Joined Jul 28, 2006
Can anyone explain Umami? It seems to be the new buzz word for foodies, but what exatcly is it supposed to be? I saw it defined as "savory", however after that I watched a food network show where the contestants were supposed to have umami in all the dishes they prepared. Either the food had umami, or it lacked umami, even though the dish was supposed to be sweet, sour, salty, etc. My cooking has delighted family and friends for decades with neither compliment nor complaint about this "umami"... is it real, or just more pretentious food snobbery?
Joined Feb 1, 2007
When I was coming up, the "fifth" flavory was, indeed, called savory. Among modern foodies, however, anything expressed in Japanese seems to be more acceptible than the same concept said in English, or Chinese, or Italian.

Anyway, umami isn't a specific taste, such as salty. Rather, it's the embodyment of flavor, and combines the four tastes, along with mouth feel and other influences. The way it's used (and was used on the show you saw), it also refers to a sense of body, richness, and earthiness in the dish---which is why soy sauce plays such a heavy role. At base, soy sauce's flavor profile is salty. But it does move beyond that, into that indefinable realm as well.

On another thread, BDL brought up anchovies as a way of kicking up a salad dressing. It's the same concept. Anchovies bring a salt element to a dish. But they bring much more than that. If you make two versions of a dish, one which uses salt as the salt element, and one that uses anchovies, there will be a deeper, more rounded flavor to the second dish. You won't, necessarily, be able to pinpoint why they're different, other than to feel the second version tastes better. And that's because the second one would have umami.

I don't mean to imply that umami always comes from a salty element. Just that those two examples happen to go that way.

But the fact is, umami remains a subjective interpretation, which is why you saw some serious dispairity among the judges with some of the dishes.

But, to answer your actual question; yes, it is very real. If there's any snobbery involved it's not with the way it affects the taste of a dish, but with the use of the Japanese word for it.
Joined Aug 18, 2007
Theres a lot of science behind it. But I just know it as the 5th taste. I watched a japenese trained chef explain it and even he found it quite difficult to describe in a nutshell.
There is sweet, salty, sour and hot and then theres Umami.Lots of foods are umami. I think its more of a flavour sensation.

I'll look forward to learning more. I'm sure this thread will throw up some interesting info. I'm off to google.

~KYH, Your post nipped in before mine. I agree with you on the anchovies. Parmesan is supposed to be another. I've also heard that theres something in maggi's liquid seasoning thats umami
Joined Jul 28, 2006
Bughut and KYH, thanks to you both, and to those who have yet to respond. I'm beginning to get a fuller grasp of the concept already.
Joined Feb 1, 2007

I believe the four classic flavors are sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Hot affects flavor, and is certainly discernable, but is, somehow, something other than a basic taste.

Hey, I don't make the rules. :lol:
Joined Aug 11, 2000
there's a funky restaurant in Hudson Valley called umami that has the definition in the foyer....not sure where that pix is.......
Joined Feb 26, 2007
To me, umami = the flavour you crave. Like beautifully ripe in season tomatoes, chocolate, mushrooms, anchovies, seaweed. A true balance of all the flavours - whatever the dish may be. Generally its more savoury than sweet, but a clever cook can get that balance in a dessert also. But salt does seem to be a major player, just not always.

I am sure there is a chemical reason involving the mouth and palate. Maybe its a pheromone in the food. But when you taste it, you know it.
Joined Feb 13, 2008
The idea is that there are five different sorts of taste buds -- each of which responds to a specific chemical stimulus. These are taste buds, located on the tongue -- there's no reference whatsoever to the palate. The four taste buds types with which everyone is most familiar are those sensitive to salt, sour, bitter, and sweet.

I don't want to get to deep into physio-chemistry of neuro-receptors, but the topic deserves some specificity. The fifth type, umami or "savory" buds, respond to glutamic compounds. The idea of a umami bud is pretty well accepted and there doesn't seem to be much scientific controversy.

MSG is the glutamic compound with which most people are most familiar. Assuming you're among them, you know that umami isn't so much an identifiable taste per se, but a recognizable presence which seems to make savory foods taste more like themselves. Like salt, but far more subtle.

