Umami: Adding Depth to Every Meal

date: June 5, 2013
Certain ingredients can bring this savory, dimensional flavor to your dishes
Updated on:
August 4, 2014

Have you ever tasted something delicious that just didn’t fit into the basic flavor categories of sweet, sour, bitter or salty? That’s the fifth taste, the unsung hero—umami. It is often described as savory with a brothy or meaty quality that coats the tongue and leaves diners with watering mouths and long-lasting satisfaction. Adding foods that embody all this umami goodness to your cooking can take dishes to a whole new level.

Umami was discovered by a Japanese chemist in 1908, but the flavor has been a part of everyday life well before it was given a name. The savory quality of umami foods is thanks to the amino acid glutamate and ribonucleotides, like inosinate and guanylate. Those names may be unfamiliar, but there’s a good chance you’re aware of their artificial counterpart—monosodium glutamate (MSG). Though this additive can enhance how a dish tastes, it has also been known to cause headaches, heart palpitations and other side effects in some people. So, choosing natural, whole foods that deliver an umami punch is a far better choice.

If you’ve ever eaten a Canyon Ranch meal, you’ve experienced how creating the perfect balance of flavors can delight your taste buds—and even help you reduce salt and fat. Try working with some of these umami-rich ingredients to see how the fifth taste can add yet another layer of flavor to your dishes, or consider some of our recipes that let umami shine.

Olives/Olive Oil
Olives and olive oil add a savory, meaty flavor that helps highlight and deepen the other notes of a dish. As an added bonus, they’re both high in healthy fats. But keep in mind that they’re also high in calories, so just a touch will do the job. We recommend cold- or expeller-pressed, organic olive oil.

From the Canyon Ranch Kitchen:
Italian Wedding Soup
Puttanesca Sauce
Stuffed Eggplant with Plum Tomato Sauce

Mushrooms contain a large amount of glutamate and can increase umami in a host of dishes, including soups, sauces, sides and entrees. Dried mushrooms have higher guanylate content, so use them if you want an even stronger umami kick.

From the Canyon Ranch Kitchen:
Mushroom Burgers
Porcini Mushroom Soup
Wild Mushroom & Aged Gouda Tart

Parmesan and Romano Cheeses
No wonder Italian cuisine is considered one of the world’s tastiest: These classic cheeses are full of umami flavor. Adding the rind to marinara sauce or minestrone soup as it simmers will bring forth the flavor of the vegetables and spices. Delizioso!

From the Canyon Ranch Kitchen:
Italian Vegetable Soup with Cannellini Beans
Parmesan Rice
Pear & Bleu Cheese Flatbread

Have you ever noticed how much sweeter melon tastes when it’s wrapped in prosciutto? “That’s a prime example of the power of umami,” says former Canyon Ranch Corporate Chef Scott Uehlein. Hints of salty and savory heighten the other taste components to make each bite all-around satisfying.

From the Canyon Ranch Kitchen:
Baked Cod with Olives
Roasted Pineapple with Duck Prosciutto
Southwest Sweet Potato Hash

Soy sauce
Soy sauce isn’t just for Asian cooking. There are a few different types that vary widely in flavor and can work in a variety of cuisines. Try koikuchi as a nice all-purpose option, or tamari for a more assertive flavor. Regardless of which you choose, go easy when you pour: Soy sauce has a considerable amount of sodium.

From the Canyon Ranch Kitchen:
Ahi Tuna with Green Tea Soy Broth
Scallop Ceviche
Stir-Fry Vegetables with Soy Pomegranate Dressing

Mayo Clinic
Oxford Journal, Chem. Senses (2002) 27 (9): 843-844
Umami Information Center

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