Umami is that unforgettable savory sensation that makes so many foods — like meat, tomatoes, cheese, and yes, even Doritos — so irresistible. It’s long been a staple of Japanese cooking. But it was only 21 years ago that scientists confirmed umami is the fifth basic taste, with receptors on our tongues distinct from those that detect sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors.
So don’t feel bad if you’re not totally familiar with the concept of umami. Learning the principles of umami will elevate your cooking — and it’s simple to do yourself!
According to Umami: Unlocking the Secrets of the Fifth Taste by Ole G. Mouritsen and Klavs Styrbæk, the mission to understand umami began centuries ago. Zen Buddhists who were searching for tasty vegetarian meals realized they could use konbu, a Japanese seaweed, to make broth with special savory characteristics.
In 1908, Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda unlocked the science of savoriness by evaporating konbu broth until all that was left was the crystal compound containing the broth’s distinctive flavor. That compound was glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid that gives savory foods their intense, satisfying character.
Ikeda decided to call that sensation “umami,” which roughly means “deliciousness” in Japanese.
In the context of food, the primary definition of “umami” may be “deliciousness,” but the term does have secondary meanings in Japanese that offer important clues for any aspiring umami chef. Umami also implies a sense of quality, balance, and wholeness, which may be what the ancient Zen Buddhists were after.
What makes umami unique is the way it enhances other tastes: It magnifies salty and sweet sensations while dialing back sour and bitter flavors. Umami can be an elusive quality in food and is often hard to describe because it’s not as easy to identify as salty, sweet, sour, and bitter, which stand alone as flavors. Umami helps bring the other four into harmony.
Since Ikeda’s breakthrough, scientists have found that the sensation of umami can be greatly magnified by pairing glutamates with molecules called nucleotides found in high protein foods like chicken and shrimp. This process, called umami synergy, helps explain why certain foods go so well together.
Even if you haven’t sought out umami pairings, you’ve probably encountered them before. If you’ve ever had bacon and eggs, ham and cheese, or miso soup and seaweed, you’ve experienced umami synergy.
Because glutamates and nucleotides are important for day-to-day brain and cell functioning, it makes sense that our bodies find them so satisfying!
The takeaway: The key to achieving umami heaven is to combine different umami ingredients and to use umami ingredients to connect the other flavors in your meal.
You don’t need to be a scientist to find umami flavor in your kitchen. All protein-containing foods have glutamates, and many common vegetables do too.
Cooking, roasting, aging, fermenting, or drying food helps break down those proteins into free amino acids, increasing the amount of glutamate that hits your taste buds.
When it comes to tomatoes, the riper the better. Drying tomatoes multiplies their glutamate levels dramatically. For a super-umami tomato sauce, simmer tomatoes in butter that’s been slow-cooked with garlic.
Ready for a real umami bomb? Try baking tomatoes in soy sauce, which is a powerhouse umami ingredient in its own right.
Dark fungi are umami winners: Dried shiitake mushrooms contain god-tier glutamate levels. After you rehydrate them (by soaking them for 20 minutes in a bowl of hot or boiling water), you can use that leftover shiitake water as a broth for cooking or for making rich umami sauces. I like to fry up the mushrooms and toss them in a salad.
Truffles are another umami superstar. Literally every pasta tastes better with the earthly aroma of truffles. If fresh truffles aren’t an option for you, look for truffle oil. Try adding some mushrooms, bacon, and truffle oil to a ravioli or fettuccine — you’ll thank me later.
The longer cheese is aged, the more umami you get. Shaved Parmesan is perfect for adding umami to everything from pizza and garlic bread to soups and pasta sauces. Fresh cheeses like mozzarella doesn’t have much glutamate, but their creamy flavor pairs amazingly with umami-rich ingredients like tomatoes.
Save your Parmesan cheese rinds in the freezer and add them to simmering spaghetti sauce or soup to enhance those umami qualities.
Many meats are rich not only in glutamates but also in those nucleotides that combine to create an umami explosion (here’s a handy chart for reference). That’s why a nice juicy steak, full of glutamates and nucleotides, tastes so dang good.
Aged meats, such as cured ham and beef jerky, have the most umami of all.
We can’t talk about umami without talking about seafood. Look to Asia for inspiration: You can add a dab of fish sauce or a handful of dried shrimp to punch up stir-fries and broths or dishes like dumplings and fried rice. Anchovy filets are also a popular umami-rich ingredient in everything from pasta sauces to salad dressings.
Bonito flakes, which are thin strands of dried, fermented salted fish, are a perfect complement to Japanese cuisine.
If you’ve cooked with garlic, congratulations — you’re already using one of the best umami seasonings known to humankind. Here’s a tip: Combine it with onion powder for a homey, comfort-food-style umami richness.
Soy sauce (fermented soy) is a must-have for Asian meals, and nutritional yeast is a great vegan-friendly way to get a rich and cheesy flavor (try it dusted on popcorn or over steamed veggies).
There are also umami spice blends, like the mushroom umami blend from Trader Joe’s and Simply Organic‘s trio of umami spice blends, which work well in just about everything, from soups and stews to roasted veggies and even snack foods.
The purest available form of umami is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which Ikeda created and sold after his initial discovery in 1908. Ikeda’s pairing of glutamate and salt made a convenient, shelf-stable crystal that tasted great and absorbed easily into food.
Ikeda branded his seasoning Ajinomoto (“the essence of flavor”), and it quickly became a staple of Asian kitchens. In the 1920s, MSG arrived in America through Hawaii, with its large Japanese immigrant population, and caught on in the rest of the states over the next few decades.
Then MSG’s reputation took an undeserved hit. In 1968, a doctor wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine complaining about mysterious symptoms after eating at Chinese restaurants and speculating without proof that MSG could have caused the symptoms. That idea, fueled by xenophobia and Americans’ distrust of unfamiliar foods, led to the myth of “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”
In reality, countless studies since then have debunked this and have found MSG to be completely safe to eat. Today, campaigns like Know MSG are working hard to undo the damage caused by the “No MSG” label and continue debunking myths about MSG. Keep in mind that the glutamate in MSG is no different from the glutamate naturally present in countless foods. And its flavor boost may even contribute to reduced sodium intake.
We should see MSG for what it is: an easy, delicious seasoning to bring out a dish’s flavor and get our umami receptors firing.
Wil Chan is a freelance writer in New York City.