Everything You Need to Know About Umami
Take a deep dive to learn about Umami, its rich history, what it tastes like, and how to use it make your food more delicious.
Understanding what umami is and how to use it can be the key to cooking more delicious food. One of five universal basic tastes, umami is found in ingredients and cuisines throughout the world and for the cook who knows what they’re doing it can be the secret to truly transcendent dishes.
Over the past decade or so umami and the over-hyped umami bomb have become common terms in the cooking lexicon of chefs, food writers, and home cooks. It’s a word that’s everywhere in the cooking world these days, from jar labels to burger chains everyone is talking about how much umami is in their food.
What has been left out of the discussion is an understanding of the nature of umami and how the search for it has influenced generations of cooks for thousands of years. To help flush out those details, we gathered everything you need to know about umami in one place. We also create a simple taste test to help people understand what it tastes like and how it works.
The word umami is a Japanese word that is often translated into English to mean a “pleasant savory taste.” It was coined by Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who did groundbreaking work to identify umami’s chemical structure.
As a flavor umami occurs naturally in a diverse set of ingredients ranging from parmesan cheese to tomatoes to aged beef to kombu, which is kelp used to make dashi. The amount of umami in an ingredient and dish can be increased by using a variety of cooking techniques that start to break an ingredient down. It can also be increased exponentially by using the right combination of umami rich ingredients.
In this Piece
A Brief History of Umami
Umami’s discovery as a distinct fifth taste comes from the work of Dr. Kikunae Ikeda, who was a chemist at Tokyo Imperial University. Ikeda thought there was a quality in Dashi different from the other four basic tastes (sweet, salty, bitter, sour).
He thought it should be considered a basic taste because it couldn’t be produced by any combination of the other four. As Ikeda said, “it is usually so faint and overshadowed by other stronger tastes that it is often difficult to recognize it unless attention is specifically directed towards it.”
To identify what made the flavor unique Ikeda worked for a long time conducting a chemical analysis of dashi that involved boiling kombu down to a tar like substance and using an evaporation technique to isolate specific compounds. Dashi is a type of stock used in Japanese cooking that is primarily made by soaking kombu and bonito flakes.
Eventually, Ikeda found that glutamic acid, which is an amino acid, is what gives dashi its unique flavor. The name he created for it was Umami, which comes from a combination of umai “delicious” and mi “taste.” You can read more about Ikeda and his groundbreaking work in Discovering Umami – A Brief History of the Fifth Flavor.
The second key discovery to understanding umami was made in 1913 by Shintaro Kodama, who worked with Professor Ikeda. Using dried bonito flakes, Kodama discovered that the nucleotide inosinate is the umami component in katsuobushi. This helped open a wide range of ingredients as potential sources of umami, specifically proteins such as beef, pork, and certain types of fish.
In 1957, Akira Kuninaka made a vital breakthrough working with dried shiitake mushrooms when he identified the synergistic effect between ribonucleotides and glutamate.
The synergy between the two comes from an effect where the intensity of the umami flavor in a dish is greater than expected from the individual ingredients alone.
The strength of the synergy between glutamate and inosinate varies according to the ratios of each. The effect is strongest when the ratio of the two is 1 to 1, which in some testing has been shown to create an effect where the flavor is seven to eight times as strong as either by itself. This has led to the saying that with umami 1 + 1 = 8. An effect you can experience for yourself if you try our Taste Test.
This effect is often seen in everyday cooking through the combination of the glutamates in vegetables and the inosinate in meat.
What is Umami
The simplest way to define umami is any food with glutamic acid in it, whether it occurs naturally or is present after cooking, aging, or fermentation.
Underlying this simple answer is a question about the nature of flavor, how it’s defined, and the role it plays in the food we eat.
To help keep things clear, we’re using the more formal definitions of taste and flavor, which are often used interchangeably. A taste has a distinct set of taste bud receptors in the oral cavity. Flavor, the more encompassing term, includes the integrated effect of taste, smell, and mouthfeel. You can learn more about these distinctions in our helpful terms section below.
