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Video: What is umami?

TODAY
updated 1/10/2008 10:19:18 AM ET 2008-01-10T15:19:18

You probably eat umami all the time: It's that meaty, savory, brothlike, full-flavor taste we get from things like Parmesan cheese, mushrooms and red wine. Generally speaking, the more "mature" a food is (say, a Parmesan cheese versus a "younger" cheese like mozzarella), the more umami flavor it will have.

Conventional wisdom used to tell us that there were only four basic tastes: sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Now, in the last decade, umami has been established as the "fifth" basic taste, and is gaining in popularity and influence.

The name umami was coined in Japan a century ago, when the taste (found in Eastern staples like seaweed) was first identified as unique.

So what is the difference between taste and flavor? Well, try this quick test with a flavored jelly bean. Put one in your mouth and chew it while holding your nose. You may taste a sweet sensation, but that's it. Then, release your nose. When you do, the fullness of the jelly bean flavor will come rushing through, whether it be bubble-gum or lemon drop. This is because our olfactory senses are necessary for completing many of the flavors we experience. That's not the case with the basic tastes, which are detected solely by the tongue.

The tongue has 10,000 taste buds, each containing specific cells that are designed to be receptors for the sensations of sweet, salty, sour, bitter or umami. The Western "umami" breakthrough came in 2000, when researchers at the University of Miami discovered a specific receptor designed to recognize glutamate, one of the principal amino acids that give off the umami taste.

David Kasabian, author of "Umami: Cooking with the Fifth Taste," says understanding umami can be helpful in a number of ways. "The truth of the matter is foods that have umami we find to be very delicious and very satisfying. Foods that don't have umami we tend to find very insipid and very thin and not very satisfying. And as a result we eat more food. So, umami-rich food creates satisfaction.

"Also, umami makes salt taste saltier. So, if you want to reduce the amount of sodium that's in your diet, you make sure you have a lot of umami in your food and you don't have to salt it as much. Finally, umami creates a sensation that chefs call mouth-feel. We tend to think of mouth-feel as the sensation we get from eating fat. So, again, we can reduce the amount of fat that's in our food by making sure that we've got enough umami in that food."

Recipe: Asparagus frittata (on this page) Recipe: Maxed-out meatloaf (on this page) Recipe: 'Ragumami' tomato two-meat sauce (on this page)


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Recipe: Asparagus frittata

Frittata is an Italian-style open-faced omelet, cooked slowly on the stovetop then finished under the broiler. Although it is a simple, rustic dish, it takes some time and effort. But it pays off with rich, deep flavors and satisfying textures. The asparagus, eggs, cheese, tomatoes and olives are all rich in umami.

Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 6 spears pencil-thin asparagus
  • 1 medium red onion, 1/4” slices
  • 1 small shallot, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 4 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup Parmigano-Reggiano cheese, coarsely grated
  • 1 small ripe red Roma tomato, diced
  • 1 tablespoon green olives, sliced
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preparation

Wash and trim the asparagus. Cut into ½ inch lengths. Cook in boiling, salted water until al dente, 1½ to 2 minutes. Drain and set aside uncovered.

Heat the olive oil on medium in an 8” nonstick fry pan with a heat-resistant handle. Add the onions, shallots and salt and toss to coat. Caramelize them by cooking them very slowly (they should barely sizzle), stirring occasionally, until deep golden brown, about 20 minutes. Drain the onions and shallots thoroughly, leaving as much oil in the pan as you can. Set aside to cool.

Thoroughly mix the cheese, tomato, olives, pepper and cooled onion and shallots into the beaten eggs. Reheat the oil in the pan on medium. When a drop of water tossed into the pan sizzles loudly, add the egg mixture, stirring briefly to distribute the fillings. Turn burner to low and let the mixture cook slowly. You should see just a few lazy bubbles popping up around the edges. Cook undisturbed until the edges are cooked but the middle is still very liquid, about 8 minutes.

Put the pan under a medium broiler until the top of the frittata is golden brown, the edges are puffed up and the center is just set (the center will jiggle slightly but pops right back after you poke it), about 2 minutes. Don’t overcook it! Loosen with a nonscratch spatula, if needed. Move to a warmed platter and serve right away.  

