What is Umami?

Do you have a favorite food that is deliciously addictive? Like you literally cannot stop eating it? Us too. Now can you describe the taste of that favorite food? Let me guess. It’s salty yet sweet, maybe even a little tangy. Basically, is it indescribable.

If the flavor of your favorite food is mouthwatering yet hard to put your finger on, then umami may be the flavor. Here is everything you need to know about this mysterious fifth flavor.

What is umami?

We all have five basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet, and umami. Pronounced oo-maa-mee, it’s not as easily understood as the first four flavors, but it is incredibly important when developing a deep flavor in cooking.

Have you ever been whipping up a recipe that called for dried shiitake mushrooms, nutritional yeast, or a few small splashes of soy sauce or Worcestershire? That is the recipe’s attempt to recreate that deliciously addictive flavor of, you guessed it, umami.

Although umami is the key to creating a deep, rich and savory flavor, the taste can be pretty difficult to describe. Its peculiar characteristic is that it is filling, lingering, and leads to both appetite and satiety all at the same time.

Rachel Lessenden, a recipe developer with a Bachelor’s in Bakery Science and founder of Health My Lifestyle, further explains why it’s so deliciously addictive.

“Umami has the ability to alter other flavors to become something new. Much like adding salt enhances the sweet flavor, adding umami to something sweet can enhance the flavor and alter it into a new flavor of its own. Think maple bacon donuts, pineapple on pizza, or chicken and waffles. These combinations are so craveable because umami adds depth of flavor to a dish and intensifies other flavors.”

Umami flavored foods

Umami can be found in a variety of foods, including:

  • Cured meats like ham
  • Fermented foods
  • Fish sauce
  • Ketchup
  • Kimchi
  • Certain fish like anchovies, shellfish, and seaweeds
  • Mature cheeses like aged parmesan
  • Miso sauce/soup
  • Mushrooms
  • Nutritional yeast and yeast extracts
  • Oyster sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Tomatoes and tomato paste
  • Truffles
  • Worcestershire sauce

Although the most common way to describe this flavor is savory, some people also report that umami tastes broth-like or meaty, but without the meat. Umami is flavorful, satisfying, and lingers long after you have finished that final bite. It always leaves you wanting more. This is why eating one handful of Doritos turns into eating an entire bag.

Cooking with umami

If your mouth is watering, incorporate these super simple ways to add the flavor of umami to your favorite homemade dishes.

  • Add dried mushrooms, miso sauce, or seaweed to salad dressings, soups, or stews
  • Include fish sauce, oyster sauce, soy sauce, or Worcestershire sauce to stir-fries
  • Sprinkle aged parmesan or nutritional yeast on a bowl of pasta
  • Toss in some tomato paste to meaty dishes like hamburgers or meatloaf
  • Use a small amount of cured cheeses and meats in certain recipes where appropriate

Umami may be the least familiar and most difficult of the five flavors to explain, but one thing’s for sure: it is probably one of the most delicious. Deep, rich, and savory, this flavor elevates dishes making them deliciously addictive, satisfying, and satiating. The next time you are cooking up a homemade recipe, give that original dish a little something extra with umami.

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About Ashley Martens

Ashley Martens is a Wellness Writer based in Chicago, Illinois. With a background in a digital marketing coupled with her knowledge of general nutrition and a lifelong passion for all things health, wellness, fitness and nutrition, Ashley offers a healthy alternative to traditional writing. You can learn more Ashley and her writing over at her blog, Three to Five a Day.