By now, you've undoubtedly heard of umami, the fifth taste which skated by unheard of for almost a century until its recent explosion onto the foodservice scene. But what do you really know about it?
By definition, tastes are physical sensations in your taste buds caused by chemical compounds from food on your tongue, while flavors are the overall impressions you get from taste combined with smell. These chemical compounds from food are like keys to the keyholes on our tongue, unlocking certain tastes. The umami taste comes from compounds called glutamates, especially in the presence of ribonucleotides, both of which are byproducts of long, slow culinary processes like roasting, aging, drying, and fermenting. Interestingly, our appreciation for umami could be biologically-based, considering human breast milk may have the highest glutamate concentration of any mammal.
All mushrooms are a rich source of umami. The darker the mushroom, the more umami it contains.
The term “umami” was coined in 1908, but it wasn’t until 2006 that neuroscientists located the corresponding taste bud receptors and validated it as the fifth taste. For years umami was lumped in with savoriness, a flavor, and thereby went unrecognized as its own taste. So, like Pluto, umami has always been there, but we haven't known how to classify it.
It is hard to nail down exactly what the umami taste is, but you know it when you encounter it. It is a hearty, robust, rich taste you might associate with bone broths, aged beef, or soy sauce. When you feel a wholly satisfying sensation from a bite that summons a deep "Mmmmmm," you're likely having a transcendental experience with umami.
You might consider it like this: salt is not a good substitute for soy sauce because soy sauce isn’t just salty, it has high glutamate content due to the fermentation process used to make it. So that extra “umph” you get from using soy sauce over salt in cooking is due to the glutamate.
Umami eludes the tongue, in both palate and vocabulary. And its definitely not just a fad you can wait out; umami has helped expand culinary understanding and broaden flavor profiles in food. But with such an ambiguous reputation, how can you harness this hip taste for your own purposes?
Unleash the umami with mushrooms.
There are lots of ways to add umami to your recipes. However, the trend to focus on fresh ingredients and natural flavors makes glutamate-rich mushrooms a powerful tool for unlocking umami. They are a low calorie, nutrient-dense option which punctuate the earthy notes in any dish. Some companies, like Monterey Mushrooms and the Mushroom Council, are creating umami tsunamis with innovative recipes such as mushroom and beef tacos, lamb and mushroom ragout, or baby bella, fig, brie, and honey bruschetta.
Adding mushrooms in any form will underscore the umami in a recipe. However, processes like sautéeing, grilling, roasting, and drying will release more glutamates and ribonucleotides. Additionally, varieties like shiitake, portobello, crimini, and button mushrooms naturally contain more glutamate than others.
No matter which way you slice them, mushrooms are a great way to start experimenting with umami.