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Pump Up Umami

Seafood derives umami not just from the meat itself, but from the seasonings — such as this soy-sake glaze — as well as the mode of preparation, which serves to intensify the umami effect. Photo courtesy of kikkoman sales usa, inc.. The fifth taste is key to the balance of flavor, and some foods are loaded with it

By Joan Lang

Umami-rich foods are some of the most satisfying — think of a big sizzling steak with sautéed mushrooms and a baked potato, or a big bowl of pasta and tomato sauce, showered with grated Parmesan cheese. Foods like these have a deep, almost universal appeal.

Derived from a Japanese word for “deliciousness,” the fifth taste is generally described as the savory taste. Umami is the flavor of glutamate, an amino acid that is one of the essential building blocks of protein. Not coincidentally, many Japanese foods are loaded with umami, including soy, seaweed, green tea, miso and the ubiquitous stock known as dashi. It is also significantly present in Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, truffles, potatoes, olives, tomatoes and nearly every form of meat and seafood.

In general, the more umami present, the more flavorful and satisfying food will be. That applies not just to ingredients, but also to the techniques used to cook or process them, from grilling to drying and aging. The umami in many foods is accentuated once their glutamates have been broken down through the processes of fermentation, aging or curing. It’s also increased by the process of ripening, as in a tomato. Likewise, older animals with very well-exercised muscles tend to have more umami, as do fish that are heavy swimmers, such as mackerel, salmon and tuna. Aged cheeses are more flavorful than young ones; sun-dried tomatoes have a more concentrated flavor than fresh ones.

In addition to its own yummy taste, umami alters the perception of other tastes: Sodium seems saltier, sugar sweeter, and sour and bitter less acerbic and biting. It also enhances the perception of thickness and complexity, and improves the overall palatability.

Umami has become an increasingly important tool for balancing the tastes, aromas, and textures in recipe development. Small wonder, then, that chefs are really starting to play with the concept of umami ingredients and techniques; here are 12 foods that pack a punch.

If cheese is milk’s leap to immortality, then aging cheese slingshots it into umami heaven. It’s no accident that several foods on the umami Top 10 list, including Parmesan and blue-veined cheeses, derive their characteristic flavor from the aging or ripening process, in which flavors become intensely concentrated. Grating Parmesan over pasta and sprinkling blue cheese into a salad are volume pumpers to be sure, and their inherent umami is particularly effective when combined with other proteins.

> Flat iron, potato hash, truffle Parmesan fondue — Animal, Los Angeles
> Pan-seared chicken breast stuffed with a blend of fresh herbs, mascarpone and Parmesan cheeses in a chicken jus — Good Dog, Philadelphia

Soy products — including tofu, soy sauce and soybeans themselves — are loaded with umami, perhaps none more appealingly than the fermented soybean-based condiment known as miso. Originally devised, or stumbled upon, as a way to use surplus, these pastes take advantage of deliberate microbial action to preserve and heighten flavor and aroma.

Probably the most familiar use for miso and other soybean pastes in the mainstream kitchen is as a marinade, glaze or sauce for salmon, but miso in particular is extremely versatile in the kitchen. Besides bringing intensely savory flavors to food, miso acts as an emulsifier in sauces and dressings, much like mustard. At Public, in New York City, chef Brad Farmerie showcases umami in many guises, including miso — often in combination with other umami ingredients. Examples include an appetizer of mushroom ceviche with miso aubergines and ginger ponzu sauce, and side dishes such as crispy Brussels sprouts with lemon-miso sauce and Aleppo pepper and sweet-potato miso mash.

> The Flying Tuna Platter: Seared tuna, local greens, avocado, mango, and miso vinaigrette — Bandera, Scottsdale, Ariz.
> Slowly cooked beef tenderloin, miso butter and roasted Brussels sprouts — Nougatine, New York City

Probably no single ingredient is more illustrative of the principles of umami than fish sauce, the funky, fermented stuff that phobes might call rotted but philes the world over have revered for centuries. In the Mediterranean, salt-cured anchovy has been used extensively as a flavoring agent since the Roman era. And throughout coastal Asia, fish sauce is still used in much the same way, as a primary food seasoning. Other types of fermented, fish-based condiments exist throughout Asia, including pastes made of dried shrimp and the more familiar oyster sauces. These umami-rich sauces are used both in cooking and as a table condiment, often mixed with something sweet and/or acidic to create a dipping sauce. Anchovy paste has long been in use as a flavor heightener in American kitchens. Lately, however, Asian-style fish sauces have become a “secret ingredient” in a variety of different foods that benefit from the introduction of umami.

> Ike’s Wing: Fresh, natural whole chicken wings marinated in fish sauce, garlic and sugar, deep-fried, tossed in caramelized  fish sauce and garlic and served with Vietnamese table salad — Pok Pok, Portland, Ore.
> Sautéed green beans, fish sauce vinaigrette, cashews — Girl and the Goat, Chicago

There’s a reason charcuterie, salumi and other cured pork products are so hot right now. Yes, they are nose-to-tail and much-espoused by tattooed hipster chefs and butchers, but none of this would work if cured pork didn’t taste so darned good.

