Everything You Need to Know About Umami
Umami, the little-known "fifth taste," is the key flavor that makes some of your favorite foods taste so good.
We’re all familiar with the four basic tastes—sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. But recently, there’s been a lot of talk about a fifth taste that previously was just that oh-so-goodness you couldn’t quite put your finger on. Umami taste is that indescribable, perfectly savory flavor you experience when eating certain Asian foods and hearty, meaty dishes. Even though umami has been trending within the past few years, it actually dates back over 100 years—the term umami was defined by Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. While umami is often associated with the savory taste found in Asian food, it is also a key flavor in foods like miso, shiitake mushrooms, parmesan cheese, meat, and sun-dried tomatoes.
What Is Umami?
Umami is the fifth taste alongside salt, sweet, bitter, and sour. The Japanese translation of umami is “pleasant, savory taste” or “yummy.” Umami is a word used to described rich, salty foods that have a certain je ne sais quoi to them. Umami has become so buzz-worthy that restaurants across the country are capitalizing on its popularity. Umami Burger, for one, is a restaurant chain known for its gourmet burger featuring key umami ingredients like shiitake mushrooms, fire roasted tomatoes, caramelized onions, umami ketchup, and a parmesan crisp. Even Trader Joe’s has followed suit, recently releasing an umami seasoning blend ($12 for two; amazon.com, $3 at Trader Joe’s). While umami is most commonly associated with miso soup, ramen, and other Asian dishes, it is also the predominant flavor in ham, raw beef, cured meats, and mushrooms.
Is Umami Good for You?
Umami is a particular taste, not an ingredient, which means it does not have a nutritional component on its own. However, it is the main flavor in certain foods and condiments that are often deemed unhealthy and high in sodium, like beef, pork, cured meats, soy sauce, and ketchup. On the flip side, Umami is also found in a number of foods that do have health benefits, like kimchi, shellfish, cabbage, mushrooms, asparagus, and ripe tomatoes. If you read your labels carefully and eat in moderation, there is no harm in consuming foods with strong levels of the umami flavor.
What’s the Deal With MSG?
When Ikeda defined the sensational savory flavor known as umami, he wanted to find a way to market it so that people could apply the same essence to their own cooking. The commercialized version of umami became known as monosodium glutamate, or MSG. MSG is the sodium salt found in glutamic acid, a naturally occurring acid found in tomatoes, grapes, cheese, and mushrooms. MSG has been a controversial ingredient for some time because it has been linked to headaches and nausea as well as other health issues. According to the Food and Drug Administration, foods that contain MSG are “generally recognized as safe,” however the FDA does require clear labeling on foods containing MSG. While there are still misconceptions and a lot of research is inconclusive about the negative health effects of MSG, it is becoming more and more embraced by professional chefs and diners alike.
Why Is MSG So Delicious?
MSG is a food additive and flavor enhancer commonly found in Chinese food, stock cubes, ramen, Doritos (yes, really), and other savory foods. MSG is a highly concentrated version of the flavor found in umami-rich ingredients like dashi, miso, and soy sauce. Originally, MSG was extracted from seaweed broth, but is now made by fermenting starch and sugarcane. It has the same, intensely savory quality found in ingredients like parmesan cheese, which is why it’s a popular additive.
Now that you understand what umami is and why MSG tastes so good, you can incorporate this fifth taste into your own cooking. Miso shines in these soufflé pancakes with miso mushrooms or in miso chicken noodle soup. For a healthy twist on this savory supplement, try making our recipe for kimchi soup with tofu and bacon, avocado “bowl” with spicy soy sauce, or parmesan cauliflower tots. The whole family will love soy-braised short ribs with sugar snap peas, which offers an indulgent take on umami.