Umami is the key to cooking, and it’s fundamental to making food taste good.
The only problem with this is that hardly anyone understands what umami is, so let’s start with the basics.
The five flavours
Humans taste only five things – salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami.
Before you tell me you can also taste coriander, cinnamon, and nine flavours of jellybeans, I should point out that what we colloquially call “taste” is often a combination of different senses combining taste, aroma, touch and other chemical and tactile sensations.
Scientifically, taste might be defined as the perception stimulated from a chemical reaction between a substance and taste receptors in the mouth – and we only have receptors for five tastes.
Try blocking your sense of smell by pinching your nose, and tasting those things again. The coriander and cinnamon wouldn’t taste of much at all, and the jellybeans would taste sweet, though you wouldn’t be able to tell which of the nine flavours you were eating.
We understand four of our tastes pretty well.
Our salt taste tells us that our food contains salts, necessary for fluid regulation. Sourness can help us detect necessary vitamins (like Vitamin C).
Sweet taste receptors bind to sugars to indicate calorific content, and our finely tuned taste for bitterness is stimulated by a huge number of taste receptors that can help us identify substances that may be toxic.
But taste receptors for umami bind to amino acids and nucleotides like glutamate, inosinate and aspartate to stimulate a sensation we might describe as “savoury”, and they do this quite literally to help us to cook.
Umami’s (long and short) history
You can be forgiven for not being entirely across umami, because compared to the other tastes it’s pretty new. It was only recognised as a distinct taste in 1990, but over the years there have been many different attempts to describe it.
“Umami” translates to “deliciousness”, and the term was coined in 1908 by Japanese scientist Ikeda Kikunae to describe the savoury taste produced by glutamate. Since antiquity the Chinese word “xiān” has similarly referred to the pleasant taste of savoury dishes, describing foods we know to be high in umami like savoury broths.
But even before we understood the science of umami, it was already at work in the cuisines of the world.
Ancient Roman cuisine was defined by “garum”, a fermented fish sauce similar to those in use in Asia today. Soy sauce has been a part of Chinese cuisine for 2,000 years. Curing, fermenting and producing stocks are processes that have existed in nearly every cuisine.
It’s obvious why we evolved tastes for saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness, but our evolutionary selection for umami is even more fascinating.
The umami taste of our food is increased through the processes we call “cooking” – applying heat, fermenting, drying, ageing and curing – and many scientists believe that our taste for umami evolved in response to the benefits of cooking.
Heating food kills harmful bacteria. Fermenting allows beneficial bacteria (the ones that populate our gut) to crowd out harmful ones. The processes of cooking often make food easier to digest, and as such there is an evolutionary basis for selection for umami taste.
How to use umami
When I am learning a new cuisine, I look for the techniques, preparations, or raw ingredients that provide the necessary umami to make food taste good.
Searing a steak rather than boiling it is a technique applied in pursuit of umami, the high heat producing a brown crust through a set of chemical reactions known as Maillard reactions. The same is true for the flash of “wok hei” essential for good wok cooking.
When we do boil rather than sear we choose to boil in umami-rich preparations like stock or wine, or add umami seasonings like soy sauce, fish sauce or miso.
Ingredients like meat, seafood and dairy products are high in umami, particularly when fermented and aged like cheese.
Cabbage, too is also umami, which is why you see the combination of fermented cabbage and meat in cuisines from Germany to Korea. Umami-rich tomatoes have been ubiquitous in the cuisines of the world since their introduction from the Americas, and mushrooms are eaten enthusiastically in every climate in which they are found.
The easiest way to add a pure umami taste to your food, however, comes in the form of MSG or monosodium glutamate, a salt naturally present in a huge variety of foods and even produced by the human body (which contains about 2kg of glutamate in an average-sized human).
MSG has been unfairly and unscientifically maligned for decades – to the point where many are now terrified of a sprinkle of MSG crystals on our food but think nothing of consuming the exact same substance in higher quantities by sprinkling salt on a tomato, having a grating of parmesan or a mouthful of sauerkraut.
Umami is so well entrenched in how we cook that it isn’t strictly necessary to understand it in order to cook well. However, when you realise that so much of what we call ‘technique’ – browning meat for a stew, deglazing a pan with wine, or making a good stock – is actually done in the pursuit of umami, you can’t deny its importance. More than its four counterparts, umami is the taste of cooking.