What Is Umami and What Does It Taste Like?

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At an early age, we’re taught that humans can detect four tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. As it turns out, that’s not entirely accurate. (Remember that tongue map thing? That was a total lie too). 

Humans can actually detect five tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami

Cooking dinner shouldn't be complicated

What Is Umami?

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Get the recipe: Umami Grilled Leg of Lamb

We likely encounter umami every single day, but it’s kind of a still a mystery to most of us. 

Explaining “umami” to someone who hasn’t knowingly tasted it is almost like trying to describe the color green to someone who’s been blind since birth. Still, we’re going to take a crack at it:

Umami is the most recently identified and accepted of the basic tastes. It’s found in a variety of foods (like asparagus, tomatoes, cheese and meat), but all umami foods have one thing in common: They contain amino acids called glutamates, which are commonly added to some foods in the form of monosodium glutamate (MSG).

Umami’s history is as old as food itself. However, it wasn’t until recently that someone singled it out.

French chef Auguste Escoffier was known for creating groundbreaking dishes in the 19th century that were deep and rich, but could not be described as salty, sweet, sour, or bitter. Many people credit him with “creating” umami with his invention of veal stock. However, he did not try to classify the taste. 

The name “umami” didn’t come around until 1908, when Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda pinpointed the presence of glutamic acid in foods with the specific characteristics he was trying to identify. He named the taste “umami” which is Japanese for “good flavor.”

What Does Umami Taste Like? 

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Get the recipe: Umami Broth with Buckwheat and Vegetables

Umami describes food that are savory, earthy, and meaty. You can taste it in foods like meat broths, some cheeses, miso, seaweed, and mushrooms. 

Umami’s taste is relatively mild, but it does have an aftertaste. For some people, it can cause salivation and a sensation of furriness on the tongue.

Umami Foods

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Get the recipe: Mostly Mushroom Pasta

Some umami-rich foods are: miso, Parmesan cheese, kimchi, Vegemite, Roquefort cheese, dry-cured ham, shitake mushrooms, anchovies, tomatoes, oysters, scallops, soy sauce, clams, corn, and potatoes. 

Skip the cream cheese and pepper jelly appetizer and use the red pepper jelly for something new. These sticky, yet crispy chicken wings take full advantage of the red pepper jelly flavor. The result is a hot, sweet, savory sauce with a vibrant color. Add scallions and fresh basil for an impressive festive-looking dish that is just asking to be taken to a holiday potluck. 

This is not your mom’s creamy noodle casserole. After this dish, miso cream sauce will be your new go-to sauce for everything. It only has 3 ingredients, it’s perfectly seasoned and creamy, and just thick enough to hold up to a good noodle. The creaminess is complemented by the crunchiness of the peanuts and panko in this casserole and the green onion and cilantro brighten it up. Make this dish gluten-free by replacing the panko with extra peanuts and using gluten-free miso. We think Togarishi– a Japanese 7-spice blend found at Asian markets– is worth the buy, but if you cannot find it use Chinese 5-spice. 

You won’t find a faster, easier dessert that guarantees satisfaction than the classic blondie; however, introducing not-so-classic flavor boosters like saltily-sweet miso and toasty sesame seriously raises this cookie bar’s cool factor. Miso paste is a wonderfully versatile ingredient that can be used to enhance both savory and sweet dishes. For this recipe, be sure to grab white miso (as opposed to yellow or red) as this variety—commonly referred to as “sweet” or “mellow” miso—delivers a more subtle flavor than other common types of miso that have been fermented for a longer period of time. Miso delivers a distinct punch of umami-backed sweetness that, when coupled with butter and brown sugar, intensifies the decadence level of a dessert like these blondies as no other ingredient can. Add delicately warming and nutty notes from a dash of sesame oil in the batter plus a toasty topping of sesame seeds (which provide for both a delightful crunch and an eye-catching aesthetic), and you’ve got one wow-worthy treat. We opted for a blend of white and black sesame seeds to create a fun visual, but feel free to stick with one or the other if you only have one type on hand. If you would prefer, these blondies can also be prepared in an 8-x8-inch metal baking pan instead of a cast-iron skillet—you may simply need to adjust your bake time slightly. Serve warm wedges with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and we guarantee, you’ll never question whether or not blondies have more fun again. 

Think of this comforting soup as a cross between ramen and miso soup. The broth gets instant depth from the bacon drippings in the pan, as well as the miso paste and shiitake mushrooms. You’ll find white miso paste at most supermarkets, either in the refrigerated soy product section or on the international foods aisle. Use it to enrich broths, marinades, or salad dressings, keeping in mind that a little goes a long way. Give the eggs a quick rinse in their shells since they’ll simmer directly in the broth.

Looking for a healthy alternative to collards? Look no further. Mustard Greens offer a similar taste, but with an Asian flair from the umami-rich miso.

Pick up unpasteurized miso—fermented soybean paste—for the best probiotic boost. Look for it near the refrigerated tofu products at your grocery store.

A sweet-salty miso, brown sugar, and soy sauce glaze caramelizes in about 10 minutes as it cooks atop rich, meaty salmon. This Asian-inspired dish is oh-so-simple to prepare.

