Have you heard about Umami? I just did at an educational meeting of the ACF Windy City Professional Culinarians. The Vice President of Culinary Arts at Kendall College, Christopher Koetke CEC, CCE, HAAC, gave an eye opening lesson on the subject.
What is Umami?
We interpret our experience with food through sight, sound, smell, texture and taste: The sight of a beautiful plate presentation, the sound of a sizzling steak served on a hot plate, the aroma of fresh baked bread, the texture of bite you get from eating apples and the taste sensation that comes from a combination of flavors in your mouth.
Growing up, we were taught there were four primary tastes: Sour, Bitter, Sweet and Salty. However, there is a fifth primary taste called, Umami which is the way our body interprets and senses protein or savory taste.
Umami was first discovered in 1907 by Professor Kikuane Ikeda at the Imperial University in Japan. Dr. Ikeda observed there was a taste sensation common in many foods that didn’t fall into the four primary taste categories. He called this taste umami which describes savory or deliciousness in Japanese. A year later, he identified glutamic acid (glutamate) as the source of this unique taste.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins and glutamate is an essential amino acid found in proteins. There are two forms of glutamate: Bound Glutamate and Free Glutamate.
Our body produces bound glutamate naturally in large amounts as part of protein essential for metabolism and brain function. Manufacturing about 50 grams of glutamate daily, the human body also stores about 2 kilos of glutamate in the major organs and muscles.
Free glutamate occurs openly in the foods we eat that are high in protein such as, cheese, milk, mushrooms, meat, fish, chicken, tomatoes and more. Glutamate is metabolized rapidly by the body as an energy source. The average person consumes between 10-20 grams of glutamate from their diet daily.
A Taste Sensation
Nature Magazine reported that a team of scientists from the University of Miami identified the taste receptor on our tongue for umami in 2000. The discovery in effect validated what Professor Ikeda had revealed 93 years earlier that umami is a distinguishable taste sensation.
It is free glutamate, which can be detected by our umami taste receptors. Foods rich in umami are desirous because they taste so good whether recognized as umami or not. The more free glutamate present in foods, the more most of us enjoy their taste.
Increased levels of free glutamate are brought about in a number of ways we can all relate to:
Ripening When vegetables are ripe, their taste and flavor are heightened. Consequently, as they ripen there is a major increase in the levels of free glutamate. For example, a red ripe tomato has a much preferred taste and flavor compared to a unripened green tomato.
Maturing During the maturation process proteins break down which increase the levels of free glutamate. Cheddar cheese, when aged for 8 months, has a much stronger taste and flavor than younger aged fresh cheddar.
Curing The breakdown of protein during the processes used for curing meats or fish, increase the levels of free glutamate. A dry cured Prosciutto di Parma has a deep rich taste and flavor compared to that of a fresh ham.
Drying Cell walls break down during the drying process releasing taste and flavor enhancing proteins. Foods like sun-dried tomatoes and dried mushrooms have a strong umami taste.
Cooking The slow cooking of meat, braising, for example, is a way of increasing umami taste.
Seasoning Adding chicken bullion or Kombu Dashi to stock and other dishes raises the level of free glutamate and umami taste.
Glutamate seasoning is the simplest, purest way to add the umami taste to food. Ancient Romans used Garum, a fermented fish sauce as a condiment to add flavor to food. Modern day seasonings such as, Worcester Sauce, Soy Sauce, and Tomato Ketchup are all means of enhancing umami taste because they carry high levels of glutamate.
Professor Ikeda also set out to make a seasoning which could be used to increase umami in foods. He found that the sodium salt of glutamate was ideal because it was soluble in water, resistant to humidity and had no flavor. Ikeda developed Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), the cleanest, purist way to increase umami in food.
Originally extracted from Kombu seaweed, today’s glutamate seasoning is made by fermentation of carbohydrate sources such as sugar cane and sugar beets. (Much like the way beer, wine and vinegar are made.) MSG is a free glutamic acid bound to a sodium molecule = monosodium glutamate.
MSG is the pure form of umami; it creates a more fully rounded flavor profile in food. Society has been tainted to believe that MSG is bad when, in fact, it is one of the most analyzed and safe ingredients of all.
- MSG has 70% less sodium than table salt. Replacing table salt with MSG in recipes reduces sodium content. Unlike over-salting, more MSG, will not overpower the foods.
- Useful in diets to reduce fat MSG adds umami in lieu of fat to make food more flavorful with less fat.
- The body treats glutamate exactly the same way whether it comes from the food we eat or is added as a seasoning.
- Glutamate is important for a healthy metabolism.
- MSG is not an allergen, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
- The USDA first designated MSG as GRAS (Generally Recognized as Safe) in 1958.
- The FDA reaffirmed MSG safety in 1995 based on a report from the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology.
The “Wow Factor”
Professional Chefs understand meat or fish rich in umami combined with vegetables rich with free glutamates produces highly delicious tasting meals.
This balanced umami taste occurs from the synergy between glutamate, and naturally occurring nucleotides, called inosinate (meat based), and guanylate (plant based). Sparing the scientific details, in laymen’s terms, this is what creates the “Wow Factor” in the many of the meals we eat.
Favorite combinations such as, glutamate-rich onions, carrots and celery cooked with inosinate rich beef, deliver great tasting meals. Likewise, glutamate-rich tomatoes combined with ground beef makes outstanding Bolognese sauce and aged cheddar on a burger intensify the favorite combo taste.
Sour, Bitter, Sweet, Salty and Savory. Umami is the fifth taste that creates a more fully rounded flavor profile in many of the foods we eat and love.