Serving Size

Serves 2

Recipe: Maxed-out meatloaf

With apologies to grandmothers everywhere, we humbly suggest that this is going to become your favorite meatloaf ever. Not because it is radically different, because it is not. But rather because it’s more of what you love meatloaf for — umami. If by some odd chance you don’t eat it all for dinner, you’ll want to fry up a slice to go with your eggs and toast for breakfast, and put a slab between two slices of crusty bread for lunch. The mushrooms, eggs, beef, tomato, corn, soy sauce, truffle oil and bacon are all rich in umami.

Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, medium diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, finely minced
  • 5 ounces crimini or other mushrooms, 1/4” sliced
  • 1 medium red bell pepper
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 pounds ground beef
  • 1 ripe red tomato, diced and then crushed
  • 1 cup cooked corn kernels, frozen or fresh cooked
  • 1 cup fine dry bread crumbs
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 teaspoons white truffle oil
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • Olive oil for brushing
  • 1/2 pound hickory-smoked bacon, sliced
Preparation

Preheat oven to 450° F. 

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet. Add the onions and sauté until translucent. Add the garlic and mushrooms and sauté until mixture is caramelized, about 6 minutes more. Set aside to cool thoroughly.

Core and cut the red bell pepper into quarters. Coat the pepper pieces with the remaining olive oil and grill on a stovetop grill or under the broiler until barely cooked through.

Beat two eggs in a large bowl. Add ground beef, cooked vegetables, tomato, corn, bread crumbs, soy sauce, truffle oil, salt and pepper. Gently mix by hand until just incorporated. Do not overwork the ground beef. The fat will smear and the meatloaf will be dry and tough.

Brush or spray a medium-size sheet pan with oil. Put the meatloaf mixture onto the pan and shape into a loaf twice as wide as it is tall. Drape bacon diagonally across the entire loaf, overlapping, to completely cover meat. Secure the ends with several toothpicks.

Place in the middle of the preheated oven and immediately reduce the heat to 375° F. Bake for 1 hour or until internal temperature reaches 155° F. Rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

Serving Size

Serves 6 to 8 for dinner

Recipe: 'Ragumami' tomato two-meat sauce

This sauce is very chunky and exceedingly umami. Serve it with your favorite pasta (spaghetti is a natural), a big tossed salad and some crusty bread and you have an easy meal that will delight any crowd. Combining beef and pork gives this an unexpected dimension of meaty flavor. Pecorino Romano is a sharp and tangy sheep’s-milk cheese that is quite distinctive, but any good-quality hard grating cheese will suffice. The beef, pork, mushrooms, wine, tomatoes, Worcestershire sauce, vinegar and cheese are all rich in umami.

Ingredients
  • 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound ground beef
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 tablespoon milk
  • 3 small onions, minced
  • 1 medium shallot, minced
  • 6 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 medium jalapeno pepper, stem and seeds removed, minced
  • 1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, diced
  • 1 cup dry red wine
  • 2 28-ounce cans Italian-style tomatoes, chopped
  • 28 ounces water
  • 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, or as needed
  • A generous handful each of fresh cilantro and basil, stems removed
  • 1 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese passed around the table for sprinkling
Preparation

Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a 6-quart sauce pan. Brown the hamburger and ground pork in batches (about ½ pound at a time) until well browned, adding a splash of the milk to each batch. Reserve the browned meat. Add ¼ cup of the wine to deglaze the pan, scraping with a wooden spoon to remove any brown bits left behind. Add the wine in the pan to the reserved meat.

Wipe out the pan with a paper towel or clean cloth. Heat the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Sauté onions and shallots until translucent. Add the peppers, mushrooms and garlic and sauté 2 minutes more, taking care not to burn the garlic. Add the remaining wine, stir and scrape with a wooden spoon. Boil the mixture for 2 minutes or until the wine is almost gone. Add cooked vegetables, tomatoes, water and Worcestershire. Simmer for one hour or until desired texture, stirring occasionally. Add salt, pepper and red wine vinegar to taste. Turn off stove and add basil and cilantro leaves, stirring them in until they wilt. Serve.

Serving Size

Serves 8 to 10 for dinner

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