For many years, there were four recognized basic taste groups: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Umami (/uːˈmɑːmi/) or the “fifth taste,” is a relatively recent discovery. Officially named as a separate taste in the 1980s, Umami was named by a Japanese chemist in 1908. It is described as savory and is characteristic of broths and cooked meats.
People taste umami through taste receptors that typically respond to free glutamates, which are widely present in meat broths and fermented products and commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG) and others. Since umami has its own receptors rather than arising out of a combination of the traditionally recognized taste receptors, scientists now consider umami to be a distinct taste.
There are a few variables that impact how much free glutamate is in a food. One is ripeness; the riper a fruit or vegetable is, the more free glutamate it will have. So, a deep red glossy tomato will have more free glutamate than a firm pale one. Another factor is the age of the food. Aging a food by curing or fermenting it increases the food’s free glutamate because over time the proteins break down to release the amino acids. For example, fresh pork has 10 mg of free glutamate, while cured ham has 337 mg.
Foods high in umami:
- Seaweed is low in calories but packed with nutrients and antioxidants. They’re also a great source of umami flavor due to their high glutamate content.
- Olives are fermented or cured in salt or brine to remove oleuropein, the bitter compound that makes them unpalatable straight from the tree. They have a decidedly meaty texture, but they also have a salty, meaty flavor.
- Seeds and nuts are full of heart-healthy fats and protein. They are nutritional along with delicious flavor as a snack or in sweet and savory recipes.
- Tomatos & Sun dried tomatos are one of the best plant-based sources of umami flavor. In fact, their sweet-yet-savory flavor comes from their high glutamic acid content. A deep red glossy tomato will have more free glutamate than a firm pale one.
- Mushrooms are another great plant-based source of umami flavor. Mushrooms can substitute for meat because they appeal to our taste for protein thanks to levels of umami-related compounds.
- Just like tomatoes, drying mushrooms can significantly increase their glutamate content.
- Miso, Kimchee, & soy sauce are fermented foods. The process of fermenting raises their total glutamate content.
- Aged cheeses have a much higher glutamate content. Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino Romano are among the highest.
- Spices (chilie powder/cumin/curry powder/smoked paprika)
- Asian fish sauce is a liquid condiment made from fish or krill that have been coated in salt and fermented for up to two years. This is what I use and it is high quality and delicious.
- Anchovy paste is packed full of umami, they blend into sauces perfectly and add a wonderful boost of flavor.
- Green Tea is not only high in antioxidants, it’s high in glutamate, which is why it has a unique sweet, bitter, and umami taste.