Umami

Everyone knows about the four basic tastes of sweetness, bitterness, saltiness and sourness.  But there is also a fifth—Umami–and it’s starting to get the recognition it deserves.  Umami is a Japanese term that when loosely translated means “pleasant savory taste,” or “deliciousness.”  It has actually been around for awhile, but it is just finally getting more notice these days.

The umami taste sensation comes from receptors sensitive to the salts of glutamate acid.  Glutamates are found in savory foods, such as meat stocks, broths and in also in fermented food such as soy sauce.  I have heard some people refer to it as a slight metallic taste sensation.  It can also be added to food by using monosodium glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamic acid.  In the U.S. MSG is most commonly manufactured by fermenting corn.  Thanks to Kimball’s Biology Pages, Wikipedia and International Food Information Council (IFIC) Foundation, I know these things.

Another interesting thing I learned while researching umami is that there are not actually individual receptors for specific taste sensations.  The diagram of the mouth indicating the different taste areas is “wrong” according to Kimball.  He continues “a single taste bud contains 50-100 taste cells representing all five taste sensations…each taste bud has a pore that opens to the surface of the tongue enabling molecules and ions taken into the mouth to reach the receptor cells inside.”  That is a mouthful, but now I know when I lazily roll a lemon drop candy (like my Grandma always had in a covered clear crystal dish in the living room) around in my mouth it doesn’t matter where I roll the candy or how hard I suck on it.  I am going to get the refreshing sour taste of the lemon and the soothing sweet taste of the sugar simultaneously.

The word umami doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, even if you know how to say it.  “You Mommy, you Mommy, you Mommy.”  That is how to pronounce it, like an infant realizing who the lady in the room is.  There isn’t a ness added to it like sweetness or bitterness.  Umaminess just doesn’t quite work.  I guess it is will just be a matter of time before we say it without thinking about it.  Maybe if we start with umami: “We have five taste sensations, Umami, Sweetness, Sourness, Bitterness and Saltiness.”  Somehow this works better for me, it doesn’t come across as an afterthought.

So how the taste sensation of umami works is that foods containing glutamates balance and heighten other flavors.  Sweets taste sweeter, salty foods taste salty, bitter foods are more bitter and sour foods taste more sour.  Often MSG is added to soups, gravies, bouillons, and sauces to enhance their flavors, in other words to make them taste better.  In all of my Cooking Classes (Children’s, Teen, and Adult), I strive to achieve a balance of the different taste sensations either within one dish or among the components on the plate.

I never add MSG.  (I am actually allergic to it; it makes me feel bad and makes me really cranky.  But also, I think that is totally cheating.)  Good cooks can achieve a great flavor balance through good techniques.  I heighten and enhance the tastes of food by using classic culinary techniques and a balance of good quality ingredients.  Natural glutamates are found in foods such as tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.  Aged meats, dried fish, fermented vegetables, toasted nuts and ripened foods help to unbind the glutamates, creating the pleasant savory taste of umami.

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