The Fifth Taste
Umami is a term coined by a Japanese scientist in the early twentieth century to describe a fifth basic taste unique from salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. It is the taste you sense when you plug your nose and take a sip of chicken soup. Although it’s often described as being “savory” or “sweet,” the taste buds responsible for detecting umami are distinct from those that detect salt and sugar. This makes it a unique taste that can’t be described using other words, similar to how salt cannot be described as anything other than salty.
Humans have been striving to increase umami in food since the dawn of human civilization. In ancient Europe, a fermented fish sauce called garum was widely used as a seasoning by Phoenicians, Greeks, and Romans, while in Asia, soy sauce was created by fermenting soybeans.
The compounds responsible for this taste were poorly understood until Japanese chemist Ikeda Kikunae isolated glutamic acid from kelp in 1907. He proposed the link between this amino acid and the taste he called umami (旨味 – literally the “essence of taste”). The validity of his work was debated for decades, and it wasn’t until 1985 that the global scientific community accepted umami as a basic taste.
Tastebuds are our body’s way of recognizing foods that contain nutrients that our bodies need while also helping us avoid toxins. Just like we have taste buds to detect salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes, we have several taste receptors(mGluR1, mGluR4, and TAS1R1 + TAS1R3) capable of recognizing various compounds as umami. These receptors bind with amino acids such as glutamate, signaling your brain about the hit, which then interprets it as umami.
Some of these taste receptors can also bind with nucleotides, such as inosine monophosphate (IMP) and guanosine monophosphate (GMP), which creates a synergistic effect that’s a bit like adding 1+1 and getting 10.
As for why we crave umami, biology is part of it, but it may also be psychological. Breast milk and its analogs are extremely rich sources of amino acids, so for most of us, our first taste memories are literally loaded with umami.
How to make umami in food
Although coaxing umami out of food is a hallmark of Japanese cuisine, you could make the argument that it’s the cornerstone of cuisine from any part of the world. Although it wasn’t codified until relatively recently, chefs have always been striving to increase the level of umami in their foods. With that in mind, here are three ways you can increase the umami taste in foods that you prepare:
- Use amino acid and nucleotide rich ingredients – One way to increase the taste of umami is to add ingredients rich in compounds that our mouths interpret as umami. Alanine, aspartic acid, glutamic acid, and proline are just a few examples and can be found in a wide variety of plants, meat, and seafood. Nucleotides such as IMP and GMP have a synergistic effect with amino acids boosting the taste of umami beyond what either one alone would produce. IMP is found in meat and seafood, while dried mushrooms are a rich source of GMP.
- Cooking – The act of heating food to cook it, results in the degradation of protein into their constituent amino acids. This alone can increase the taste of umami in food, but as the temperature rises, you get a form of non-enzymatic browning called the Maillard reaction. Whether it’s the browned crust on bread or sautéed onions, the Maillard reaction is a chemical reaction between amino acids and reducing sugars that creates new flavor compounds as well as umami.
- Fermentation – This is the least accessible of the three methods for increasing umami; however, it can be the most effective as microbes and the enzymes they release breakdown protein into amino acids. Some examples of this are soy sauce (soybeans and wheat), miso (soybeans and rice or barley), cheese (milk), and sake (rice). These fermented foods can also be added to non-fermented foods to increase the taste of umami.
Umami is a Japanese loan-word used to describe the fifth taste (other than sweet, salty, sour, and bitter). It is a taste we have specific taste receptors for in our mouths triggered by being exposed to foods that contain amino acids and or nucleotides.
Umami is a three-syllable word that is pronounced as follows:
u like oops
ma like mall
mi like meat
The taste of umami is often described as being savory, but it is not just limited to salty foods. Baked goods such as cakes and cookies benefit from the umami taste from the amino acids in butter and Maillard browning in the flour and sugar. In its purest form, umami is the taste of MSG or monosodium glutamate. Although MSG is produced in a lab by fermenting proteins containing glutamic acid, glutamate is a compound found abundantly in nature. That’s why it is possible to make umami-rich foods without adding MSG.
If you think about a protein as a lego castle, amino acids are the individual blocks that make up the protein. Amino acids are, in essence, the building blocks of every living thing.
Although MSG is produced in a lab, many foods we eat are a naturally abundant source of umami-producing amino acids. Soybeans, rice, and milk are just a few examples, and when these ingredients are fermented to make things like soy sauce, sake, and cheese, the degradation of the proteins creates even more umami-producing amino acids. Meat and dried mushrooms are other abundant sources of amino acids, but these also contain nucleotides such as IMP and GMP, which can synergize with certain amino acids to act as a multiplier of umami.