For a long time in Western cooking, there were four widely accepted basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. The history of these four stretches back to Aristotle and the Greeks, who in addition to the four generally accepted primary tastes, included astringent, pungent, and harsh. Over time others added and subtracted to the core list of four.
Although Aristotle didn’t have a name for it doesn’t mean that umami is a new taste. In many ways, umami has been hiding in plain sight, traveling under a series of aliases – savory, meaty, rich, etc. that made it seem like it was a hundred different things all at once.
When Ikeda coined the term umami a little over a hundred years ago, it gave voice to a flavor that has been an integral part of cuisines around the world for thousands of years. Umami is at the heart of Asian cuisines built around dashi, miso, and soy sauce. It’s an integral part of murri, which is a rich fermented barley sauce used in Byzantine and Arab cuisines.
In the West, cooks have been building umami into their dishes since the beginning of time with a direct line from the Romans beloved garum, a fermented fish sauce, to Escoffier using mother sauces to redefine French cuisine, to our abiding love today of aged cheeses, cured meats, and ketchup. (Wikipedia)
What ties the different aspects of umami together is they’re all rich in glutamic acid, either because it occurs naturally within an ingredient or because a cooking technique turns glutamic acid into free glutamates.
The acceptance of umami as a basic taste in the West has only come over the past couple of decades. Its acceptance has come in part due to research that identified specific umami related taste receptors. It also helps that there is a greater openness to global cuisines, along with a better understanding of Ikeda’s work, the nature of MSG, and that umami can be found in ingredients and cuisines throughout the world.
A Quick Word About Glutamates, Inosinate, & Guanylate
Umami is primarily found in three substances glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate. Understanding the type of ingredients each is found in and how they react to different cooking techniques makes it easier to develop umami flavor in a dish.
One of the most common amino acids found in nature, glutamic acid, can be found naturally in large quantities in meat, fish, vegetables, and some dairy. It is a non-essential amino acid, which means our bodies are able to synthesize it themselves.
Without delving too deeply into the chemistry of umami, glutamic acid by itself doesn’t deliver much umami. Only when it’s broken down into its free state, often referred to as glutamates, free glutamates, or L-glutamate, do ingredients deliver their full umami flavor.
This is generally done through cooking, aging, fermenting, drying, or smoking an ingredient to start breaking down the proteins in it – which releases the glutamates.
Nucleotides are organic molecules that play a primary role in metabolism. The primary ones that impart umami are inosinate, which is found primarily in meat, and guanylate, which is generally found in plants and fungi.
One of the reasons why umami is so often found in aged and fermented foods is that as food ages, the proteins in it break down, freeing the amino acids through a process called proteolysis, which increases their level of free glutamates.
What Does Umami Taste Like
A lot of writers complain that it’s hard to describe what umami tastes like in a couple of words using its descriptive difficulties as a reason for disqualifying it from being a basic taste. As if art or love or beauty can easily be described in a single pithy sentence.
The challenge to describing any of the basic tastes is our natural impulse is to describe them using their own names. When a dish is too sweet or too salty, we say it’s too sweet or too salty and assume that everyone understands exactly what we mean.
This is one of the things that differentiates umami from the other basic tastes that are so easily identified by specific things that people can try, where the taste is so pronounced that it overwhelms everything else, providing tasters with a baseline.
To understand sweet people can have some sugar or honey, for sour a sip or two of lemon juice, for bitter chew on a couple of coffee beans or a bite of bitter melon, and for salty half a teaspoon of sodium chloride provides a memorable point of reference.
It’s not so easy with umami; even umami rich ingredients like parmesan cheese and tomatoes have enough other flavors to cloud the issue.
To understand umami as a flavor, it can be helpful to talk about its characteristics, what it is and what it is not.
Some of the most common characteristics ascribed to umami are that it spreads across the tongue, creating mouthfeel, that there is a warmth and richness to it, that it lasts a long time, lingering on the palette, long after a bite is finished.
It’s often said to make a dish feel thicker, that it creates a mouthwatering sensation leaving a taster wanting more. The words most often associated with umami are savory and delicious.
