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Mar 14, 2011 03:21 PM

Umami -- I'm a believer!

The word "umami" seems to be creeping into everyday cooking vocabulary these days. And I watch enough of the TV cooking shows to know that there's something to it. But I'll admit, up until now, umami is just something I just didn't pay attention to. Maybe I've been aware of it on some subliminal level -- you know, you taste a dish and it's immediately satisfying, but you don't bother to analyze it to figure out what it's got that's so darned appealing... so comforting... so right.

But yesterday I decided the time had come for me to be proactive. So I Googled umami to learn a little more, and to get a sense of the foods that are major contributors of umami. Then it was time to try it -- on a small scale, of course, because I didn't want to mess up what I'd already considered one of my consistently delicious recipes -- my plain-and-simple pasta sauce. I started my sauce the way I usually do -- onions sauteed in olive oil, then add minced garlic (lots of it) and saute until it's fragrant. Then a good shake of crushed red peppers. And then I added the umami -- in the form of anchovies. I minced up about 8 little filets from a tin, and sauteed them as I mashed them until they kind of disappeared. That didn't take long. Then I added a little tomato paste and let it cook a minute or two, and then I added two cans of crushed tomatoes, a little salt, and a generous sprinkling of dried oregano. That was it. I let the sauce simmer for an hour or so.

My pasta sauce is ALWAYS delicious. This sauce was delicious. Yet, I'm willing to say that there was, this time, a certain "je ne sais quois" -- something that added to the complexity without being so prominent it could be identified. Maybe I was just really hungry. But I'm willing to give umami -- the anchovies, in this case -- the benefit of the doubt. More than that, I want to do a lot more experimenting with my cooking, but I need guidance -- lots of guidance.

So my question is: short of using MSG in my cooking, in what ways can I add the essence of umami into "everyday" dishes? Into soups, for example, or roasts, or simple stir fries? Is umami something you consciously incorporate into your cooking, or does it happen more by serendipitous circumstance? Do you recognize it when it's there? Do you miss it when it's absent?

I feel like a whole new door has been cracked open for me, and I'm eager to explore what's behind it.

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  1. question- why not msg?

    but - mushrooms, anchovies, as you used them, thai fsh sauce, beef stock are all excellent sources of umami

    6 Replies
    1. re: thew

      Yep re msg. I bought a bag recently but keep forgetting to use it :) The disadvantage of being a Senior CH.

      1. re: thew

        I've got this little voice in my head that keeps telling me that MSG is unhealthy. Back in the day, I used to use it all the time. Now I'm laughing -- thinking of all the ingredients I use regularly that are at least equally unhealthy.

        Beef stock... really? I've been thinking I need to find a way to incorporate umami into my beef stock.

        1. re: CindyJ

          yeah - i had a friend BITD that i used to indulge in all sorts of things with. then one day he had to study for a law school exam and balked at taking a no-doz tablet. given everything else that had entered the bodytemple i just laughed and laughed and laughed

        2. re: thew

          Thew, you say "Thai fish sauce"...Does it specifically have to be Thai fish sauce?

          Showing my ignorance of the differences here but thought it was all basically fish and salt. Not to hijack this very interesting thread but just curious about this.

          And CindyJ, I'm going to have to try your red sauce - it sounds really good!

          1. re: Bliss149

            It really is good, if I do say so myself. And it can easily be made into a meat sauce by browning a pound or so of ground beef, or beef/pork/veal mix just prior to adding the crushed tomatoes. (I prefer Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes in the green can, by the way.)

            1. re: Bliss149

              no, i also like the vietnamese - but it has a much stronger flavor than the thai, so it is harder to use solely for the umami

          2. An internet friend once sent me some porcini powder -- it sat for a while, but I was amazed once I tried it, in (of all things) roast beef hash! Now I use it regularly, it *does* make a difference.

            1 Reply
            1. re: blue room

              I make my own porcini powder and usually have it on hand. GREAT idea!

