Umami is a flavor we're always chasing—and one we're so often looking to add to our cooking. While some people still only give credit to four main flavors* (salty, sweet, sour, and bitter), this fifth, harder-to-pin-down one was given a name by a Japanese biochemist named Kikunae Ikeda more than 100 years ago. In his guide to MSG, Kenji explains how the scientist, attempting to identify what exactly gave dashi—a Japanese broth flavored with kombu—its powerful savory quality, isolated monosodium glutamate (a sodium salt of glutamic acid). He coined the term umami to describe the flavor of glutamic acid and other amino acids like it.
*Want to go deeper into the world of flavor and how it works? Check out our article on the science of flavor.
Umami-heavy ingredients are a must when you're stocking a pantry. You'll find tons of umami in perishable foods like meat and fresh mushrooms, but it's also present in so many products that won't spoil before you use them up. We're talking everything from soy sauce and fish sauce to dried mushrooms and Marmite. Often, we call on these ingredients to give dishes an added layer of flavor, such as a hidden dash of fish sauce in a sauce or a stock fortified with a handful of dried porcinis.
These are 15 of the umami-packed ingredients we always have on hand, to give our dishes a boost.
Chances are you're most familiar with this product because of the crucial role it plays in making miso soup. The thick paste is made by fermenting soybeans with koji, and it is quite salty. Just a spoonful of miso can add tons of flavor to all sorts of soups, noodle dishes, and sauces.
Beyond its role in classic Japanese cuisine, though, it's used by chefs in all sorts of preparations. A little bit of miso adds savory depth to classic Béarnaise to serve alongside these charred asparagus stalks, and it shines when paired with sweet potatoes and butter.
There's a very good chance you already have soy sauce in your kitchen and use it frequently. Soy sauce adds needed saltiness to every dish it's in, but it's that other flavor that sets soy sauce apart from other salty ingredients: lots and lots of umami. As is also the case with miso paste, soy sauce is made through a lengthy curing and fermenting process. Of course, there's not just one kind of soy sauce—there are countless soy sauce varieties spanning regions and applications. Beyond traditional preparations, we've also been known to put soy sauce in, well, pretty much everything. Some dishes put soy sauce front and center, like this Soy Sauce Chicken With Cola. Others, like rich, creamy gravy call for just enough soy sauce to give the dish that je ne sais quoi.
Fish sauce is right up there with soy sauce as one of our very favorite umami bombs. What's in the bottle really is exactly what the name suggests: Fish is fermented with salt and water for quite some time until a rich, caramel-colored condiment is born. Dishes often call for both fish sauce and soy sauce to provide a depth of salty, umami flavor. That's what makes these grilled chicken wings so delicious. The same goes for this Vietnamese-style baked chicken. Fish sauce also brightens salad dressing and cuts through spice, balancing out the heat of bird's eye chilies in this cabbage salad.
There's not a lot we don't use fish sauce for. It's great in a dipping sauce, in a stew, and even in caramel.
Here's another pungent sauce you very likely already have hiding in a back corner of your refrigerator. While fish sauce and soy sauce consist of just a few key ingredients, Worcestershire combines a much longer list of sweet and savory items, including malt vinegar, molasses, sugar, anchovies, onions, and tamarind. In addition, a bottle of Worcestershire sauce usually contains a number of warm spices as well. Just a dash of this stuff will add an unidentifiable tang and richness while a more generous shake—in a Bloody Mary, perhaps?—will provide a more pronounced flavor. If you've got some time on your hands, and the full ingredient list, you can even make your own Worcestershire sauce.
We like to add a little Worcestershire to Caesar salad, where the complex sauce amps up the flavor of anchovy filets and sharp Parmesan. A tablespoon goes a long way in giving our All-American Beef Stew a richer, heartier flavor. And Worcestershire is a classic addition to a great steak marinade, where it serves to make the steak taste more, well, steak-y.
Dashi is, as Sho puts it best, "the embodiment of umami." Japanese chefs will spend years perfecting their version of this seaweed-based stock, but the basic process is very simple. The mildly fishy stock is often made with kombu (edible sheets of dried seaweed) and smoky katsuobushi (thin shavings of dried and smoked skipjack tuna or bonito). Sometimes other dried fish or mushrooms are used. This isn't a stock of the sort many Americans are familiar with. There's no long stewing and simmering of bones and vegetables to extract every last ounce of flavor and gelatin. Instead, dashi is light and quick (though there are more time-consuming methods if you have the patience) and can be used to enhance and complement all sorts of dishes, Japanese and otherwise.
