Grilled Sirloin under 'Beef' recipes. Regardless of cut, the cooking process is the same. And what would a feed of steak be without mushrooms and onions as well as potatoes. Enter carmelized Shitake Mushrooms and onions and Parmesan Panko Potato Croquettes, which are my absolute favorite way to have potatoes! My family likes ketchup with their potatoes, so I decided to roast some cherry tomatoes and make a rustic ketchup of sorts.
Now...lets count the umami sources:
Steak - marinated with Worcestershire - 2 umami
Shitakes and onions carmelized with some soya sauce - 3 umami
roasted cherry tomatoes - 1 umami
Parmesan Panko Potato Croquettes containing shallots - 3 umami
That's a grand total of NINE sources of umami! Is there no wonder that my husband and daughter offered to wash the dishes! Who's umami? Well, me of course! Easy, inexpensive, delicious and healthy...all of my boxes are ticked in true Kim's Cookology fashion and I'm one happy mama!
(Recipe details for Grilled Steak, Roasted Cherry Tomatoes and Parmesan Potato Croquettes can be found under Beef, Everything Else and Soups, Salads and Sides in my recipe section. Enjoy!)