Umami: Your Handy Guide to Taste

Say there were only four basic flavors in the world: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. These timeless masterpieces have mesmerized us for ages, stimulating our senses and delighting our palates. 

But what if we told you there’s a fifth flavor that has always been present in a variety of foods, waiting to be discovered? Let us introduce umami, a taste sensation that enhances our culinary experiences by adding richness and depth. 

In this handy guide, we’ll explore what umami is, what gives it its unique flavor, and how you can easily incorporate it into your cooking.

Get ready to take your taste buds on a flavorful journey with umami.

Key Takeaways

  • Umami is one of the five basic tastes and is responsible for the savory and satisfying character of food. Umami is created by compounds such as glutamate, inosinate, guanylate, and other sources of umami.
  • A Japanese scientist was the first to discover umami, which is frequently present in Japanese cuisine.
  • Proteins like pork, beef, fish, and shellfish, as well as vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, and seaweeds, are sources of umami flavor. These foods activate the umami taste receptors found in the tongue.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) can be used to enhance the umami taste of dishes.
  • Umami can be added to recipes through ingredients like ripe tomatoes, cheese, fungi, aged meats, seafood seasonings, garlic and onion powder, soy sauce, and nutritional yeast.
Japanese traditional food

What is Umami?

In Japanese, umami roughly translates to ‘deliciousness,’ perfectly capturing the essence of this unique taste.

Umami is a taste sensation that you can experience on your tongue. It’s the fifth taste, alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter flavors. 

The taste of umami has become a distinct taste of Japanese cooking. Japanese traditional foods like miso soups, kombu dashi, and meaty ramen all highlight the savory taste of umami.

How Umami Was Discovered

Centuries ago, Zen Buddhists searching for tasty vegetarian meals stumbled upon umami when they used konbu (or kombu), a Japanese seaweed, to make savory broth.

Umami was discovered by a Japanese scientist and chemist, Kikunae Ikeda, in 1908. He evaporated konbu broth until only a crystal compound remained, which turned out to be glutamate, an amino acid responsible for the intense and satisfying character of savory foods.

Following Ikeda, Professor Shintaro Kodama also discovered in 1913 that dried bonito flakes also contained umami substances.

Aspartate and adenylate are two more types of umami substances that have been discovered. They are salts made from the amino acid aspartate and the nucleotide adenylate. 

However, they are considered to have a weaker umami taste compared to glutamate. Succinic acid, found in shellfish, has also been recognized as a potential umami substance, contributing to the distinct taste of these seafood delicacies.

The Umami International Symposium, which took place in Hawaii in 1985, concluded that the scientific word for this fifth taste is umami.

Umami needed to fulfill a few requirements in order to be considered a distinct flavor. Scientists have shown that umami is an independent taste that cannot be formed by combining other fundamental tastes. It was also proven that umami possesses a unique taste receptor.

What Does Umami Taste Like?

When consuming umami-rich foods, the umami receptors in your tongue activate. Its taste can be detected at the back of the mouth, stimulating the throat and causing salivation. 

You may also experience a combination of flavors, including the taste of inosinate, guanylate, glutamic acid, and other sources of umami.

Umami has become popular in modern culinary practices, with food manufacturers using umami ingredients to enhance the flavor of their products.  

What Gives the Umami Flavor?

Umami flavoring can be achieved with a number of different ingredients.

  • Cured meats from pork, beef, and fish.
  • Shellfish form a strong umami foundation and activate taste receptors.
  • Fermented foods are known for enhancing umami.
  • Breast milk naturally contains an umami flavor.
  • Vegetables like tomatoes, mushrooms, and seaweeds are also rich in glutamate, which contributes to the umami taste.
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG) can also be used to enhance the umami flavor.

You don’t have to be a scientist to discover umami in your kitchen. All foods that contain proteins have glutamates, and many common vegetables contain them, too. 

When cooking, roasting, aging, fermenting, or drying food, the proteins break down into free amino acids, increasing the amount of glutamate that stimulates your taste buds.

fork beside fish and spices

Foods Rich in Umami: How Can You Add Umami To Your Dishes?

Want to taste umami in your dishes? Several “umami foods” can help you add the fifth basic taste to your dishes.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Umami is the taste of glutamate. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the purest form of umami. Ikeda created it in 1908, and it quickly became a standard in Asian kitchens. 

Ikeda created a handy, shelf-stable crystal that enhances food flavor by combining glutamate and salt. He branded this seasoning as Ajinomoto, meaning ‘the essence of flavor.’

MSG made its way to America in the 1920s through Hawaii, where there was a large Japanese immigrant population, and eventually gained popularity across the other states. 

Adding MSG to your dishes is a simple way to enhance the umami taste and create more delicious and satisfying flavors.


You can also try using ripe tomatoes in your recipes to add umami to your food. When it comes to tomatoes, the riper, the better. 

