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Friday Tip|The Power of Umami

Friday Tip time!  I’m certainly not the first person to ever expound upon umami, but I’m hoping we have some newbie cooks reading, and I think using it is such a neat trick, I thought talking about it was tip-worthy.

Just what the heck is umami?  If you were me and you watched this video

You might think it was soy sauce. Kikoman soy sauce in particular.* But umami is a little more complicated and a lot more fun than that.

Essentially, it is a flavor enhancer, without being mono-sodium glutamate. Wikipedia explains umami as being the taste of particular amino acids (glutamates), while also having a particular quality of coating the tongue, giving savory foods the quality of “meatiness” or “brothiness.”

I like Lynn Rosetto Kaspar’s explanation of umami – something that will give food more depth when you add an ingredient that has it.

For example, if you are making a sauce and it’s a little less-than, adding some red wine can give it more depth, because red wine has umami.  You won’t taste the red wine (unless you add far too much), but adding it will give your sauce a flavor boost.

This is good news for so many things.  Sauces, soups, fillings – almost anything can benefit from adding something with umami.  It’s also nice for vegetarians who are missing the singular qualities of meat – umami can add some of the depth and “oomph” that meat would normally add to a dish.

So, now we more or less understand what umami is, how do we use it?  Very easily!  Because it is, essentially, the quality of “savory,” it gets used in savory dishes, and you can add a bit of an umami containing ingredient to almost any savory thing to give it a flavor kick.  A few examples; add fish sauce to a basic vinaigrette**, tomato paste into a soup, red wine to deglaze almost anything.  You get the idea.

To get you started using this flavor-boosting trick, here is a list of things that are said to contain umami.  Try them out sparingly at first, and experiment.  These things tend to be pretty wonderful on their own, so it’s hard to go wrong.

Hope that’s helpful!  Cheers.

Umami-rich foods***

Tomato paste
Red wine
Parmesan cheese
Smoked meats (prosciutto, bacon)
Fish sauce
Worcestershire sauce
Oyster sauce
Soy beans
Potatoes and Sweet potatoes
Egg yolk
Green tea
Many different fish (Bonito, Mackerel, Sea Bream, Tuna, Cod, Prawns, Squid, Oysters)

*Since childhood I have had a hard time separating the brand from the thing. I am, in fact, a marketer’s fantasy come true. Except that I don’t buy very much.
**Add a few drops and you’ll get the boost without tasting the fish.  That is the whole point here.  We’re still making vinaigrette, not fish sauce salad dressing.  You want to add any umami ingredient carefully so it helps what you’re cooking, instead of overpowering it.
***This is a short list of some of my favorites that I snagged off of Check them out for a much more thorough explanation of umami and a more complete list of foods.

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