Getting to Know: Umami Powerhouses
Umami, a quality of meaty savoriness that brings depth to many dishes, is widely considered the fifth taste. These 12 umami-enhancing ingredients boost the flavor of whatever we’re cooking.
Soy sauce is practically synonymous with Asian cooking. Traditionally, manufacturers age this fermented liquid, made from soybeans and wheat, barley, or rice, for up to four years. Today, it can be chemically produced in just days, which explains the widely divergent flavors and qualities among brands. Lee Kum Kee Tabletop Soy Sauce is our favorite for cooking; we often use it to deepen the flavor of such American classics as beef stew, meatloaf, and chicken pot pie.
Fish sauce—made from water, salt, sugar, and salted, fermented fish—has a pungent, funky aroma, but when used judiciously, it tastes neither strong nor fishy. Instead, the highly concentrated liquid adds salty complexity to many Southeast Asian dishes, including pad thai and stir-fries. Tiparos makes our favorite fish sauce.
Preserved anchovies are packed with umami-producing glutamates. They also contain other chemical compounds that can magnify the meaty taste of glutamates by up to 15 times. Traditionally, anchovies add dimension to Caesar dressing and puttanesca sauce, but we’ve also used them to intensify the savoriness of beef stew: Sauté two minced anchovies with the onions for stews using 3 to 4 pounds of meat. Our favorite are Ortiz Oil-Packed Anchovies.
English pharmacists Lea and Perrins concocted the fermented sauce in the early 1800s, combining malt vinegar, molasses, anchovies, and tamarind, among other ingredients, as a condiment for beef and fish. Glutamate-rich and salty, Worcestershire sauce has a pungent, fruity flavor. It typically introduces salty complexity to Caesar salad and Bloody Marys, and we’ve used it to add depth to cheddar cheese balls, too.
CUT AND PASTE
Tomatoes in all their varied forms add savory qualities to foods, but ultraconcentrated tomato paste is the form that we turn to again and again to build umami. We add it to tomato soups and sauces to fortify tomato flavor, but we also use it in nontomato dishes like beef Burgundy and chicken paprikash. To develop its flavor, we sauté tomato paste with onions for 1 to 2 minutes until it darkens and smells fragrant. We like Goya Tomato Paste best.
Mushrooms are so high in umami that they routinely act as a stand-in for meat. We use them in our Reduced-Fat Meatballs and Marinara (see related content) to replace some of the meat, eliminating calories and fat in the process. But while all mushrooms contribute meaty flavor, dried mushrooms deliver the most umami because they are concentrated. We often use dried porcini or shiitake to build flavor in longer-cooking dishes.
Most olives are fermented or cured in salt or brine to remove oleuropein, the bitter compound that makes them unpalatable straight from the tree. Brine-cured olives are soaked in a salt solution, while salt-cured olives are first packed in salt to extract moisture and oleuropein and then submerged in oil for replumping. Olives have a decidedly meaty texture, but they also have a salty, meaty flavor that makes them a go-to umami enhancer in many meatless dishes.
Miso is having its moment in the United States, showing up in many a Western recipe. Japanese for “bean paste,” miso is made by fermenting soybeans with rice, barley, or rye. In Japan, there are many hundreds of different types of miso. Here you’re most likely to find mild, sweet white shiro (despite the name, it’s light yellow) or fruity, intense red aka. We use miso to deepen the flavor and enrich the texture of salad dressings, marinades, sauces, and—of course—miso soup.
While all cheeses contain umami, in this department aged Parmesan is unparalleled. Try to imagine a Caesar salad without it and you’ll get the picture. But we also turn to it when depth—rather than cheese flavor—is what we’re after: We use a Parmesan rind to deepen the savory flavor of soups like minestrone. Buying at the supermarket? Get Boar’s Head Parmigiano-Reggiano.
Popular in Britain as a pungent spread for toast, Marmite has nearly twice the umami-producing glutamates of any other item on this page. Its sour, beefy flavor makes it an acquired taste, but we’ve found that it contributes meaty, long-simmered flavor to quick-cooked soups. Use a light hand—1/4 teaspoon per serving. Find it in the international aisle of the grocery store or online.
Kombu, a type of kelp, is a mainstay in Japanese cooking. It’s used in dashi, the Japanese stock, which was the first food in which umami was clearly recognized. In the test kitchen, we’ve used kombu to deepen the flavor of vegetable soups (try steeping a 4-inch piece in your next batch of lentil soup) and tomato sauces. Kombu can be stored indefinitely.
Beef broth is rich in umami-enhancing compounds, but beef stock goes a step further: It also derives its flavor from the bones. The flavor of beef broth is so intense that we often dilute it with water or chicken broth, which is lower in glutamates. Our favorite commercial beef broth is Rachael Ray Stock-in-a-Box All-Natural Beef Flavored Stock.