The science of umami taste is straightforward

The science of umami taste is straightforward

Let me first express my horror at having left out a key ingredient from the list of things needed for the breadsticks in last week’s recipe. You need 4 1/4 cups of flour, but I’ve found the recipe is greatly dependent on relative humidity, so be prepared to adjust to arrive at a good, sticky dough.

You know that sort of muscle cramp you feel in your jaw just below your ear when you first taste something especially savory? That’s a reaction for which cooks often strive, as it means they’ve been successful in bringing you the desired experience in tasting a savory dish.

They often achieve this through the addition of an acid-like lemon juice or vinegar, and the feeling you experience is of your salivary glands, placed back there just under the tongue and by your jaw, going into spastic overdrive. Once your taste buds adjust, your glands settle down and you just get to taste all that richness.

The odd word that is often heard associated with this flavorful reaction is “umami” (pronounced “ooo mommy”), and chefs talk about the use of it in food to get that hard to pin down, rich flavor. The science of it is straightforward, and in simpler times before celebrity chefs and kitchen buzzwords, you got it by taking the shortcut of adding something like Accent flavor enhancer.

In other words monosodium glutamate, or MSG, the ingredient that has gotten a mistakenly bad reputation for causing tummy troubles after eating Chinese restaurant food. There’s really no evidence to support this connection, but many such restaurants make note on their menus if they don’t use it. Your mouth has a way of responding to its initial exposure to glutamate and ribonucleotides, and that cramp in the jaw feeling is it.

Umami also is one of the five basic tastes we experience in food, along with salty, sweet, bitter and sour. We most often associate it with savory meats, soups and broths. It is a word we borrow from the Japanese as we have no ready English equivalent.

MSG has no associated health risks, and there is no reason to avoid it unless you’re certain you are somehow allergic. Taken in the small amounts usually used in recipes, there’s no reason to skip it in your cooking.

Still, there are alternatives to getting a quick umami fix without using MSG. We found a good powder made primarily from concentrated, dried shiitake mushrooms that added the kind of bite we were looking for in sauces.

But umami isn’t just a flavoring or a spice; it’s an overall taste impression and sensory experience, just like the other four. You can bring it about and enhance it by adding certain flavors, just as you bring sweetness to a dish by adding sugar, honey or a subtle, sweet vegetable like carrots. In talking to you about this, I can easily understand why we had to turn to Japan to give the word for it. The straight Oxford definition is “a category of taste in food corresponding to the flavor of glutamates, especially monosodium glutamate.” The rough Japanese to English translation is “pleasant, savory taste.”

Foods with a pronounced umami flavor are the expected meats, shellfish and preserved fish such as canned sardines and anchovies. But you also get the flavor from tomatoes, mushrooms, meat extracts, some aged cheeses, seaweed, Korean kimchi, oyster sauce and, interestingly, yeast extract. Nutritional yeast is an ingredient we’ve been experimenting with at home, and it also adds a very distinctive though hard to pin down flavor to savory dishes.

Reading about and becoming familiar with all five flavor categories can truly add a big boost to the flavors you are able to create in your kitchen. A little science here is a good thing.

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