How to add the fifth element of taste to your cooking.

What is umami?

When we think of flavor, the four basic taste groups come instantly to mind: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. But there’s a fifth taste that’s harder to pinpoint. You’ve probably heard of it, but you can’t quite describe it: umami.  A Japanese word with no direct English translation, umami roughly translates into “essence of deliciousness.”

The taste itself is often described as “brothy” or “savory.” It promotes salivation and stimulates the throat, the roof and the back of the mouth, leaving a mouthwatering sensation over the tongue. In cooking, umami enhances the other flavors of ingredients in a dish. The French might even say it adds a certain je ne sais quoi.

Scientifically speaking, umami is a commonly used term for substances that combine the amino acid glutamate and/or inosinate and guanylate, with minerals such as sodium and potassium. However it’s described, it’s the kind of flavor that leaves you wanting more.

When was it discovered?

A relatively recent discovery, umami was first coined by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 when he noticed a savory flavor in a bowl of kombu dashi (a soup stock made from seaweed) that was different from the four basic tastes. After examining the molecular composition of the seaweed, he attributed that taste to the amino acid glutamate and named it “umami.”

While Ikeda may have discovered umami, using glutamate in cooking has a long and storied past. Glutamate-rich foods like fermented fish sauce and soy sauce have been widely used throughout history, from ancient Rome to third century China.

Health benefits of umami

Umami-rich foods can have some important health benefits. By boosting umami, you can add flavor and improve taste using less salt and less sugar. It can also mask the taste of bitterness and sourness without affecting its nutritional value. Glumates have also been said to increase satiety, providing a feeling of satisfaction after eating a meal, which could help to curb the appetite. Umami can also be particularly important for elderly people. The elderly often experience a loss of appetite and taste, and umami-rich foods help to make foods more appealing.

Which foods have umami?

In addition to seaweed, umami is found naturally in certain foods that are high in glutamates such as mushrooms, seafood and shellfish, ripe tomatoes, aged cheese, and green tea. But umami levels also increase in specific food processes such as curing, fermentation and aging. For example, a ripe tomato has 10 times the glutamate as an unripe tomato.

Why is seaweed such an excellent source of umami?

Naturally high in free glutamates, seaweed is one of the best, plant-based sources of umami. It’s also a nutrient powerhouse that’s packed with antioxidants, vitamins and calcium. Our nori sheets are an easy way to maximize both nutrition and umami. Just chop or blend before adding to dips and pestos or as a seasoning in soups and stocks. To add umami to salads, rice or noodles, simply crumble our crispy seaweed snacks and sprinkle on top for an instant flavor boost.

Easy ways to add umami to your cooking.

Use umami-rich ingredients in your cooking. Some foods like dried mushrooms, seaweed, parmesan cheese and anchovies have a naturally high umami content. Use them as you would use a seasoning to add that elusive fifth taste into your dish.

Fermented foods are rich in umami. A spoonful of miso paste adds complexity and depth to a variety of dishes, including soups, pasta and sauces.

Use umami-rich seasonings like ketchup, tomato paste, soy sauce or molasses to amp up the flavor in meatloaf, stews and burgers. 

Aged meats and cheeses add an umami boost to any recipe. Crumble bacon on your salad or drop a parmesan cheese rind into stocks, soups and stews.

Umami-rich recipes

A delicious and nutritious snack or lunch, these Salmon Onigiri (Japanese rice balls) combine several flavor bombs into one dish: seaweed, miso, salmon, rice vinegar and sesame oil.

An easy weeknight meal that comes together in 30 minutes, this hearty Kimchi Fried Rice features fermented ingredients that really amp up the umami factor: kimchi (salted and fermented vegetables) and gochuchang (fermented red chili paste).

This Umami Cheesy Toast is the perfect snack that both adults and kids will love. It’s chock full of flavor bombs like seaweed, Gruyere and cheddar cheese.

Crispy on the outside and gooey on the inside, these seaweed-stuffed Chicken Tenders hit all the right umami notes with mozzarella cheese and crispy nori.