Very "hot" foods like chillies and hot peppers, irritate the taste buds, making them swell, stand up and become more sensitive generally -- but there is no specific set of "hot" taste buds; rather they're all hot buds.

Hope his helps,
Joined Apr 5, 2007
Savory is one attempt at a translation for the concept of umami (as is "yummy" which while less elegant I kind of think cuts more to the heart of the matter). Its a tough nut for "us" (meaning people that need a translation) because its something that we are aware of through experience but have not really attempted to articulate. Mushrooms, for sure, are a prime example of umami-ful product. As are soy and MSG. There are, however, many umami rich applications found in traditional western cuisine that are only now being thought of in those terms.

You know how we often refer to "caramelizing" various foods (onions, tomato paste in a pincage, the outside of meat) when caramel, or even sugar, doesn't really come into play? This is (via the Malliard reaction) exploiting the umami potential in the amino acid content of food, and their conversion to glutamates through cooking and heat. For the record I am well aware that I am no expert and am speaking in a lingua franca of the science and the trade of cooking here.

A really good trial of hands on umami is to grab a can of tomato paste. Taste it raw. then cook a little of it a pan with a hint of oil. Let it take some colour and taste again. That's umami in a nut shell.

Think this is hard to get a handle on? Well, its recently been found that we have specific taste receptors for calcium. Those crunchy bits in well aged ham, or hard cheeses? They are their own animal. In the next decade "milky" or "cheesey" might be flavours we're trying to wrap our heads around.

Staying up way too late trying to figure where brown butter fits into all of this,

Joined Aug 7, 2008
It does seem to be the new buzz word. It seems at least a part of that is marketing to off set the bad press that MSG is getting.
Umami has been around a long time but the precise taste receptor was identified by scientists recently. Salt cured and aged products often have more umami.
Mushrooms= Umami
Dried Mushrooms=More umami
Joined Dec 21, 2005
As usual, BDL has provided an excellent capsule summary of umami. It is indeed a verified fifth fundamental taste with specific receptors in the tongue and is distinct from salty. It is triggered by glutamic acid (specifically, the L-form), an amino acid product of hydrolyzed proteins, that is, proteins that have been broken into smaller pieces, and can be found naturally in things like soy sauce, fish sauce, cooked meats, cheeses, anchovies, seaweed broth and other protein sources.

Two related compounds, also naturally-occuring products, guanosine and inosine monophosphates can enhance the umami sensation and are sometimes used in conjunction with it (or other glutamate sources) in prepared foods or mixes.

At the risk of being banned from this forum, I have long been a proponent of the idea that MSG (the best-known form of glutamic acid, trade name Accent) when used judiciously can serve as a useful flavor enhancer in many recipes. I get a lot of push back on this from some fellow cooks, but in blinded tests that I've done, people overwhelmingly prefer selected recipes with small amounts of MSG over those without. Recently, some cooking magazines have confirmed my findings in their own tests.

MSG's bad press comes from trying to use it to substitute (as opposed to augment) real savory meat flavors, as in packaged or canned soups or sauces. Similarly, bad Chinese take-out food, where sauces are based on MSG instead of real meat or fish broths resulted in the now common no-MSG advertising. So-called Chinese restaurant syndrome, which may or may not be real, is often linked to excessive use of MSG, but no clinical test has been able to confirm this.

Friends who tell me they can't eat MSG-containing foods (or don't like to) are surprised when I tell them that the Roquefort (or parmesan) cheese that they love and gobble down with abandon is packed with glutamic acid.

When possible or appropriate, I prefer to add my glutamate from food ingredients, not because I think there is anything bad about MSG itself, but because those sources add additional flavor complexity to the dish.

By the way, manufacturers who don't want to admit that they use MSG sometimes disguise the fact (and say "no added MSG") by adding hydrolyzed vegetable protein or yeast extracts as ingredients, which are sources of MSG. (Recently the FDA has said this is a no-no, but loopholes abound.)

