Demystifying Umami

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Name the five flavors: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and . . . having trouble? The fifth you’re looking for is umami. My mother, who is Japanese, translated the word for me as “good taste.” But umami also connotes a deeper meaning in both Japan and here in the West; savory, delicious, the “something” you can’t put your finger on that just makes a dish.

umami-post How Does Umami Taste?

It’s a sensation as much as it is a flavor. When something feels full in your mouth, like it coats your tongue with “mmmm, that’s umami.” It’s what gives wine mouthfeel and deglazed sauces their richness. It’s why a tomato sauce with mushrooms has so much depth and why a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano does wonders to just about anything. These are foods and cooking techniques that unleash the power of umami.

What is Umami?

Our tongue is covered with receptors that are designed to perceive certain flavors. The most specialized receptors are those that identify the amino acid called glutamate (the amino acid most plentiful in protein), which creates the basic umami inherent in some foods. Other foods, when combined with ingredients that already have basic umami, activate nucleotides to send messages to the brain amplifying the umami effect in what’s called “synergizing umami.” Certain chemical reactions, too, can exponentially increase the umami sensation by breaking down the proteins of a food into its amino acid building blocks.

How Do I Create Umami?

This can be as simple as choosing foods already rich in basic umami, like ripe tomatoes and late-summer corn. But learning how to use “synergizing umami” techniques and ingredients will help you enhance the umami of almost any dish.

  • Use cooking techniques—Searing, roasting, stewing and braising are all techniques that develop umami; those little browned bits at the bottom of the pan that make the sauce so flavorful are denatured proteins—including glutamate—that our bodies can instantly use, cranking up a food’s umami index. Aging, curing and fermenting are other techniques that break down proteins into “free” amino acids and develops the umami in foods. Think aged cheese and steaks, cured meats, and fermented foods like kimchi and sourdough bread (wine and beer too).
  • Add ingredients—You can also amp up the umami and balance flavors in a dish by adding a dash of a synergizing umami ingredient. Mushrooms are renowned for their ability to enhance umami, which is why even a little bit of minced porcini added to a sauce can make such a grand impact. Darker fin fishes, like anchovies, also add umami; try adding a minced anchovy to a dressing and see how the flavor changes. Small amounts of cured meats can amplify the flavor of foods without making a meal meat-centric. Think of a lentil or pea soup with a bit of ham or bacon; much richer with than without. And if you’ve ever heard of someone’s grandmother adding a Parmigiano-Reggiano rind to a soup, now you know why—it’s for the umami it imparts. A splash of soy sauce, ketchup, fish sauce or Worcestershire sauce are also ways to heighten umami.

jackie-thumbJacqueline Church is an independent writer whose work has appeared in Culture: the Word on Cheese, Edible Santa Barbara, and John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet. She often writes about gourmet food, sustainability issues and the intersection of the two on her blog Leather District Gourmet. Currently, she’s at work on Pig Tales: a Love Story about heritage breed pigs and the farmers and chefs bringing them from farm to table.

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Umami Stuffed Mushrooms

Mushrooms and Parmigiano-Reggiano are the kings of umami, amplifying one another’s flavor exponentially. Spinach and prosciutto add even more to the mix to make this hors d’oeuvre simply irresistible.


1 1/2 pounds white or cremini mushrooms (sometimes called “baby bella”)
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced
sea salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large shallot, minced
2 ounces prosciutto, finely chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, chopped
1/3 cup frozen spinach, chopped (thawed, squeezed of excess water)
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley, chopped
1/4 cup dry sherry (or dry Marsala)
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/4 cup panko bread crumbs

Preheat oven to 375.

Wipe mushrooms clean, carefully snap out stems and chop them finely (you should end up with roughly 1 1/2 cups of minced stems). Toss mushroom caps with garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.

Place mushroom caps stem-side down on cookie sheet and bake for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and reserve liquid.

While mushroom caps are cooking, heat remaining tablespoon oil in a medium sauté pan over medium high heat. Add shallots, minced mushroom caps, prosciutto, thyme and rosemary and sauté until the shallots have softened and mushrooms have released their liquid, 6-8 minutes.

Add spinach, pour in sherry and scrape up any bits stuck to the bottom of the pan. Cook until liquid has evaporated, 2-3 minutes, and turn off heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper and stir in parsley, panko crumbs and cheese. Pour any liquid from the mushroom caps into the stuffing mixture (it’s umami-rich).

Stuff about 1 teaspoon into each mushroom cap and arrange stuffing-side up on cookie sheet. Return to oven for 10-15 minutes, until golden and warmed through.

Serves 8

Recipe by Jacqueline Church

  • Lori Magno

    Awesome explanation of Umami – and timely since it was the quickfire challenge term du jour on Top Chef!


  • Linsey

    What a concise and clear explanation of umami, Jacqueline! I’m going to forward this link to anyone who asks me about this topic. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

  • Vivian

    What a great post. This is going to be my go to source when asked about umami. Thank you for going into such great detail.

  • flavorista

    I love umami and want to let you all know about a great cook book that was published in 2005 -Umami the Fifth Taste by David Kasabian and Anna Kasabian.

  • Lia Huber

    Lori . . . Funny on that timing! Linsey and Vivian, I second you both in saying, “bravo, Jackie!” Flavorista . . . thanks for the tip–Jackie had listed that book as her “go-to” umami book, so I’m glad you brought it up.

  • Alona Martinez

    Excellent job, Jackie! You made me salivate: fabulous pics too! Now I wanna umami!

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  • Fumiko Church

    Loved your pieces on Umami! It almost takes us back to Japan, sitting in that Shojin cruisine, completely free of meats. Superb job in defining the indefinable! Go on, Girl!

  • Julia Timakhovich

    Excellent explanation, Jackie! I love all things umami; it was interesting to read your explanations of “synergizing umami”. Made me crave mushrooms and shaved Parmigiano…

  • umamigirl

    Great article! I just added you to the “About Umami” section of my website.

  • Lia Huber

    Wow, coming from the umami girl that’s quite a compliment. Thanks!

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