Umami has been called the “fifth taste” after sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, and is the flavor that gives a nicely seared steak and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that pleasing, delicious flavor that’s otherwise pretty difficult to describe. First discovered in the early 1900s by Japanese professor Kikunae Ikeda (who gave it its name, which translates to “delicious taste”), it’s present in many of the foods we eat, including tomatoes (and ketchup), meat, mushrooms, cheese, chicken broth, soy sauce, bacon, and to a lesser extent fish, spinach, and most other vegetables. Why do cheeseburgers taste so good? Umami.
Umami is rather mysterious, and you can be forgiven if you’re still a little iffy on the subject. Here are five things you may not know about umami.
A Little Goes a Long Way
The flavor of umami is only pleasant in a small range of concentration. Too little and it’s imperceptible, too much and it can be incredibly off-putting. Thankfully, when it’s present in food (and not added artificially) it’s generally in the right range.
MSG Is Essentially Pure Umami
MSG was first invented through the efforts of a scientist who was set on synthesizing umami flavor. When a restaurant adds MSG to a dish, they’re just ratcheting up the umami flavor, similar to if they were adding Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
It Has a Complicated Relationship With Salt
Umami can only really be tasted in the presence of salt. Low-salt foods are deemed better-tasting when there’s a lot of umami, so people who have difficulty tasting foods (like elderly people) can benefit from a diet high in umami.
Humans First Encounter It at a Very Young Age
In fact, umami is the very first thing we consume: The amount of umami in breast milk is comparable to the amount in chicken broth!
It Doesn’t Just Make Food Taste Better
The effect umami has on food is pretty profound. Think of it as similar to salt, in the way that a pinch of salt makes a food taste more like itself. Umami balances taste, rounds out flavors, and gives food that savory quality that makes you say “Mmmmmm.”