There are three essential ingredients to creating umami. Together they give whatever you cook with them, savory taste, enhancing flavor and reducing the need for salt.
You’ve probably not heard of the term umami. It is considered the sixth taste after sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and metallic. Umami is a Japanese word that means “pleasant savory taste”. It was recognized as a distinct taste in 1985 as the combination of L-glutamate and guanosine monophosphate (GMP) and inosine monophosphate (IMP).
Umami taste is common in fish, shellfish, cured meats, mushrooms, ripe tomatoes, Chinese cabbage, spinach, celery, green tea, and fermented and aged products like cheeses, shrimp pastes, and soy sauce. Umami works with the aroma and flavor of foods so that you don’t need to use as much salt. Being conscious of using umami in your cooking can reduce your use of salt.
It is not surprising that we like umami so much. It is first encountered in human breast milk. The umami of breast milk is about the same as soup broths.
Umami is easy to attain in soups like miso soup. Miso is traditional Japanese soup made with a stock called dashi. Dashi is comprised of soyabean paste, seaweed, mushrooms and fish or fish sauce. The three ingredients of seaweed, mushrooms and fish confer the umami taste. Knowing this, you can make any broth abound with umami.
In my 4 liter soup pot, I add a couple of tablespoons of paste, a bunch of rehydrated seaweed (pre-soak and discard liquid before adding), a handful of cut up mushrooms and a tablespoon of fish sauce.
With this basic broth you are free to add other veggies such as green onions, carrots and celery. Raw shrimp is great too. The result is a very satisfying bowl of miso soup. Notice that I didn’t use any additional salt.
So now you know why pizza is so appetizing. Ripe tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and pepperoni give it lots of umami.
Unfortunately, commercial ‘junk’ foods are adding the three chemicals that make up umami. Check the labels for monosodium glutamate, disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate and you know they are exploiting the umami taste. I’ve seen it on potato chips and popcorn seasoning.
By paying attention to umami when cooking with the right combination of ingredients, we can give our food a savory taste that is deeply satisfying and allows us to use less salt.