You can also enhance the umami flavor by drying them. This process significantly increases their glutamate levels, which contributes to the savory taste.

For a super-umami tomato sauce, you can simmer the tomatoes in butter that has been slow-cooked with garlic. This combination will create a rich and flavorful sauce that can elevate the taste of your dishes. 


You can use cheese as a flavor enhancer in your dishes to add umami. The cheese develops more umami the longer it is aged. 

Shaved Parmesan, in particular, is perfect for adding umami to a variety of dishes. Sprinkle it on pizza, garlic bread, soups, or pasta sauces for an extra-savory kick.

Fresh cheeses like mozzarella have a creamy flavor that goes well with umami-rich foods like tomatoes, even though they may not contain as much glutamate.

Don’t throw away your Parmesan cheese rinds! Instead, save them in the freezer and add them to simmering spaghetti sauce or soup to enhance the umami qualities.


Adding fungi as a flavor enhancer can add umami to your dishes. One option is dried shiitake mushrooms, which are high in glutamate. 

After rehydrating them in hot or boiling water for 20 minutes, you can use the leftover shiitake water as a broth or to make umami sauces. Shiitake mushrooms are best enjoyed with the salty flavor of miso and soy sauce.

Another umami superstar is truffles. If fresh truffles aren’t available, truffle oil can be a great substitute. Try adding mushrooms, bacon, and truffle oil to ravioli or fettuccine for a deliciously earthy flavor.

Frying up mushrooms and tossing them in a salad is another simple and tasty way to incorporate fungi into your meals.


Use meat as a flavor powerhouse to boost the umami profile of your dishes. Many meats, like steak, are rich in both glutamates and nucleotides, which create that irresistible umami explosion in your mouth. 

The combination of these compounds makes a nice, juicy steak taste so good.

But if you really want to take your umami game to the next level, aged meats are your best bet. Cured ham and beef jerky, for example, have the highest levels of umami of all meats.


Add a dab of fish sauce or a handful of dried shrimp to punch up the umami in your seafood dishes. 

In Asian cuisine, these ingredients are commonly used to enhance the flavor of stir-fries, broths, dumplings, and fried rice.

Another umami-rich ingredient to consider is anchovy filets, which can be added to pasta sauces or salad dressings.

If you’re looking to explore Japanese cuisine, bonito flakes are a perfect complement. These thin strands of dried, fermented, salted fish add a savory, umami taste to dishes.

Whether you’re cooking shrimp, fish, or any other type of seafood, incorporating these ingredients will elevate the flavor and create a more satisfying dining experience.


If you’re looking to enhance the umami in your dishes, one simple way is by incorporating various seasonings.

Garlic and onion powder are great options to add a homey, comfort-food-style umami richness. Combining these two seasonings can elevate the flavor profile of your meals.

Another fantastic seasoning to consider is soy sauce, which is a must-have for Asian cuisine. Its fermented soy base adds a deep and savory taste to dishes.

If you’re following a vegan diet, nutritional yeast is an excellent choice. It provides a rich and cheesy flavor, making it perfect for dusting on popcorn or sprinkling over steamed veggies.

Concerns About Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

There are misconceptions surrounding umami that need to be addressed. One of the concerns is the belief that MSG, a popular umami seasoning, can cause allergic reactions

However, numerous studies have debunked this myth and proven that MSG is safe to consume. In fact, the glutamate in MSG is no different from the glutamate naturally present in many foods.

Another concern is the potential negative effects of excessive umami usage on both food and health, similar to excessive salt or sugar consumption. It’s important to remember that umami, when used in moderation, can enhance the flavor of dishes and contribute to a balanced diet. 

person putting spices in a small glass bowl

Final Thoughts

Umami, often referred to as the fifth taste alongside sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, is a fascinating and important aspect of our flavor perception. It is primarily found in foods high in glutamate, such as kombu seaweed and dried bonito, which offer a rich umami experience.

Taste cells in our mouth, connecting with our saliva and digestive juices, play a crucial role in detecting umami flavors.

The discovery of umami’s distinct taste can be attributed to the presence of glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid. Glutamate was responsible for the unique savory taste known as umami. 

Just as sweet taste can complement and balance sourness, umami has the power to enrich various dishes, making them more satisfying and complex.

Umami is a great flavor enhancer, making foods taste even better. Food manufacturers are trying to improve ways to incorporate umami flavor into their products. They are trying to improve the taste of their own products by adding umami as an active ingredient.

Umami has become popular as a flavor around the world. In recent years, fermented foods, such as miso and kimchi, have gained popularity due to their pronounced umami flavors. Some have even tried mixing bitter and umami just to try something new.

Umami is an important taste in Japanese culture. Ever since Japanese scientists discovered umami in their staple foods, it revolutionized our understanding of taste and led to a global appreciation for this unique flavor.

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