Culinary Arts

What Is Umami? Learn About Umami and How to Incorporate Umami Flavors in Your Cooking

Written by MasterClass

Jun 10, 2019 • 2 min read

If you are familiar with the hearty taste of mushrooms, seaweed, miso, salmon, and parmesan cheese then you are familiar with the taste sensation known as “umami.”

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What Is Umami?

Umami derives from a Japanese word meaning “pleasant savory taste.” It describes foods that are fundamentally savory in nature. Food tastes are broadly divided into five distinct categories:

  • Sweet
  • Salty
  • Sour
  • Bitter
  • Umami

For many years, only the first four of these were considered when partitioning categories of flavor. In 1908, the Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda identified a fifth taste that he named umami. Widespread acceptance of this fifth flavor took time, but by the 1980s it had become mainstream, with events like the Umami International Symposium taking hold in corners of popular culture.

What Does Umami Taste Like?

The umami taste refers to foods that are fundamentally hearty and savory, as opposed to sweet, salty, sour, or bitter. Some food scientists have conjectured that many people’s lifelong attraction to umami flavors traces back to the elemental liquids, like amniotic fluid, at the beginning of a human life cycle.

The secret to the umami taste is the amino acid glutamate. Many are familiar with the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG) as a flavor enhancer in Chinese food: the umami flavor is nearly synonymous with multiple Asian cuisines. MSG itself has been subject to extensive stigma, but the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has designated it as a safe ingredient. As a commonly occurring amino acid, glutamate does not pose a known risk to human health.

What Foods Are Good Example of Umami?

If you’re not quite sure what umami tastes like, here are some examples of umami-rich foods, many of which offer their own health benefits:

  • Shiitake mushrooms
  • Edamame
  • Soy sauce (which is also salty)
  • Fish sauce
  • Ripe tomatoes
  • Tomato sauce
  • Miso soup
  • Roasted seaweed
  • Barley green tea
  • Braised salmon
  • Hard cheeses (like parmesan)

5 Tips For Incorporating Umami Flavors In Cooking

It’s easy to incorporate the savory taste of umami foods in your own cooking. Here are five ways to get started.

  1. Use miso paste. Easily found in Asian grocery stores, miso paste can be added to soups to bring savory overtones to your taste buds.
  2. Add fish sauce to stir fried food. Fish sauce is another mainstay of Asian grocery stores and to many Asian cuisines, particularly Thai and Vietnamese. Fish sauce is pungent and salty, and a little will go a long way, so use it regularly but in small quantities.
  3. Roast vegetables. Raw vegetables do not necessarily exhibit umami qualities, but roasting brings out their savory characteristics. Braising them with olive oil only further enhances the sensation, and it can add heartiness to a good Italian dish.
  4. Use mushrooms. Mushrooms are natural umami foods. Whether you add shiitake mushrooms to a salad or roast a portobello mushroom as a hearty entree, mushroom-based cooking brings out the taste of glutamates in a unique way.
  5. Experiment with fermented sauces. The ever-popular soy sauce is made from fermented soybeans and contains a strong umami flavor. Other fermented sauces can be made from rice, barley, and fish. All are naturally rich in glutamate, which means the umami flavor will be prominent.

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