Sweet, sour, salty, bitter—four primary tastes that everyone knows. But the fifth taste, umami, remains a mystery to many consumers. Some have never heard of it; others recognize the word but can’t define it. But for chefs, umami is fundamental. It’s like a secret seasoning, an ingredient that makes every dish more craveable. Mastering umami—how to unleash and exploit its potential—should be part of every professional chef’s training.
Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, has been studying umami and teaching novice chefs about it for many years.
For lack of a better definition, umami is a savory flavor that tends to linger on your palate. It has a mouthwatering effect. Most of the time, umami and salt go hand in hand. High-umami foods tend to be high in salt as well. High-umami foods that don’t have salt—like ripe tomatoes—taste really unbalanced until you season them.
We know sweet flavors come from sugars and sour flavors from acids. But where does umami come from?
From free glutamates. Typically glutamates are bound up in foods and we can’t perceive them. But through fermentation or long cooking, glutamates break down into a form that we do perceive. And when we taste them, we tend to like them. Cured meats like Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele and aged cheeses like Montasio and Grana Padano are loaded with free glutamates that come from long fermentations.
Is umami something you think about when you’re creating savory dishes? Are you always trying to add umami?
It’s top of mind as I’m working. A young chef once asked me for some tips on how to become a better chef, and I told him that paying attention to umami is important. I know this from my experience pairing wine and food. High-umami foods make wine seem stronger, more tannic.
Thinking about uses for Grana Padano, I decided to challenge myself to create a seasoning that would address all the basic tastes. So I developed a blend that you might put on popcorn or potato chips, and it includes Grana Padano and dried wild mushrooms—both of which have a lot of umami—plus salt, celery seed and juniper. I got sweetness from butter solids and more aroma from turmeric. It was a fun exercise. I’ve always been curious about what food scientists do to make processed foods so craveable. One technique is that they try to engage every part of your palate.