To start out, dashi is the base of miso soup, adds flavor to tamagoyaki, and creates a savory and comforting broth for gyudon. But its mild, reserved flavor makes it just as great an addition to non-Japanese dishes, where it will heighten and complement a dish without taking over. For example, shoyu-dashi—a combination of soy sauce and dashi—can improve your salad dressing.
In many cases, you can use dashi in place of fish or chicken stock. While it's not always written into the recipe, we've been known to fortify our traditional French fish stock with dashi or use dashi to poach fish or clams. There isn't a lot dashi can't do.
We know, we know, monosodium glutamate (MSG) gets a lot of flak. But we believe strongly that MSG—a sodium salt of glutamic acid—deserves a place in your kitchen. We're not here to tell you that MSG has no impact on how you feel. Eaten on an empty stomach, it could possibly cause some discomfort. But these symptoms are rare and temporary. Plus, chances are there's MSG in more of the food you already eat than you may have realized, so why not take control by adding some to your own cooking?
You'll find concentrated MSG sold by brands such as Ajinomoto and Ac’cent. On Ac'cent's website, a big bright banner reads "Chef's 'secret ingredient,'" and really, it's true. Plenty of your favorite restaurants are bumping up flavor with a little sprinkle of this good stuff. The seasoning adds to the palm sugar and fish sauce marinade for Thai-style grilled pork skewers. It teams up with mushroom powder in our chili crisp recipe to bolster the condiment's savory, umami flavor. It seasons the egg in this tamago kake gohan.
You'll notice that in each of these recipes the addition of MSG is listed as optional. The seasoning complements all the flavors that it interacts with, without ever playing the starring role. So yeah, you could skip the MSG, but why would you do that?
Tomatoes are rich with glutamic acid. And when concentrated to a paste, they pack a serious flavor-boosting punch. A little tomato paste goes a long way, which means that after adding a dollop of the stuff from a can—sometimes, you'll find it in a tube, too—to your Italian-American red sauce, you'll have to figure out what to do with what's left of it. Luckily, tomato paste effortlessly combines with all sorts of other flavors. In most cases, you'll want to cook the paste slightly at the beginning of your process, so any tinny, canned flavor is replaced by the purest, most delicious tomato flavor.
We've tasted a lot of anchovies over the years and can confirm that these little fish provide an enormous amount of pleasure. We're partial to eating these as they are, but there are so many ways to incorporate anchovies in your cooking. Layer them onto a sandwich! Cook them into a briny, umami-heavy pasta sauce! Or melt a ton of them into olive oil with garlic and go to town! Though anchovies are delicious front and center, they're small and gentle enough to literally melt into a dish as they cook. If you're looking for heightened flavor without a ton of fishiness, an anchovy filet or two can deliver.
If you've tasted the dark, thick contents of a jar of Marmite, you likely already have a fully formed opinion on the stuff. Often, unfortunately, that opinion is a negative one, but we implore you to give it another chance. Marmite is essentially a yeast extract, created with the remains of yeast used to brew beer. Along with a yeasty paste, a jar of Marmite also contains salt, added vitamins, and a few additional seasonings. The spread is salty, rich, and packed with glutamate, giving it an unmistakable umami flavor. It's often marketed simply as a spread, something you can slather on toast and enjoy as is. And while we're not opposed to that method of consumption, Marmite's intense saltiness and deep flavor make it a great ingredient to cook with.
We combine soy sauce with Marmite in a vegetarian bean chili to provide some of the rich flavor that meat would typically bring. Really, so much of the "richness" we're seeking when we substitute vegetables for meat can be found in glutamate-heavy ingredients—like Marmite. The spread also features in meatier dishes, like our turkey burgers. The burger mixture, seasoned with soy sauce, Marmite, and anchovies—three umami stars, all in one—has far deeper flavor than turkey alone could provide.
If you've been spreading Marmite on toast but never tried incorporating it into your cooking, give one of these recipes a stab. Once you see how well it melds into sauces and amps up the flavor of meat, you'll fly through the rest of the jar in a week.
