Ingredient Intelligence

All About Umami: What You Need to Know About the 5th Taste

published Oct 7, 2022
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umami items on a sheet
Credit: Photo: Christopher Testani; Food Styling: Jessie YuChen

Umami has become a buzzword to indicate that something is savory and craveable, and is often associated with Asian cuisine. But what is umami, exactly? It’s a complex fifth taste — alongside sweet, sour, salty, bitter — that is more commonly occurring in foods you have in your cooking rotation than you may realize. Adding a little pop of umami can improve almost any dish you make by adding depth of flavor and enhancing its mouth-wateringness (not a scientific term, but better than saying “drool-worthy,” which is also true).

What Is Umami? A Brief Scientific History

The term “umami” — a word derived from the Japanese adjective umai (delicious) that roughly translates to “essence of deliciousness” — was coined over a century ago in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Dr. Kikunae Ikeda. He found that kombu dashi, a popular soup stock, had a savory flavor distinct from any other recognized tastes, according to the book Umami: Unlocking the Fifth Taste (available on Amazon). He later discovered that this taste came from glutamate, an amino acid that is a building block of protein and naturally occurring in aged cheeses, cured meats, fermented foods, and more.

By evaporating his wife’s kombu broth, he extracted a crystalline compound (glutamic acid) and filed a patent to produce umami in an “easy-to-use form: MSG (monosodium glutamate),” according to Ajinomoto, the company that he co-founded to produce MSG in Japan. It was first made by the hydrolysis of gluten to extract wheat protein, then shifted to extraction from soybeans in the ’30s, and then the bacterial fermentation of sugar cane, cornstarch, and cassava in the ’60s. (It’s a fermentation process similar to those used for making cheese, yogurt, and wine.)

However, it wasn’t until 1985 that this term was scientifically recognized at the first Umami International Symposium in Hawaii, and it took until 2002 for scientists to identify umami taste receptors on the human tongue. It’s been a long, delicious journey for this multifaceted taste. 

The Flavors and Characteristics of Umami

Umami’s core characteristics include being long-lasting, balanced, and complex with sensations of tongue-coating, mouth fullness, and salivation, according to Know MSG, Ajinomoto’s educational and de-stigmatizing campaign. It’s why you may smack your lips after a slurp of miso ramen or feel like drooling when Parmesan cheese-heavy cacio e pepe lands in front of you. It’s not just tasty — it’s scientifically delicious.

Saltiness vs. Umami

Even though many umami-rich foods are naturally salty, don’t get savoriness and saltiness mixed up. “Salt and umami are not the same thing,” explains Jocelyn Ngo, a certified food scientist who works in product development at Chipotle. “Salt can add or enhance the umami-ness of a food product, but they are not one and the same. It is not a one-to-one swap of salt and umami and requires some experimentation, but you can use an umami ingredient to help bring up the flavors when trying to reduce salt.” Umami is needed to create a “nice balanced flavor profile” in conjunction with salt, which can be done using naturally umami-rich ingredients or added MSG. 

What Foods Are Rich in Umami?

Now that you have a basic understanding of what umami is, let’s pinpoint what ingredients to use to bring out savory flavors in your own cooking. The earliest notable umami bombs in history include glutamate-heavy fermented sauces made with fish in ancient Rome, fermented fish and soy in third-century Chinese culture, and fermented barley in medieval Byzantine and Arab cuisines. All of those ingredients still exist today and help to intensify savoriness naturally with glutamate rather than added salt. Dried shiitake mushrooms, kombu, and bonito fish flakes are all umami heavy-hitters, which is why a dashi soup base using all three makes miso soup so craveable and savory. (Miso is also packed with umami, so a quadruple threat!) Want some umami-rich salad with your soup? Both anchovies and aged Parmesan cheese contribute umami to Caesar salad dressing

Here’s a quick cheat sheet on some umami-heavy, naturally glutamate-packed ingredients to add to your pantry or fridge. We guarantee they’ll make every meal better — and you probably already use them in your day-to-day cooking.

  • Broths and broth bases (such as bouillon cubes)
  • Gravies
  • Tomatoes (both fresh and preserved in ingredients like tomato paste)
  • Mushrooms (particularly dried, such as shiitakes)
  • Aged hard cheeses, such as Parmesan or Manchego
  • Cured meats, such as salami or bacon
  • Fermented sauces, such as soy sauce, fish sauce, and oyster sauce
  • Fermented pastes, such as miso, harissa, and sambal
  • Kimchi
  • Tinned and preserved fish, such as anchovies
  • Seaweed, including fresh, dried kelp/kombu, nori, and dashi broth
  • Yeast extracts such as Vegemite or Marmite
  • Shellfish
  • Salmon
  • Beef
  • Pork
  • Green tea
Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Ben Weiner

Get Your Umami on with These Recipes!

How to Use MSG for an Umami Boost in Cooking

In addition to using umami-rich ingredients in your cooking, you can use MSG to give your dishes a savory boost. If experimenting with added MSG, Ajinomoto suggests using half a teaspoon to “enhance the flavor of a pound of meat or four to six servings of vegetables, casseroles, or soups.” By replacing half the salt in your salt shaker or pinch bowl, it will reduce the sodium in the mixture by about 40 percent and you can experiment from there.