Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Tips from the Kitchen: Umami - the lost fifth flavour?

Photo via Sabine Dowek
I'm sure many of us grew up learning the four different tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. But in the recent couple of years, a new flavour is being recognized: umami. But what is it exactly?

Umami is a Japanese word that describes a meaty or savory taste that can quite be characterized by the other four main tastes. The closest comparison to umami flavour is MSG (MonoSodium Glutamate), a food additive.

Ever wonder why you couldn't explain the flavour of ramen broth?
Because it falls under the fifth taste category: umami
Picture via Kitchit
Chances are you've probably tasted umami thousands of times in your life without realizing it.

Umami is the reason why bacon is so delicious to many of us.
That delicious gravy you pour on your fries, turkey, mashed potatoes is filled with umami flavour.
Smoky Bacon Chips? Umami. 
The soup used in Japanese ramen? Also filled with umami.
French fries don't taste the same without kethcup? Umami could be the reason

However, the best example of naturally occurring umami is in mushrooms - especially shiitake mushrooms and beef. Umami is only brought forward in cooked foods such as a broth, soup or something that has been slow-cooked for a very long time. Raw meat isn't that umami but by cooking it, you release amino acids which create the umami flavour. Fermentation also intensifies umami - soy sauce, cheese, cured meats.

Umami rich ingredients
Photo via Haikugirl
When I first learned about this fifth taste, I became obsessed with finding it in foods or seeking it out in ingredients. However, not everyone is convinced umami should be a flavour because it is too ambiguous. What do I mean? Tastes such as salty and sweet are clear as day but umami is hard to define and hard to recognize. Typically, westerners still struggle to consciously detect it while Asian cultures are more prone to recognizing it.

Can you taste umami in your foods or do you think you were better off with only four tastes?