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Just like there are prime numbers and primary colors, there are also primary tastes. Most of us were taught four basic tastes when we were young, but there are five basic tastes: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. In the long history of food, umami is considered new, but we've known about it for over a century. So what exactly is umami?
The word "umami" is a Japanese word and roughly translates as "good flavor." It's the taste present in food that is sometimes described as "earthy" or "meaty" but isn't salty, sweet, bitter or sour. It's sometimes characterized as a pleasant savory taste. This taste comes from glutamic acid, an amino acid which occurs naturally in some foods like mushrooms. It's also present in monosodium glutamate (MSG)—some say MSG is umami in its purest form.
A Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda first put a name to this mysterious taste experience in 1908. He used kombu seaweed broth to pin down what it is that gives food "body" and enhances flavors. What he found were amino acids that he attributed to the meaty, heavy taste that improves the flavors of food. You can get this flavor experience in foods like aged cheese (Parmesan cheese, in particular), tomato and meat without adding salty, sweet, bitter or sour elements.
How umami tastes is notoriously hard to describe. Some people say that glutamates are responsible for "mouthfeel" and "body" in food without adding bitterness, sweetness, sourness or saltiness. Mushrooms are a good example of an umami-rich food—portobello and shiitake mushrooms in particular. They're earthy and meaty without any flavoring added.
Adding umami can also enhance the flavor of other foods. Researchers at the University of California, Davis, and the Culinary Institute of America did a study on the effects of mushroom umami flavor on beef. They blended the mushrooms into meat for tacos and found that the addition of mushrooms improved the flavor of the meat without additional seasonings.
Want to experience the umami flavor for yourself? Vegetarian dishes like this Slow-Cooker Mushroom Soup with Sherry and Fettuccine with Creamy Mushroom Sauce sport plenty of umami flavor, thanks to earthy mushrooms that deliver that deep complex flavor, while this Eggplant Parmesan relies on cooked tomatoes and Parmesan cheese to give you the unique flavor experience. And for meat eaters, the combo of mushrooms and beef in this Mushroom-Beef Noodle Soup play off each other for that rich depth of flavor. If you're looking for something simple, this Ground Beef & Pasta Skillet is a good place to start. It combines ground beef and mushrooms to give you a taste of umami in every bite. Or make a batch of this Umami Paste which adds a savory flavor to all sorts of dishes, including these Umami Veggie Burgers.