            2. Growing up in a traditional Korean food culture household, I do recognize umami. Until recently, it was more instinctual -- the phrase in Korean is to say that something is "goh-soh hae." A lot of traditional food cultures build umami into their dishes. For example, Koreans have seaweed, anchovies, mackerel, etc. Italians have tomatoes, shellfish, parmigiano reggiano, etc. It doesn't have to be cuisine-specific, but those are the only ones I can name off the top of my head. There is also ham, mushrooms, beans, pork, olives, dwenjang, kimchi, and a lot others. I can definitely tell the difference if having food absent of umami, especially when the dish is supposed to have it, and is starkly apparent in poorly made dishes such as chicken soup and galbi tang.

              2 Replies
              1. re: link_930

                What can be added to add umami to galbi tang? I've made it on occasion and also noticed that it's missing 'something'. Is there anything that can be added to galbi jjim? thanks!

                1. re: brandnewuser

                  There is plenty of umami in the beef, carrots, soy sauce, and shiitake mushrooms that go into the dish. When I was referring to missing umami in galbi tang, I meant more that poorly made ones are just thin, salty, watery broth with chewy galbi pieces and too much potato. Can you further describe the "something" that's missing?

              2. Well, like you said MSG powder, anchovies, dried shrimp, cured ham, soy sauce are all good methods of incorporating umami. I think fish sauce is a very powerful way. Some people like fish sauce. Others dislike it.

                To be honest, I don't intentionally incorporate umami in my dishes.

                19 Replies
                1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                  I just "discovered" fish sauce recently. Love it.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                    Fish sauce is one of those things that always throws me off a little, most likely because of the way it smells. I use it whenever a recipe calls for it, but I'd never think of adding it any other time. But now it makes sense. A little dash of fish sauce is likely to enhance any number of dishes. Thanks for the suggestion.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      :) I know. Fish sauce is an acquired taste. Some people like it. Some don't. However, I see fish sauce as a very easy way to add umami. Anchovies, dried shrimp, cured ham, all take a bit more works. Very small works, but still, a bit more work. Either you have grind them or simmer them or something. Fish sauce -- just a few drops -- absolutely no prep.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                        Now I might actually get to finish that one bottle that's been sitting in my fridge for soooooooo long. :-)

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics

                          First time I bought fish sauce, I did a half shot of it, that stuff is tasty , I also do half shots of soy sauce, kinkomens low salt is the best

                          1. re: Dave5440

                            i think my hands and feet are going to start swelling just from *reading* your post :)

                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet

                              Some people like cookies, I like strange stuff, I wouldn't notice if my feet swelled can't see'em

                              1. re: Dave5440

                                ha! well, i don't have to see them to know, i can *feel* it happening. FYI, i wasn't passing judgment on your preference - we all have our culinary quirks. i was just thinking about the concentration of sodium in those shots...i'm really salt-sensitive, and after a snack like that i wouldn't be able to get my shoes on for the rest of the day ;)

                            2. re: Dave5440

                              :) You drank that thing straight? I admit I do taste droplets of it from time to time. Just for quality control really. :D

                          2. re: CindyJ

                            Are you saying you can use fish sauce in non-asian dishes?

                            Just bought a giant bottle and wondering how I'll ever use it all.

                            1. re: Bliss149

                              My 8-ounce bottle has been around forever!

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                Fish sauces do not go bad as in toxic bad, but the taste can degrade after about 1 year.


                              2. re: Bliss149

                                yes. works great in italian tomato sauces, for example

                                1. re: thew

                                  Also great in almost every stew. Just use it sparingly.

                                  1. re: thew

                                    I used a small amount of Tiparos fish sauce in my spaghetti sauce, and could taste it.
                                    Not inedible, but I wished I hadn't added it. However, by the next day the flavors had melded and the fish sauce was no longer identifiable. I don't think it made the sauce better, but I was already including lots of garlic, onion, dried mushrooms, cheese, and beef, all of which contribute umami.

                                  2. re: Bliss149

                                    I use it in place of salt in almost everything I cook. Anything that needs salt but would also benefit from a savory kick.

                                    1. re: Bliss149

                                      I splash a dash of fish sauce in spaghetti sauce, stews, soups, broths, as well. I also add a drop to scrambled eggs.

                                      1. re: Bliss149

                                        Yes, use it like salt in your recipes and find your favorites. I love it in a nice crisp coleslaw, and in Caesar Salad dressing, in hummus, and in lots of cooked soups etc.

