Umami is difficult to define. Known as the “fifth taste”—after sweet, salty, bitter, and sour—it’s a deep, meaty sort of savoriness, that extra something that makes a seared steak, or slow-roasted tomato, or hunk of Parmesan cheese taste so deliciously moreish. It’s the answer to why some people love ketchup so much.
The term itself was coined in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, when he decided to study just what made dashi, a foundational broth made from kombu (dried kelp) and bonito flakes, so deeply delicious. He traced the source to glutamate, an amino acid present in kombu—as well as cheese, miso, soy sauce, and tomatoes—and named its taste umami, from the Japanese word for delicious, umai. A rough translation is simply “deliciousness.”
Luckily for home cooks, harnessing umami in your cooking is a lot more straightforward. After all, we know now that the flavor hides in plain sight, in everyday ingredients.
These building blocks are the focus of a new cookbook, “Umami Bomb,” by Raquel Pelzel. Though umami tends to be associated more with cooked meats and seafood products, Pelzel, who eats a mostly pescatarian diet, directs her attention on vegetables: using the power of umami to make them, in her words, “taste extra, deeply, boldly, intensely, fantastically, rich-savory-comforting-eyes-roll-back-in-your-head awesome.”
Pelzel starts by simplifying some of the science behind umami: It’s “what happens when proteins break down and amino acids and ribonucleotides are left to get crazy in your mouth,” she writes. Glutamate is the most common of the amino acids that contribute to umami; there’s also guanylate, found in mushrooms, and inosinate, in animal proteins such as beef, chicken, and fish.
“When foods are fermented, preserved, aged, or even just browned or roasted, their proteins break down and the glutamate is activated, heightening the umami taste,” Pelzel continues. That explains why aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Gouda have more umami than, say, mozzarella, and why fermented products like miso and soy sauce pack so much flavor. It’s also good reason to caramelize your onions, brown your mushrooms, and slow-roast your tomatoes. Using more of these umami-rich ingredients then puts you on a fast track to flavorful cooking.
The book’s 75 recipes provide plenty of accessible inspiration. Try tossing Parmesan rinds into soups and stocks, adding a splash of soy sauce to sautéed greens, folding miso into softened butter to swipe on grilled vegetables or simply spread over toast.
Using different umami-rich ingredients together also significantly ups the umami factor—think Parmesan cheese on tomato-sauced pasta. Pelzel uses that to her advantage: Her simple marinara gets an extra glug of soy sauce; her mushroom dashi uses dried shiitakes in addition to kombu; while her grilled cheese packs a triple-combo of miso butter, caramelized onions, and aged Gouda.
The recipes are vegetarian, save for the ones in a bonus “umami of the sea” chapter that shines a brief spotlight on seafood, but can be appreciated by vegetarians and omnivores alike. The book is a handy guide for anyone looking to get more vegetables—in intensely flavorful, umami-packed form—into their diets.
RECIPE: Tomato ‘Nduja