If you’ve never heard the term “umami”, that’s not surprising, but you’ve certainly tasted it. Umami is that rich, savory and meaty flavor that you get from a properly cooked piece of meat, sautéed mushrooms, or sauces such as A1, worcestershire, or soy sauce.
Umami is a Japanese work that literally translates as “deliciousness”, and the flavor was originally isolated by chemists from that country. Casually known as the “fifth taste”, behind sweet, salty, sour, and bitter, umami has become a culinary buzzword in recent years, with chefs and major food companies competing to make burgers and other foods with a deep umami flavor.
Hype aside, umami is a flavor that brings a rounded and satisfying flavor profile to cooked foods, especially foods without meat or other rich ingredients. Emphasizing umami is especially useful for vegetarian or vegan cooks, as it’s a flavor often lacking in those foods.
Luckily there are a number of good ways to bump up the umami in your cooking. For vegetarians and vegans, good sources of umami include mushrooms, soy sauce, vegan worstershire, balsamic vinegar, and nutritional yeast. For those with less restrictive diets, umami is easily available from cooking or browning meat, from commercial sauces and spice rubs, and from the vegetarian sources noted above, especially mushrooms.
Like any flavor, umami can be overdone, and the results are just as awful as dishes made with too much salt or sugar. Carefully handled, however, a bit of umami can take rescue a flat-tasting dish or add a welcome dose of richness to otherwise plain foods, all without adding salt or sugar – but be careful about using soy sauce, or other sauces and spice rubs, to get your umami, as those can be loaded with salt as well as umami.
Umami-booster Recipe – Teriyaki Sauce
½ C tamari (soy sauce, reduced sodium versions OK)
¼ C sugar (or 3 T agave or honey)
½ t grated ginger
1 clove garlic, finely minced
2 T mirin (Japanese cooking wine; sherry or a dry white wine will also work)
1 Tablespoon sesame seeds
½ t cornstarch
Whisk together all ingredient in a small saucepan until the sugar (or honey, etc) has dissolved and the cornstarch is completely broken up and dissolved as well. Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly, until the sauce just barely begins to boil (small bubbles slowly forming and breaking), and simmer about 30-60 seconds until thickened. Use hot for sauce, or cool and refrigerate for up to two weeks.