Umami

 What does it even mean?

Sliced portobello mushrooms

Such an unusual word – what does it mean? Traditionally four flavors have been associated with most foods – sweet, salty, sour, bitter. But now cooks are going wild about this fifth taste called umami. It’s what you taste in a roasted mushroom or caramelized onions – a flavor that embodies richness in savory foods. It’s also found in the flavor of meats. 

Umami takes food from ordinary to sublime and it’s something you can master easily with vegetarian cooking. For example, think of the flavor of a steamed broccoli floret, with or without lemon or butter. Now imagine the flavor of a broccoli floret roasted in olive oil until it is somewhat charred. See the difference? 

Where does it come from?

Umami comes mostly from a protein called glutamate. Which is not important to remember, but it is important to remember that roasting or browning foods causes them to release the glutamate and increase flavor. 

Add umami flavor to your foods

Roasting tomatoes and onions

So when cooking, think ahead of time about how you can get more umami into your foods – slow-roasting tomatoes, browning mushrooms, oven roasting root vegetables, caramelizing onions, shallots and leeks. This preparatory step will make a huge difference in your cooking.  

A couple of other tricks to boost the umami is to use coconut aminos, soy sauce or miso in sauces and simply to dress vegetables. These are all fermented products, and guess what? Fermenting also releases glutamate and increases the umami taste. 

Grilled eggplant

Some other sources of umami are the smokiness  you get from grilling, the aged cheeses (especially the rind), nutritional yeast, kombu (seaweed), fish sauce and anchovies.

Umami-rich oven risotto

Risotto is a favorite dish because of its creamy richness. This recipe will let you prepare it in the oven instead of standing over the stove, stirring and stirring and stirring. The addition of roasted mushrooms boosts its umami potential exponentially. 

½ T. olive oil

¼ c. finely chopped onion or shallot

⅔ c. Arborio rice (the only rice that makes a creamy risotto)

¼ up dry white wine, (optional)

½ c. hot water

2 c. chicken or vegetable stock

½ t. salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

2 T. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

½ c. roasted or sauteed mushrooms of choice

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. In an ovenproof saucepan with a lid, heat oil. Stir in the onion and cook until translucent, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring to coat the grains with oil, about 1 minute.

Stir in the wine and simmer gently until it has completely evaporated, about 1 minute. Stir in the stock and salt. Bring to a boil. Cover, transfer to the oven, and bake until most of the liquid has been absorbed by the rice, 20 to 25 minutes.

Remove from oven. Stir in enough water to make the risotto creamy). Stir in the butter and cheese.

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