What is Umami?: Everything You Need to Know About This Sublime, Savory Flavor

You know that specific sense of pleasure, when a bite of food is so perfectly savory that it floods your senses with deliciousness?

That, ZENB fam, is the power of umami. This word is generally used to describe the flavor of deep savoriness in food, similar to other flavor categories, like sweet, sour, and spicy. We like to think about it this way: If your meal was a song, umami would be the bass notes, adding depth, potency, roundness, and soul to the food.

Learning how to leverage umami flavors to enhance your dishes is an important skill for a home cook. Luckily, there are lots of ingredients and methods that bring umami to the party! We’ve got some tips and suggestions to get you started.

First, let’s nerd out a little bit. Umami as a flavor goes back millennia, but as a scientific concept, it dates back to the early 20th century. In 1908, Kikunae Ikeda, a professor at the Tokyo Imperial University found that the glutamate was the reason why the broth made from kombu seaweed tasted so good. The long and short of glutamate is that it’s a neurotransmitter with several types of receptors found throughout the central nervous system, and it’s an amino acid.

Lots of foods contain glutamate — perhaps you’re familiar with the term from the food additive monosodium glutamate (MSG), which shows up in lots of processed snack foods. But it occurs naturally in other plant- and animal-derived ingredients, too!

One of the most reliable places to find big umami flavors is in fermented and aged foods. Among the many chemical transformations that take place in fermented foods, one is that the process creates unbound or free glutamate proteins. Fermented foods not only add mega-umami flavor to foods, but are also really good for supporting gut health.

Some of these fermented foods include:

  • Soy sauce/tamari: This popular condiment is made from fermented soy and adds deep saltiness to foods. A splash can add depth to soups and sauces. Try it in Spaghetti with Soy Dipping Sauce.
  • Fish sauce: This is made from salted fish that are fermented for up to two years. Its flavor is dramatically savory, fishy, and often a little funky. Add it to marinades, dressings, sauces, and stir-fries for a dank dose of umami. Try it in ZENB Beef Pho at Home.
  • Miso: Miso is a paste made from fermented soy beans. The length of fermentation affects the qualities of the miso, which ranges from white or yellow (the most mellow) to red (strongest and most concentrated). It can be added to broths, dressings, marinades, and sauces. Try it in ZENB Rotini with Miso Butter Mushrooms.
  • Doenjang: This Korean condiment is a paste from fermented soy beans that’s a byproduct of making soy sauce. It’s somewhat similar to miso, but has a more aggressive, salty, funky flavor. It’s commonly used in stews, soups, and sauces. It’s potent stuff, so just a dab'll do ya!
  • Kimchi: There are many types of kimchi, but the most popular version of this Korean condiment is made with salted and fermented cabbage and seasonings, like garlic, ginger, and gochugaru (Korean chili peppers). Kimchi can be enjoyed as a snack, or to enhance all kinds of meat-based or vegetarian dishes, sandwiches, grain bowls — even scrambled eggs! Kimchi brine is tangy, zesty, and ultra-umami; it’s amazing when mixed into a bloody mary, or in place of olive brine in a dirty martini.
  • Cheese: By definition, all cheese is fermented and thus has some umami characteristics. But, the longer a cheese is allowed to age, the more glutamate it contains. Parmesan cheese, which is usually aged 12 months or longer, is one of the highest glutamate-containing foods (with 1,680 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams of cheese), and it is a total umami bomb. Many plant-based eaters like nutritional yeast as a replacement for Parmesan, as it also contains a lot of umami flavor!

    As pasta people, we’re well-familiar with how a light sprinkle of Parmesan cheese can turn a dish from “just okay” to “just pass the whole bowl over here, please”! In addition to pasta, Parmesan, and other aged cheese, like Pecorino Romano, Cotija, and Asiago, can also enhance salads, soups, cooked vegetables, popcorn, and so much more. Try it in ZENB Simple Lemon Parmesan Penne.

    Plenty of unfermented foods are also rich in umami flavors, such as:

    • Cured meats: Bacon, pancetta, guanciale, salami, and other cured meats bring umami to whatever they touch. A little goes a long way, and we prefer using these items as more of a seasoning rather than as the main ingredient in a dish.
    • Brown butter: Gently heating butter until it melts and begins to brown releases a luxurious aroma and toasty umami flavor that is hard to resist. Add a drizzle of browned butter to dressings or sauces, or brown the butter called for in baking recipes for added layers of nutty umami. Try it in ZENB Rotini with Butternut Squash, Brown Butter & Sage.

    In the mood to make something delicious, healthy, and quick tonight? Check out the ZENB recipe collection for over 150 plant-fueled dishes sure to nourish and inspire. For more kitchen tips and cooking advice, explore the ZENB blog, and follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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