Dishes lacking umami are often described as being flat, being one-note, that the flavors are simple and that the dish is forgettable and boring.
Take the Umami Taste Test
To help people understand what umami tastes like and how they can use it to improve their cooking, we developed a simple taste test.
This is something anyone can do at home in fifteen minutes. It’s the perfect thing to do with a group of friends who love food.
It’s worth noting that the whole MSG is bad for you has been debunked time and time again and that the truth of the matter is MSG is an easy and natural way to improve the taste of your food in the same way we add salt or sugar to dishes. There’s more on umami and MSG below.
The taste test uses a simple vegetable stock as a baseline, divided into four cups. In one cup, MSG is added to it to represent glutamates by themselves. In another, Umami Powder is added to represent nucleotides on their own. In the fourth cup, MSG and Umami Powder are added to demonstrate the synergistic effect that happens when glutamates and nucleotides are combined.
Some of the things to look for during the tasting are:
- How different does the broth taste on its own compared to the three other cups?
- How long does the flavor from each cup linger on a taster’s palette?
- How does the aroma of the broth change from cup to cup?
- Where does the flavor in each cup hit the palette? Where does it stay?
- Which cup do you want to take another sip from?
- Try a small taste of the MSG and Umami powder before starting the taste test. Make sure to take a drink of water before tasting each element to cleanse your palette.
- Warm the stock up until it reaches the temperature of warm soup. Usually around 60 to 90 seconds in a microwave.
- Divide the stock into four different cups. Keeping track of what is being added to each set the four cups up in a row, stirring the appropriate ingredients into each.
- Cup 1 – ½ cup of stock
- Cup 2 – ½ cup of stock plus ½ tsp of MSG
- Cup 3 – ½ cup of stock plus ½ tsp of Umami Powder
- Cup 4 – ½ cup of stock plus ½ tsp of MSG and ½ tsp of umami powder
- Starting with Cup 1 taste each of the cups in order, taking a sip of water to cleanse your palette between each one.
How to Get More Umami in Your Life
There are several ways to introduce more umami into your cooking. The first is to use umami rich ingredients such as parmesan cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms. Umami is generally found in ingredients that contain high levels of glutamates, inosinate, and guanylate.
On the protein side of things, this includes fish, shellfish, along with cured or aged meats. Vegetables that have a lot of umami include asparagus, tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, and spinach. Dried and fresh mushrooms can be excellent sources, especially if combined with other ingredients that have lots of umami. On the beverage side of things, green tea is a great source.
Some of the more common techniques for adding savoriness to foods are dry aging, curing, smoking, and fermentation. These techniques increase the amount of umami in a dish by converting the glutamic acid in an ingredient into free glutamates.
The Umami Information Center maintains a database of ingredients and the level of different amino acids and nucleotides that each ingredient contains. It’s a helpful resource when you’re looking for different ingredients to combine to create a deeper, more robust umami flavor.
A simple way to add more flavor to a dish is to use one of the umami seasonings on the market. Anjimoto, the company founded by Ikeda, sells pure MSG, which is a natural product that works a lot like adding salt to a dish. It’s produced using the same fermentation process used to make yogurt and wine. There are other products made from dried shiitake mushrooms that can be used by themselves or in combination with MSG.
One of the most valuable things for cooks to understand about umami is how to utilize its synergistic effect by combining ingredients that have high levels of glutamates and nucleotides cooks can create a multiplying effect – creating a dish that maximizes its umami potential.
A Few of our Favorite Umami Rich Recipes
As you might imagine, we’ve developed a few recipes over the years that are rich in umami.
Our favorite is Black Garlic Risotto, which uses dried porcini, aged parmesan cheese, and fermented black garlic to create one of the most delicious umami focused dishes we’ve ever eaten.
To increase the depth of flavor in our Homemade Tomato Sauce, we use three unique ingredients to add layers of savory flavors that elevate this sauce over anything you can buy in a jar.