                                  3. Depending on what you're cooking, the most direct (aside from msg, which you might reconsider using BTW) way to add umami is use of kombu, or kelp, like the Japanese do in making dashi broths. AFAIK, it has the highest concentration of natural glutamates found in a whole food, with a subtle flavor otherwise.

                                    Beyond that, lots of ingredients add umami flavor. Thew and Chem and Link listed several good ones. I'll add that parmigiana cheese has quite a bit (good for your pasta). Tomatoes and tomato sauces have some, with the pulp around the seeds having the highest concentration in a tomato (which is partially why I never throw away the liquid from a seeded tomato, but strain it and add it back to a sauce last minute). Worchestershire sauce has lots of it as well. Meats and cheeses in general make good sources, and aged dried meats and aged hard cheeses even more so.

                                    Basically, there are way too many foods that have glutamates to name. The suggestions here are just especially rich sources.

                                    10 Replies
                                    1. re: cowboyardee

                                      And Worchestershire sauce has anchovies in it.

                                      1. re: c oliver

                                        Correct. Though, as I'm sure you know, it doesn't taste much like anchovies.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee

                                          I know and love it for that :) I'm a discriminating anchovy user/eater. Just had an app at a restaurant that was crostini spread thinly with feta and then a white anchovy filet. Just doesn't sing to me for which Bob was VERY grateful :)

                                      2. re: cowboyardee

                                        I have never used kombu, or kelp, and I've never made dashi broth. Can you give me an idea of how I might use kombu? I've got some good Asian markets nearby that would probably carry it, but I know nothing about how it's even sold. Is it used only in Asian cooking, or are there uses for it in other cuisines as well?

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          Use of kombu is easy. You want the packages with kombu pieces that are covered in white, not the ones that are uniformly dark green.

                                          If you are making dashi broth, you will need a length of dried kombu, which will be steeped in water that is kept just below boiling (about 30 minutes to an hour depending on volume and how much kombu you add). The kombu as it rehydrates will start exuding a slime, which you want. The more goo the better.

                                          Then add katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings); the quantity depends on what you can afford. Immediately turn off the heat. Once the bonito settles to the bottom, filter the contents through several layers of cheesecloth and you're done. Ichiban dashi.

                                          Another way to use kombu is to throw a small piece into the chicken broth you use for risotto or soups (you can do the same for beef stock). Or grind it in a burr grinder and sprinkle the powder as you need it.

                                          1. re: CindyJ

                                            It is sold in dry form, in "sheets."
                                            Dashi broth is very easy to make, but for some it is an acquired taste.
                                            You can also make kombu broth which is incredibly simple. There are plenty of recipes out there for both. As with Japanese cooking, you can use those broths to add flavor to just about anything.

                                            In theory, you could use the dried kombu much like you would a bay leaf, although I have never tried it

                                            The only thing you need to worry about is that kombu can turn very bitter if it is exposed to boiling water or very high heat for an extended period of time.

                                            We eat a lot of Japanese dishes in our house, so I cant really speak to cross cultural cooking, but I think it would be a nice addition to any sauce, soup or stew. Especially those dishes contain fish and shell fish. Hmm oysters poached in light kombu broth and dipped in ponzu sounds god to me!

                                            1. re: CindyJ

                                              You can just buy packages of granularized instant dashi usually sold under the brand name "Hon Dashi". Just add to simmered water. This will save you the trial and error that can come with making homemade dashi and usually, will taste better unless you are getting very good basic ingredients.

                                              We simmer meats or vegetables in dashi and then add a flavoring element such as fresh ginger, garlic, or white miso. All Asian markets should have Hon-Dashi or another similar brand available.

                                              1. re: Silverjay

                                                If you're talking about this stuff it's Hon Dashi:

                                                Hon Dashi is mostly MSG - there are better options for instant dashi, I prefer ones that are in tea packets and just contain the normal dashi ingredients.

                                                Having said that I still keep some Hon Dashi around cuz i't so damned easy to add in small quantities. Also good to have some MSG around...why beat around the bush? Just add the real stuff. :D

                                                1. re: joonjoon

                                                  The instant stuff still contains extract and flavor from the fish, which is richer than just sprinkling Ajinomoto.

                                            2. re: cowboyardee

                                              speaking of tomatoes, sun-dried pack an umami wallop, as does the soaking liquid from rehydrating them.