Of all the meats, pork is particularly high in glutamate; cure it, smoke it, brine it, salt it, dry it or otherwise process pork, and you’ve got even more umami power. Then, too, there’s a huge tradition of pork preservation going on throughout the world to call upon for inspiration. Each country has its own traditional cured-pork specialty, including Spanish chorizo, Italian pepperoni, Polish kielbasa and German frankfurters.

> Blistered green beans tossed in caramelized ginger prhik king [curry paste], smoked pork bacon and dried shrimp — Hawker Fare, Oakland, Calif.
> Smoked Pork Belly: Cheddar polenta grits, pickled Brussels sprouts slaw, coffee-maple glaze — South City Kitchen, Atlanta

The glutamate behind umami’s appeal is notably present in aged cheeses like Parmesan. Photo courtesy of wisconsin milk marketing board. 5. MUSHROOMS
Mushrooms of all types are a valuable source of umami. In fact, all fungi are, including the mold on blue-veined cheeses and even yeast (if there’s a theme to the umami story, in many instances it concerns the harnessing of spoilage in the form of fermentation and rot to produce a desirable flavor effect).

Generally speaking, the darker the mushroom, the more umami it contains. That means that shiitakes, truffles, morels, portobellos and other “exotic” wild or cultivated mushrooms contain the highest amounts of umami, but chanterelles, cremini and even the old familiar button mushrooms provide a lesser trove of the stuff, too, more so when they’re roasted or sautéed to concentrate the flavor. Dried mushrooms are umami powerhouses; it’s no coincidence that the world’s two umami-heavy cuisines — Italian and Asian — really exploit the mushroom in both its fresh and dry form.

> Sautéed artichokes and porcini mushrooms, wilted arugula, Sardinian pecorino — Bartolotta, Las Vegas
> Wild-mushroom-dusted medallion of beef with avocado and tomato demi glaze and mashed roasted scallion Yukon golds — Juliano’s, Billings, Mont.

Although the onion may not have as much measurable free glutamates as umami-bomb vegetables like mushrooms and tomatoes, it certainly is accessible. It’s also inexpensive, endlessly versatile and available year-round. Combine that with the allium’s many forms, which include not only familiar globe onions but also shallots, leeks and scallions, and the onion family represents an extremely useful source of umami.

As with so many other foods, cooking accentuates the onion’s umami characteristics. Braising, caramelizing, roasting and sautéing are common ways of treating onions with a flavor-boosting power. Many an upgraded burger features caramelized onions along with a flavorful aged cheese (such as Gruyère or Swiss) and bacon, an umami trifecta that amps up the beef’s savor immeasurably.

> Bacon Meatloaf: Beef and pork, caramelized onion, garlic, pancetta shell, glazed winter vegetables, pearl onion farina — Hearty Boys, Chicago
> Farm egg, braised leeks, nettles — Park Kitchen, Portland, Ore.

Tomatoes contain high levels of umami-providing glutamate and are thus a rich and vibrant natural source of umami — all the more so when they are ripe, dried, cooked, processed or otherwise manipulated, as in ketchup, sundried tomatoes or tomato paste.

Interestingly, although some recipes for tomato sauce and other tomato products call for removing the seeds as an added refinement, the interior pulp actually has the highest levels of glutamic acids and can heighten the umami taste sensation dramatically; if necessary, strain out the seeds after cooking if a smoother texture is desired.

Roasting tomatoes in a slow oven is one of the easiest in-house ways to boost umami flavor as well. Making sundried tomato paste by puréeing soaked, sundried tomatoes along with tomato paste and crushed tomatoes, as well as herbs and seasonings, balsamic vinegar and Parmesan, creates an umami explosion that can be palate shattering.

> Spiedini alla Marinara: Mozzarella with sundried tomato paste and battered bread, pan-fried with marinara sauce — Café Italiano, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
> Oven-Roasted Tomato Soup: Fresh roasted plum tomato soup with dill crème fraîche — Red Stripe, Providence, R.I.

Although sweet potatoes are not as high in umami as regular white potatoes (with approximately 60 milligrams of umami per 100 grams of weight compared to the potato’s 102 milligrams, according to the Umami Information Group), this colorful, starchy vegetable is gaining distinctive menu traction.

Sweet potatoes are common in Japanese cuisine, fried into tempura and grilled for ishiyaki. They are also used to make the distilled Japanese spirit shochu, which can be incorporated into cocktails like the Whisper, served at Bako in Seattle, where the vodka-like spirit is combined with gin, Benedictine and fresh citrus.

Sweet potatoes can also be paired with other umami ingredients, like a housemade ketchup for sweet potato fries, or miso butter to dress a baked sweet potato.

> Sweet Potato Risotto, with spinach and sweet onions — The Nova, Hudson, Wis.
> Gumcreek Pork: Coffee-rubbed pork loin, crispy belly, sweet potato purée, roasted oyster mushrooms, sherry pork jus — Parish Foods & Goods, Inman Park, Ga.

