Umami in Vegetables
Post by Paula Jahn, Co-owner and Dietitian at Nourish Northwest
Umami, dubbed the fifth taste, is described as a savory or meaty flavor. Its sensation is attributed to free amino acids, primarily glutamate (also inosinate and guanylate) in foods. Unlike sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, umami is more difficult to identify on the tongue. Its essence is a round, robust flavor. Think about the difference in flavor between a pale, out-of-season tomato and a ripe one picked in the heat of the summer. Researchers measured the level of glutamate in unripe versus ripe tomatoes and found unripe ones to contain less than 50 mg/100 g while ripe tomatoes contain more than 200 mg/100g of glutamate. Umami is certainly more elusive than the other four tastes (few mistake the sourness of lemon or the sweetness of honey), but just as important to taking a dish to its full potential. When a dish is just “missing something,” that something is usually umami.
Umami’s complexity is traditionally exemplified and celebrated in animal foods. Parmesan cheese, aged meats, anchovies, and seared meat/seafood are all famously rich in the satisfying umami taste. Vegans, do not despair! There are plenty of vegetarian sources of umami, it’s just a matter of knowing where they are and how to harness them in cooking. Read on for plant-based sources of the intangible fifth taste.
Sun Dried Tomatoes or Tomato Paste
As mentioned above, tomatoes contain a natural source of free glutamates. This becomes amplified and concentrated when the tomatoes are sun dried or turned into paste. Add sun dried tomatoes to pasta, polenta, or roasted vegetables. Caramelized tomato paste adds an interesting umami flavor to lentil soup.
Mushrooms are one of the best sources of naturally-occurring umami in the pant world. Sear them in a skillet with a little oil or make a broth out of dried mushrooms to get the most flavor.
Fermented Things (also boast healthful probiotics)
Fermentation brings out the free amino acids that excite the umami buds on the tongue. There are many plant sources of this:
Miso, sauerkraut, tempeh, kimchi, tamari, soy sauce, plum vinegar…These are all excellent pantry staples. When you’ve added yet another pinch of salt and the dish just needs something, try one of these fermented wonders.
Edible seaweeds are the winner in the world of vegetable-based umami sources. Nori and kombu are especially high in umami. Nori are the toasted sheets of seaweed that wrap our favorite sushi rolls. Kombu is a traditional component to dashi (vegans, omit the bonito flakes), the broth used as a base for miso soup. Hey, you’ve got a two-for-one umami blast there!
There are many ways to round out a vegetarian meal with umami rich foods. This is something I preach in every cooking class: watery steamed vegetables are not a vegan’s fate. Be bold and put some umami into every meal!