Umami. It's pronounced “oo-MOM-ee,” and it's such a mysterious sounding word that you might think it refers to an ethnic trend or a spiritual practice in a faraway culture. While umami is a Japanese word, what it represents is quite familiar — so familiar it was probably on the tip of your tongue last night, whether you grilled a steak, fixed spaghetti or ordered Chinese take-out.
Umami is the taste of protein, and it's a bona fide basic taste just like sweet, salty, sour and bitter.
“This is a big surprise,” says chef David Kasabian, who teamed up with his wife Anna to write “The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami.” “People never thought that protein had a distinct taste. It turns out it does.”
This distinct fifth taste characterizes steak, pot roast, short ribs and other beef dishes — as well as pork, chicken, potatoes and several other foods Americans crave. For the record, Japanese food does have plenty of umami, but French food, Italian food, Spanish food, Swedish food and American food do, too.
“Umami is everywhere; it's not some crazy Japanese idea,” Kasabian says. “You love umami and you crave umami — whether you know it or not. The foods you love — the foods that you think of as comfort foods — more often than not they are loaded with umami.”
When you taste umami, you taste proteins broken down into amino acids. And you notice when food doesn't taste umami because it tends to be a little thin, insipid and not very satisfying, he says.
“One of the major reasons Americans love beef is because of its umami,” Kasabian says. “Umami is beefy. It's meaty. It's savory. It's all those qualities we associate with beef.”
Chef Dave Zino, executive director of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's (NCBA) Beef and Veal Culinary Center in Chicago, says beef is high in umami because it has three natural sources of umami: glutamic acid (an amino acid), salts of glutamic acid (called glutamates) and nucleotides.
These naturally occurring compounds produce beef's umami taste, he says.
Like the other four basic tastes, umami is notable because it's an element of what makes food enjoyable, and it's always been there. But unlike the other four tastes, umami is a little more subtle and not as evident to folks in this country.
Kasabian says that's partly because for the last 150 years we have been taught there are only four tastes — sweet, sour, salty and bitter. It's also partly because our diet tends to be heavy with fats, dairy products and flavors that mask the umami effect. But all that doesn't mean the umami isn't registering.
“Once you become conscious of it, it's much easier to start picking up,” Zino says, noting that Eastern cultures have a better understanding of the palatability of umami than Western cultures.
Not only do our counterparts in Eastern cultures eat a lighter, more delicate cuisine than ours, they also have been talking about umami for 100 years.
In 1908, Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda coined the term umami, which comes from the Japanese word umai, meaning delicious. In his research at Tokyo Imperial University, Kikunae discovered glutamate is the main active ingredient in kombu, and key to its delicious taste. (Kombu is a type of seaweed that's an indispensable part of Japanese cuisine.)
Kikunae went on to patent the manufacture of monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is one of the salt forms of glutamic acid. MSG is commercial flavor enhancer that is widely used in the food industry.
Folks in the U.S. food industry mostly dismissed umami until the late 1990s, when researchers at the University of Miami Medical School isolated separate taste receptor cells in the tongue for detecting umami.
The wine industry was first to respond to this development, Zino says. And the food industry soon followed, led in part by the beef industry, which quickly recognized the importance of umami in recipe and product development.
“The beef industry was really a front runner in discussing umami,” he says.
What the beef industry has learned about umami explains why certain flavors taste so delicious with beef.
“When you combine umami-rich foods, it's not like one plus one equals two in terms of flavor,” Zino says. Instead, a 50-50 mixture of two umami compounds can produce eight times as much flavor as either one of the compounds alone. So, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
This synergy is part of umami's crave-creating power, and it explains why certain flavors pair so well with beef.
Aged cheeses, bacon, barbecue sauce, mushrooms, red wine, sour cream, soy sauce, tomatoes and Worcestershire sauce are among the top flavors to pair with beef, and they are all rich in umami.
These top flavors were revealed in checkoff-funded research conducted by Foodwatch, and were published in “Creating Crave,” a checkoff-funded publication. Foodwatch reviewed more than 1,700 beef recipes from 33 U.S. magazines and newspapers and categorized the most frequently used ingredients. Umami-rich ingredients were also featured in the 2,400 beef items on the menus of the 400 restaurants that Foodwatch analyzed.
Also, according to NCBA's 2005 checkoff-funded Beef Flavor Preferences Study, the top five sauces and accompaniments that respondents strongly liked with beef were high in umami: sliced cheese, barbeque sauce, mushrooms/mushroom sauce, tomato sauce and grated cheese.
“Beef tastes beefier when there are other umami ingredients,” Kasabian notes, pointing to the “Maxed-Out Meatloaf” recipe in his cookbook. The dish is made with ground beef, mushrooms, tomatoes and soy sauce.
Knowing the right ingredients to pair with beef is pivotal to recipe and product development, Zino says. Some flavors that work well with chicken and pork — like sweet and sour sauce or perfumey herbs — actually compete against beef.
“Chicken and pork have softer flavor profiles,” he says. “It's easier to develop products around those because you can basically do anything you want.”
Beef, on the other hand, has its own unique, great-tasting flavor, so chefs must be careful what they pair with it.
Besides added flavors, several other elements factor into creating a great beef-eating experience, and Zino says the chief one is matching the cooking method to the cut, which helps maximize umami.
Kasabian concurs that the cut and the cooking methods are significant. Cuts from muscles that have gotten more exercise tend to have more umami.
Cuts like chuck and brisket are well-exercised muscles on an animal and have more natural umami, but they tend to require slow cooking because they are not as tender. So, for example, braising a pot roast at 200° F for about three hours creates gravy and a tender piece of beef that are both loaded with umami.
In contrast, cuts from less-exercised muscles, such as filet mignon, have less natural umami. So to bring out the umami in filet mignon, you need to sear it and pair it with another umami-rich ingredient, such as a mushroom sauce, Kasabian says.
Another crucial factor in increasing the umami in beef is postmortem aging, Zino says. It's nature's tenderizer.
Dry-aged beef has the most umami because of the enzymatic action that takes place during aging and because the flavors get concentrated as the water evaporates, Kasabian explains. Wet-aged has less because the water tends to dilute the enzymatic action of breaking down the proteins into amino acids. Un-aged beef has the least umami.
Umami isn't a silver bullet, though. For a positive beef-eating experience, the process must be right in every step from pasture to plate, Zino says. Other top factors influencing beef flavor are marbling, quality grade, degree of doneness, marinating, freezing/thawing and feeding practices during beef production.
“No matter how hard the rancher worked, no matter what the packer did,” he says, “if the consumer overcooks the beef, the beef eating experience suffers.”
Aside from making food taste better, umami brings up some dietary implications, as well.
For starters, umami creates satiety — the feeling that you've eaten enough and that you've eaten the right things. This feeling of satisfaction can help you better control food proportions, Kasabian says.
Also, if your food has umami in it, you don't have to use as much salt, because umami actually makes the salt that's already in your food taste saltier.
What's more, you can reduce the amount of fat in your food if you have an adequate amount of umami. That's because umami, like fat, creates a slippery, satisfying feel in your mouth when you chew, he says.
The foundation of umami is really biological. Taste helps draw us to things that are essential for our survival and helps deter us from poisonous things.
“We like foods that have umami, because they are good for us,” Kasabian says. “When we taste umami, we know we are getting protein in our diet.”
Diana Barto is a freelance writer based in Waconia, MN, and a former BEEF senior associate editor.