I welcome this opportunity to officially come out of the MSG closet and hope that it doesn't mean I'll have change my screen name. Tolerance, please.
Joined Sep 10, 2009
Fascinating. I just grabbed two different cans of chicken broth to take a look. One is labeled as having "NO MSG*" (* saying "Except for that which naturally occurs in autolyzed yeast extract.") and the other having no mention of either containing or not containing MSG. Both contain autolyzed yeast extract, but the one with no mention of MSG also does contain MSG in its "direct" form.
Joined Oct 16, 2008
MSG doesnt happen in AYE but the ribotides that mimic MSG naturally in yeast and yeast extracts do. Its in bakers dried yeast, its in autolyzed yeasts and its in brewers yeast. When we are asked to formulate without MSG we generally use AYE's in its place, as to Umami, its more of a sensation and a feeling of satiety/mouthfeel than a taste. I would love to use Umami in foods but since it is based on MSG I use AYE's that mimic the Umami taste and sensations when I am developing Asian dishes.

Oh and its also in Tomato and Anchovies
Joined Dec 21, 2005
Autolyzed yeast extracts contain glutamic acid, the free acid form of MSG, resulting from the breakdown of yeast proteins by the yeast's digestive enzymes (a similar process occurs in hydrolyzed yeast extracts). See, for example, "The Food Lover's Companion" by Sharon Herbst. Vegemite and Marmite are commercial examples of products containing yeast hydrosylates.
Joined Oct 16, 2008
They contain glutamic acid from yeast not sodium, they have similar ribotides or acids and therefore are used as substitutes but ARE NOT THE SAME. Thats like saying that potassium chloride is in sea salt so its a natural salt replacer.
Joined Aug 30, 2008
Chefhow, but wouldn't you agree it's the free glutamic acid in MSG that is the important ingredient not the sodium. With AYE containing as much as 30% free glutamic acid, why wouldn't you classify them as the same thing?

I believe the FDA has finally ruled that AYE and Hydrolyzed proteins are different names of MSG due to their high content of free glutamic acid and not sodium.

Am I not correct in thinking that free glutamic acid can be created from many different sources like soy, corn or seaweed but the end result is alway the same? Bound glutamate becoming free glutamate? I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Joined Oct 16, 2008
No, its quite the opposite. The reason you use MSG is as a flavor enhancer, like sodium. When you are taking MSG out of a formula for a seasoning, a sauce, a marinade ect, ect. you can use one of 3 things to adequately replace it.

1. Salt which is high in sodium and I personally think is worse than MSG.
2. Yeast, either Torula or an Autolyzed that is meant to replace MSG but at a lower level
3. Disodium Inosinate and Disodium Guanylate AKA Mertaise or an enhancer that brings out the fresh notes and assists the acids in MSG, salt and many dairy products.

Remember MSG is about 35% sodium and the rest is mainly glutamic acid, AYE is about 65% sodium, 30% glutamic acid(give or take a few percent) and the balance is either flavors, carriers and/or flow agents. Glutamic acid is also VERY high in tomatoes when they are ripe, eggs, meats, fish, aged cheeses, kelp, seaweed, soy sauce, numerous vegetables..... You see the pattern? Glutamic acid is in almost everything we eat yet nobody is concerned until you add it to sodium or the main ingredient in salt and put the two together. It really is less harmful to you than salt yet we dont care how much salt is on our fries, our chips, or used to season our food. I could get on a soap box right about now but I wont.

You can draw your own conclusions, all I will tell you is that on a daily basis, for a living, I use AYE's, HVP's, MSG and all kinds of salts and they are all labeled as such. No one ingredient is called something else on a label to hide it from you, me, the FDA, the USDA or any other consumer in the US. If there are other ingredients, such as Wheat Gluten, Soy Protiens, Corn gluten, flavors... I HAVE TO DECLARE THEM as a MATTER OF FEDERAL LAW or I CAN BE SHUT DOWN, ALL MY PRODUCT WILL BE RECALLED AND ALL THE PRODUCT IT IS IN WILL BE PULLED FROM THE SHELVES AND DESTROYED. Whenever I develop a new product I have to submit my labels, specifications, allergen statements, and a host of other documents that I write on a daily basis to regulatory personel, Rabbis, the OU, the Hallal board and customers to be checked for accuracy.

If you need to know anything else just ask but to accuse like some have without having first hand experience of what goes on and how it happens is just plain ignorant.

Oh and have a wonderful Turkey Day!!!:look:
Joined Aug 30, 2008
Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I didn't mean to cause offense, I was just curious on your experience and thoughts with the ingredients.
Top Bottom