What is Umami?

Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and… umami? At some point, you may have experienced this fifth taste as it’s widely utilized in all sorts of cuisines. Let’s dive into what it is and where to find it.

Various umami ingredients on a table
Table of Contents
  1. What exactly is umami?
  2. What is the taste experience?
  3. Cuisines and their ingredients
  4. Why do cooks use it?
  5. Brief history
  6. Importance of glutamates and nucleotides
  7. How do the taste buds experience umami?
  8. What foods naturally contain umami?
  9. How do you use it in dishes?
  10. Are dried foods more concentrated?

Have you ever had Asian cuisine and thought, “Wow! this is so savory”? Well, what you are tasting and experiencing is more than just that. Everyone knows about the basic tastes of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, but have you ever wondered what category savory goes under? Umami is exactly what you are looking for.

Umami is a “pleasant savory taste” and is utilized in various ways when it comes to cooking. By discovering this new taste, chefs can create unique dishes that enhance many of the common vegetables and foods we already eat. This article dives into what exactly Umami is and how it has become a part of our everyday foods.

What exactly is umami?

Unlike sweet, salty, sour, bitter, umami is its own category. It is classified as savory, which is the fifth taste. Described as having a mild but lasting aftertaste associated with salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue. It stimulates the throat and roof, ending at the back of the mouth to provide a full experience (1).

Umami is derived from the Japanese adjective umai, which has a hedonistic connotation, implying that a taste is delicious and pleasant (2). It’s known for the savoriness it provides. Since umai is not the same as the taste of glutamate, to differentiate between the two, the word umami was constructed. Umai combined with mi means ‘essence,’ ‘essential nature,’ or ‘taste.’ This is how the taste of glutamate is linked inseparably with umami.

What is the taste experience?

The distinct flavors umami provides are a meaty, broth-like, or savory taste. It spreads fully across the tongue, lasting longer than other basic tastes. Through the coating of the tongue, it provides the mouth-watering sensation with salivation. Since glutamate is the main component of umami, it’s part of the complex, elemental taste (1).

Cuisines and their ingredients

Japan – A typical meal with nori seaweed, sesame, dried bonito flakes, and pickled vegetables. A cooking stock called Dashi is often used which is loaded with glutamates. Adding fish, soba noodles, and tsuyu chilled dipping sauce allows for a more enriching umami taste to meals (3).

Korea – Fermented cabbage is the most well-known dish called kimchi. Made with napa cabbage, combined with gochujang (red chili paste), and anchovy fish sauce provides an explosion of umami. Another famous dish is bulgogi, made with a type of red meat, usually flank steak, rib eye, or boneless pork loin. Accompanied with gochujang sauce, sesame seeds, and onions.

Italy – Tomatoes have the highest amount of glutamates of vegetables, beans, fruits, and potatoes – especially if the tomatoes are dried. Any pasta dish with a red sauce like marinara will provide an umami taste.

Thailand – Fish sauce and bird’s eye chili pepper condiments called prik nam pla is the most common dish. Tom yum soup is also common and incorporates fish sauce, shrimp, and mushrooms. Miang Kum is another dish that is traditionally a wrap with shrimp and savory dips.

American – Western culture incorporates umami through common dishes such as juicy burgers with ketchup and cheese. Pizza also provides a savory experience through tomato sauce, cured meats like bacon, and cheese. Steak with a mushroom sauce is a popular pairing. Caesar salad for a healthier side with anchovies and Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Why do cooks use it?

Chefs and home cooks incorporate umami ingredients because they want to enhance the flavors, add different tastes besides just salt, while adding dimension. It’s not hard to incorporate umami ingredients because most vegetables already supply that flavor profile. It provides versatility and diversity of flavor profiles in dishes.

Brief history

A Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda, who taught physical chemistry at the University of Tokyo, began to identify the active principle in seaweed kombu and identified it as glutamate. This discovery occurred in 1908 (1). It wasn’t until the early 2000s, that the receptor for glutamate was discovered by molecular biologists to confirm umami as one of the basic tastes.

Importance of glutamates and nucleotides

Glutamate (a type of amino acid) and nucleotides are flavor enhancers, when combined they work together to magnify the sensation of umami. Glutamates are found in everyday foods. About 20g/day are from the normal foods we eat (1). Only the ionized form of glutamate results in the savory taste. Acids like vinegar can lessen the sensation. (2).

Glutamates by themselves don’t produce a strong experience. When paired with nucleotides like inosinate and guanylate, they elevated the umami taste. These organic molecules are naturally occurring in dried mushrooms, pork, chicken, nori, and seafood like sardines, anchovies, tuna, sea urchin. Pairing these types of ingredients with glutamate-rich ones provides an amplified perception (4).

How do the taste buds experience umami?

The tongue has patches of tissues called papillae, which contain the bud-shaped organs that detect taste. The taste buds consist of dozens of taste cells clumped together. The cells, in turn, contain the receptors for the five taste categories, sour, sweet, bitter, salty, and umami. The ingredients stimulate the taste buds and are then recognized by different cells containing specialized receptors.

After the taste buds are stimulated, the obtained stimulating signals are transformed into neural signals for the taste quality of the ingredients (3). The receptors continue to transmit information to the brain and perceive the taste of the actual food (1).

What foods naturally contain umami?

  • Sauces – Worcestershire sauce, ketchup, miso, truffle oil, ranch dressing, soy sauce, oyster sauce, curry, marinara.
  • Meats – Steak, chicken, beef, pork, bacon, egg yolks.
  • Seafood – Salmon, bonito, sardine, anchovies, tuna, yellowtail, mackerel, dried baby sardines, cod, scallops, shrimp.
  • Vegetables – Tomatoes (especially dried tomatoes), mushrooms, onion, broccoli, green asparagus, green peas, dried Shiitake mushrooms, porcini, seaweed, corn, garlic, lotus root, potatoes, marmite (a flavored yeast spread), truffles.
  • Cheese – Parmigiano, or any aged cheese – their proteins break down into free amino acids through proteolysis. This then raises their levels of free glutamic acid, like in Roquefort.
  • Cured Meats – Dry-cured ham, salami, pepperoni.
  • Fermented Foods – Cabbage, specifically Kimchi, fermented soy-based foods are especially high, as fermentation can break down the proteins into free amino acids. Rice vinegar, rice wine, fermented barley sauce.
  • Others – Green tea, walnuts, beef broth, chicken broth, turkey broth, bouillon cubes, dashi, homemade gravy.

How do you use it in dishes?

  • You can start by substituting salt as a seasoning and use soy sauce instead.
  • Putting a pinch of MSG into soups, pasta sauce, salads, dressings, meat marinades, and stir-fries.
  • Roasting tomatoes or any already umami-enriched foods can intensify the flavor because cooking extracts the glutamate more.
  • Pan roasting portobello mushrooms until they are browned, to the point of being caramelized, intensifies their rich umami flavors from the sucrose and glutamate ions being surfaced (5).

Are dried foods more concentrated?

Sometimes, it depends on what food it is. Dried tomatoes are more concentrated in glutamate than other foods (5). An overall rule of thumb is that umami components of foods increase due to processing such as ripening and fermentation (1). The longer the aging process, the higher the glutamate is as well. So, for cheese, the longer the aging process, the more intense the umami flavor will be.

Filed under:

This post may contain affiliate links. Please read my disclosure policy.

Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

Jessica's Secrets: Cooking Made Easy!
Get my essential cooking techniques that I learned in culinary school.
Jessica Gavin standing in the kitchen

You May Also Like

Reader Interactions

Leave A Reply