The ingredients are tomato paste, anchovy paste, and Worcestershire sauce. While the tomato paste might be expected, the anchovy paste and Worcestershire sauce elevate the richness of the tomato sauces’ flavor while adding a depth that normally comes from cooking a sauce all day.
All three are easy ways to add umami to soups, stews, and sauces without changing their basic flavor profile.
A Brief Word About MSG
There is a long history of MSG in the United States that starts with a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine and continues today that unfortunately is filled with misinformation, cultural misunderstandings, and more than a tinge of racism. It’s disturbing and unfortunate and a story that deserves a deeper dive and more thorough retelling than we have room for in this section.
The fact is that MSG is a naturally occurring substance that is not only safe to eat – it is also one of the easiest ways to improve the flavor of food and should be another tool that cooks use, like salt, pepper, and the plethora of other herbs and spices lining our spice racks.
Take the time to educate yourself on the facts about MSG.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is nothing more than the sodium salt of the amino acid glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is present in our bodies, occurs naturally in a wide range of ingredients, and is a regular addition to many food additives.
MSG is primarily produced today through a fermentation process using starch from sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. The fermentation process used to make MSG is similar to that used to make yogurt, vinegar, and wine.
The FDA considers the addition of MSG to foods to be “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). Although many people identify themselves as sensitive to MSG, in studies with such individuals given MSG or a placebo, scientists have not been able to consistently trigger reactions.
For more information, read the FDA’s Frequently Asked Questions on MSG.
Here are some terms that are helpful to understanding umami and how taste works.
Taste is the perception produced when a substance reacts chemically with taste receptors located on taste buds in the oral cavity. In people, taste buds are located mainly on the tongue.
Flavor is the impression that food or other substance creates through the integrated effect of taste, smell, and mouthfeel. The primary determinant of flavor is smell, followed by the five basic tastes – salty, bitter, sweet, sour, and umami; additional factors include texture and temperature.
The five basic tastes (sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami) are the taste modalities picked up by taste receptors in the mouth. A part of the gustatory system, the information collected by the taste receptors is one part of the information used to create an overall impression of flavor.
Scientists have demonstrated that the five basic tastes are distinct from one another. That taste buds can distinguish between the different tastes by detecting interaction with different molecules or ions.
There is some debate whether there are more than five basic tastes, with some scientists advocating for pungency, astringency, and fat taste, among others.
A part of the gustatory system, taste buds are located in the oral cavity and are contained within the papilla. Papilla form the small bumps that give tongues their rough texture. Within the taste buds are taste receptors.
When food or other substances are ingested, molecules within them interact with saliva and are bound to the taste receptors, which send signals to the brain.
Glutamates are glutamic acid or its salts that have been dissolved in water. Only free glutamates produce umami.
Glutamic acid is one of the most common amino acids found in nature. It is a non-essential amino acid, which means our bodies are able to synthesize it themselves. Glutamic acid can be found naturally in large quantities in meat, fish, vegetables, and some dairy.
Nucleotides are organic molecules that play a primary role in metabolism. The ones that impart umami are inosinate, which is found primarily in meat, guanylate, which is primarily found in plants and fungi, and adenylate, found in fish and shellfish.
Mouthfeel is the sensation when a flavor coats the inside of your mouth, creating the feeling that something is full-bodied, that there is a thickness to it that lingers on one’s palette.
A Quick Side Note About Our Name
A quick note about this publication and why it’s named Umami.
When we were getting ready to launch the website way back in 2014, there was a long list of potential names. What we were looking for was a single word or two that was memorable and captured our desire to be a publication focused on people who were curious about what they cooked and ate and who were interested in the history, science, and culture of food.
We were also inspired by Dr. Ikeda’s work on umami, how he was willing to dig deeper to understand the flavor he was tasting in the dashi he was eating and how he took what he found and turned it into a way for lots of people to improve the flavor of their food.
We also liked that as a word umami encourages people to ask questions, and in the spirit of so many of the great food magazines that came before us like Bon Appétit and Saveur, we let our curiosity and inspiration be our guide.