We often describe mushrooms as "meaty" and "earthy." This is, in part, because of their inherent umami-backed savoriness. And while cooking with fresh mushrooms is never a bad call, there are some tasks for which dried mushrooms are best.
We use dried mushrooms in a pressure cooker mushroom risotto, in a mushroom ragù, and really, anywhere we need to add extra depth but might not have or want to add chunks of meat. Even when they aren't called for, you can always add dried mushrooms to a soup stock before cooking to give a dish that needed kick.
If you've ever saved up the rinds from hard cheeses and then added them to a bubbling pot of soup, you know how much intensely savory, umami flavor they provide. Cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano become more umami-rich as they age, taking on a deeply nutty quality.
Adding Parmesan to risotto bolsters its sweet-savory flavor. Ribbons of a milder—but still pleasantly aged—cheese like ricotta salata add a funky saltiness to salads like this Trevisano radicchio salad and this radicchio, endive, and anchovy one, which layers the umami payload of anchovies and cheese together. These salty, umami-packed cheeses are a complement to bitter, intense flavors.
This Korean fermented soybean paste is darker and more intense than many types of miso. It's traditionally aged for two years and finds its way into all sorts of dishes. Industrial doenjang often contains wheat, which makes for a slightly sweeter product but traditional makers still ferment 100% soybeans the old-school way.
A generous scoop of doenjang is the base of ssamjang, a no-cook, sweet-salty dipping sauce that combines the miso paste with gochujang, Korean rice syrup, and sesame oil. Dolloped onto a piece of lettuce before it's wrapped around char-grilled meat, the sauce adds the sort of depth only umami-filled ingredients can.
Doenjang makes its way into all sorts of Korean soups and stews, providing a hit of flavor that's often bolstered further by soy sauce, gochujang, and other intense seasonings. The paste stars in this classic Korean stew, where mushrooms, anchovies, soy sauce, and the fermented doenjang come together for an intensely flavorful dish.
It's no secret how much we love koji at Serious Eats—and a lot of you love it, too. "Even if you've never heard of koji, you've put it in your mouth in one form or another," Sho writes. "'Koji' refers to any grain that has been inoculated with the mold Aspergillus oryzae."
This inoculation process creates a range of flavors, depending on the grains being used. You've tasted the results of this fermentation in the form of sake and soy sauce. But, as Sho goes on to explain, there are other uses for koji beyond making soy sauce or sake. When koji is mixed with salt and water and left to ferment, it makes shio koji. The slurry is fruity and sweet, and we use it to marinate and cure meats and season vegetables. One of its most impressive uses is in this koji prime rib recipe, where the slurry is rubbed on prime rib and left to flavor the meat. The shio koji tenderizes the meat, and naturally occurring sugars help brown the roast once it's in the oven.
Shrimp paste is made by mixing shrimp with salt and water, then allowing the shrimp to break down and ferment over the course of weeks or months. You'll find shrimp and other shellfish pastes in all sorts of Asian and African dishes, but we're focused here on the Asian varieties. Indonesian shrimp paste, terasi, gives this Indonesian fried rice a salty kick of flavor. If you love funky flavors, you'll love kapi, the Thai fermented shrimp paste, which is dried in the sun. It's a crucial ingredient in any Thai pantry. A little shrimp paste also goes a long way in flavoring the curry paste for khao soi.
If you'd like to go off script, use a tiny spoonful of shrimp paste to add dimension to salad dressings, and dissolve a bit into warm water to use alongside pungent fish sauce in stir-fries.
Peanut worms might just be one of those ingredients you need to taste to love. The worms, called sa sung in Vietnamese, are not exactly the most most beautiful ingredient. They look like, well, dried worms. But peanut worms are a great source of umami and are a key ingredient in many chefs' pho preparations. As the Vietnamese food expert Andrea Nguyen told us for our article on peanut worms, they're a great replacement for MSG, since they pack much of the same umami flavor.
Plenty of chefs forgo adding worms to their broth in favor of easier-to-find sources of umami. But the worms have a unique, sweet and savory flavor that can't be imitated. If you make pho often, you won't regret having a package of these on hand. If you don't, you can get by with dried seafood and any number of other great umami-boosters.
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