Seaweed and kelp taste strongly of umami, most notably when made into kombu broth, which served as the vehicle for umami’s discovery by Professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. Cultivated in ropes in the seas of Japan and Korea, this salty, edible kelp is used extensively in Japanese cooking, and is one of the three ingredients in dashi, the simple stock that is a defining flavor profile of the cuisine. Kombu may be the “king of seaweed,” but there are also many other kinds of seaweed that can supply umami. Nori (the dry, toasted sheets used to wrap sushi) is particularly high in the substance; so is the slippery, deep green wakame, often used in miso soup. Dulse, hijiki and spirulina are also types of edible seaweed, as is samphire (also known as sea beans or pousse-pied), which actually grows in coastal marshes. Although seaweed is now associated mostly with Asian or health food, it is starting to gain more of a foothold among ingredient-conscious chefs. Nori can be crumbled to add a toasty flavor and texture to rice dishes, and sea beans can be sautéed in olive oil or butter and garlic, like the similarly flavored asparagus.

> Steamed edamame with kelp salt — Kiwiana, Brooklyn, N.Y.
> Hearth-Roasted Black Bass with stinging nettles and sea beans — Sitka & Spruce, Seattle

Seasons 52 creates a festival of umami flavors with caramelized scallops, seared and served with roasted asparagus and tomato-mushroom pearl pasta. Photo courtesy of seasons 52. 10. SAUERKRAUT AND KIMCHEE
Fermentation is all about umami, and couple that with the current interest in DIY pickling and preserving of all kinds and it’s easy to see why so many chefs are making sauerkraut and the funky Korean fermented vegetables known as kimchee (also spelled “kimchi”). Both of these items are relatively easy to make on the pickling spectrum. Although most often made with cabbage, a number of different vegetables can be put up sauerkraut-style, packed into a vinegar-salt brine in a crock or jar until the ingredients naturally ferment — the longer the vegetables sit in the brine, the softer and more briny they taste.

> Herb-broiled Ashley Farms free-range chicken breast with kimchee fried rice, Chinese mustard-sake reduction sauce — Tchoup Chop, Orlando, Fla.
> Braised parsnip with hazelnut gremolata and red cabbage sauerkraut — Sitka & Spruce, Seattle

Although most seafood, including shrimp and squid as well as finfish, is umami-rich, shellfish such as clams, scallops and mussels represent the mother lode, with 208, 159, and 105 milligrams of glutamate per 100 grams of weight, respectively. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why clams are added to a number of different non-seafood recipes all over the world, including Portuguese pork with clams and many Japanese soups, to say nothing of Clamato juice.

Shellfish are an ingredient often found in packs with other umami ingredients and bold flavors. At Vincent in Chicago, for instance, an appetizer of Manila clams is served with ghost pepper, anchovy, breadcrumbs, leeks and tarragon, and the signature Mussels with Frites is offered in five different styles: Sambal (garlic, kaffir lime leaf, shrimp paste, cilantro and tamarind); Beer & Italian Sausage (fennel, roasted garlic); Provençal (tomatoes, Picholine olives, caper and anchovy); White Wine, Garlic and Bacon; and Braised Cabbage and Potato.

> Pork Schnitzel: kimchee and pork shoulder broth, market veggies and clams — Vincent, Chicago
> Steamed Scallops with ham and mushrooms — Grand Palace, San Francisco

Nothing quite matches the umami flavor of dry-aged beef, a process which creates a greater concentration of beef flavor and also causes the meat’s natural enzymes to break down the connective tissue in the muscle, making the beef more tender. Yet the vaunted tradition of dry-aging had almost gone by the wayside in recent years because of the expense incurred in the storage space, waste and shrinkage involved. Properly aged beef, which must be made with good (read: expensive) product to begin with, can lose as much of one-third of its weight or more to moisture loss and necessary trimming. And if it’s not carefully monitored and controlled, the beef can end up tasting like spoiled blue cheese. Who can afford it?

Then came the niche beef phenomenon, which ushered in a greater appreciation of what’s involved in raising and bringing quality beef to market. With more customers willing to spring for aged beef, more restaurants are able to undertake the process or have it done for them.

> Grilled 14-16 oz. Dry-Aged Bison Cowboy Steak topped with housemade onion ring, garlic-mashed potatoes, fresh vegetables — The Cabin Bar & Grill, Big Sky, Mont.
> Dry-Aged Burger: 10-oz. dry-aged short rib and brisket blend, Tickler cheddar, brioche bun — Alewife, Long Island City, N.Y.


About The Author

Joan Lang

A freelance writer and editor living in the Portland, Maine, area, Joan Lang has been writing about food for more than 30 years, beginning her career in the financial and B2B press. She formed her own food and editorial consulting firm, Full Plate Communications, in 1989. She is a graduate of the New York Restaurant School and holds degrees in architecture and journalism.