The Fifth Flavor


                 image courtesy of Tiscali UK

A recent episode of the Food Network series The Next Iron Chef had viewers scurrying to Wikipedia for a bit of research. With ‘Iron Chef’ Morimoto as judge, the chefs were challenged to create a series of dishes incorporating each of the five basic flavor profiles.

That’s right, five flavors. That would be sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and… and…

Umami: the 5th flavor

Umami has just recently been accepted as a 5th flavor by western food science, although it was recognized a century ago in Japan. Usually described as savoriness, it encompasses a rich, satisfying, mouth-filling, ‘meatiness.’  It’s that delicious something you just can’t put your finger on when you eat aged beef, ripe tomatoes, mushrooms, soy sauce, Parmesan cheese, and a host of other umami-rich foods. And it’s that something that doesn’t emanate from the other four flavors.

The five basic flavors can be distinguished from tastes by the way we sense them. If you close your eyes and hold your nose while chewing a jelly bean you will experience the candy’s sweetness without any particular taste. You need to engage vision and the olfactory senses to get the full effect of cherry or lemon or licorice. In contrast, the five basic flavors are wholly perceived through sensory receptors on the tongue.

Umami is sometimes perceived as a sensation as well as a flavor. It can add a satisfying, tongue-coating roundness to every bite. It’s the reason that just a touch of ham can amplify the flavor of pea soup and a mere sprinkle of Parmesan does wonders for a pasta dish. It’s the umami in potatoes, concentrated when they are fried, that elevates the addictiveness of potato chips and French fries beyond the appeal of other salty snacks. Umami-rich toppings like tomatoes, cheese, and pepperoni help explain the popularity of pizza.

In addition to seeking out naturally umami-rich foods, you can raise the umami quotient of everyday dishes through cooking techniques; searing, roasting, braising, and stewing which allow a dish to develop those flavorful browned bits that crank up a dish’s umami index. Another umami-boosting technique is to add small amounts of synergizing ingredients like a dash of minced mushrooms or anchovies, or a splash of worcestershire or soy sauce. It just takes a little bit of umami to elevate the taste profile of a dish, creating a delicious savoriness that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Looking for more about umami?

The Umami Information Center website features a thorough discussion of the science of umami and rates the umami levels of common ingredients.

The Umami Girl blog features recipes that take advantage of umami-enhancing cooking techniques and ingredients.

Make your own umami ketchup for a versatile condiment that packs an umami punch.

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4 Responses to The Fifth Flavor

  1. baobabs says:

    Thanks for sharing! I also recently read not long ago about Fat as the 6th flavour… and I love that distinct taste of fat… especially from bacon.

  2. Glavniru says:

    Моя история из жизни: мы как-то с мамой ехали в маршрутке,( мама спец по всем видам мяса на глаз определяет что это), на остановке залазит подвипывший мужик с куском свежака в одноразовом пакете. Едем. Маршрутка резко тормозит,мужик по инерции бежит вперед и пакет рвется ,оттуда выпадет свежак ,дальше мамины слова- ” Мужчина,у вас вымя выпало!” я медленно сползаю под сиденье , пассажиры ржут, мужик красный – выбегает на следующей остановке :)))

  3. Nice post, and three cheers to Philly’s own Garces for winning the competition!

  4. ptsaldari says:

    Just when you think you know it all, Gigabiting gives us a right jab right across the jaw to wake us up. The blog should be renamed GigaPBS because this is an educational channel.

    Savvy acumen accounts for this sherlocking dame who knows how to dazzel. I’m always excited even before my screen focuses on her blog. It is a must have to those who wish to vigilantly pursue higher enlightenment in cooking and in eating as well.
    My big fat musketeer hat with all its plumage, goes off to her!

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