This sweet-meets-salty oatmeal cookie is chewy in the middle with a crispy bottom and edges. In other words, it’s irresistible. The browned butter adds depth, and the salted caramel sauce has a little bit of tang thanks to the fermented miso. Substitute any dried fruit for the raisins, and serve with frozen yogurt, ice cream, or whipped cream. Keep any leftovers in the skillet and simply cover it.

Radishes require little embellishment at the peak of their season. The mild peppery bite of this humble root veggie is the perfect complement to a buttery miso glaze.

This flavorful, savory bowl gets a ton of umami thanks to the miso and mushrooms, and the leftover sorghum cooking liquid and butter give this dish a nice creaminess. Technically a seed, sorghum is a nutrition powerhouse, boasting more protein and fiber per serving than other whole grains like barley and brown rice. It’s also brimming with other essential nutrients, such as phosphorus, magnesium, iron, and potassium. Choose whole-grain sorghum for the most nutrition; pearled sorghum cooks up more tender.

This fun twist on deviled eggs is a nice change-of-pace dish for your next picnic or cookout. With just a hint of tang and spice, you could probably even trick your non-foodie friends into eating one. For this super simple dish, try to use older eggs—they will peel more easily. Look for togarashi in the same place you buy miso.

Nutrient-rich kale has a mild flavor and becomes tender very quickly, making it a snap to add to speedy meals like this one.

Mona Johnson, co-owner of Tournant catering in Portland, Oregon, created this dish for a Thanksgiving dinner. She cooked mild white Japanese turnips (Tokyo or Hakurei varieties) in white miso and butter for savory richness, and added a touch of maple syrup for sweetness. If you can’t find Japanese turnips, use a combination of small radishes and mustard greens–regular turnips are too strong for this delicate dish.

You’ve no doubt heard of–and enjoyed–salted caramel. Miso caramel takes that concept one step further, offering depth and richness that’s unparalleled. Even though this pie is rather decadent, it still comes in with 12g less sugar than a popular online version of caramel-apple pie.

The richness of the broth comes from miso, onion, ginger, and garlic cooked in sesame oil.

There is very little hands-on prep here; your oven does most of the work. The combination of flavors is exuberant, and the texture of the chicken is as succulent as can be.

Get ready—this dip is about to become your party go-to. It’s quick and easy to make, and you can serve it with any type of vegetable (we particularly like it with carrots, radishes, and cucumbers). Be sure not to puree the chives or pepper, as they will discolor your sauce. Use leftover dip as a spread for pulled pork, hamburgers, or other sandwiches, or thin it out with water or another tablespoon or two of buttermilk to dress lettuces.

We turned this popular appetizer into a quick, diet-friendly dinner solution for two. It’s a fresh, low-calorie alternative to takeout. In place of bottled peanut sauce, you can instead try our Miso-Chili-Garlic Sauce.

We call for whole-grain hulled, or hull-less, barley here–pearled barley would overcook as the chicken simmers. You can also use unpearled farro or wheat berries.

Fresh cabbage is all about crunch; the more texture, the better. Napa cabbage can absorb bold vinaigrettes without losing its crisp bite. Carrots, red onion, and daikon radish add even more crunch to the salad.

This sinus-clearing soup is inspired by classic Szechuan beef noodle soup. Because some of the ingredients to make the traditional version require a trip to an Asian market (namely Szechuan peppercorns and chili bean paste), we approximated the flavors with supermarket items. Black pepper and coriander get at the Szechuan peppercorn flavor (but, admittedly, not the tongue-tingling effect), and miso and sambal oelek approximate the flavor of chili bean paste.

Created by chef Nobu Matsuhisa in New York more than 20 years ago, this delicate, buttery dish has fans around the world. We’ve adapted a version from former San Diego fisherman Zack Roach that features green onions and ginger.

After cooking the chicken, J. Kenji López-Alt, author of The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Sciene and the Serious Eats online column of the same name, throws corn on the still-hot grill to use in this unusual, delicious salad.

To quote Robin Bashinsky, the mastermind behind this recipe, “This is a dish full of char and vigor.” Savory miso is a natural match for thick eggplant steaks; look for miso in the refrigerated section of your grocery store’s produce department.

A slightly thicker caramel and the addition of whole roasted almonds turn traditional caramel popcorn into gift-worthy popcorn mix. We use less sugar in the glaze and cut the sweetness with mild white miso (fermented soybean paste) and tamari (a richer, wheat-free soy sauce) for a salty-savory note that makes the snack incredibly addictive.

In this recipe, traditional Italian pesto takes a detour through the continent of Asia, swapping in peanuts for pine nuts, toasted sesame oil for olive oil, and miso and fish sauce for Parmesan.

This super creamy pasta dish gets nice umami depth from the miso. Cooking the grape tomatoes in a skillet and then stirring in the milk mixture gives the sauce the perfect texture, and the little bit of liquid that comes out of the spinach lightens it up. This recipe is quite flexible: Cavatappi, penne, or any whole-wheat version would work well. You could also substitute with mini mozzarella balls to save a step and time.

Think of gochujang as Korean steak sauce, adding savory depth to the chicken. You can find it at many supermarkets, or substitute equal parts Sriracha and white/yellow miso (soybean paste).

A little sweet, a little salty, a bit of toasty, and a touch of tang–the makings of a grade-A salad

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