Everyone knows about the basic tastes – sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. There’s one you might not be familiar with – umami (oo ma me). In Japanese, that means ‘deliciousness.’ Even though it doesn’t necessarily contain meat, it’s savory and deepens the flavor of whatever you’re cooking by adding a meatiness to it. It comes in various forms and can be added to recipes in various ways. Umami occurs naturally in many different foods, including meat, fish, and vegetables.
Fish sauce, made from salted, fermented fish, comes in varied forms. There’s Vietnamese nước mắm pha and Italian coloratura di alici, which is based on the ancient Roman garum. It can be very intense but used judiciously, it adds complexity to many dishes.
Anchovies aren’t everyone’s favorite. Eating then straight can be too intense for some. But adding one or two to browning onions for beef stew or to the garlic and olive oil base for pasta sauce adds layers of flavor and no fishy taste.
Almost all cheeses are rich in umami, but Parmigiana is at the top of the list. You can grate it on a salad or various pasta and vegetable dishes, and some people even put the rind to soups, sauces, or stews to add complexity.
Beef stock has a powerful umami flavor, and it gets that flavor from bones. It’s intense and is sometimes diluted. In a milder form, beef broth is good when served cold and mixed with vodka in a Bull Shot.
Soy sauce is standard umami for Asian cooking. It’s made from fermented and aged soybeans and grain. Keep in mind that it’s not just for Asian recipes.
Lea and Perrins is the only brand of Worcestershire, and it’s been around since the 1800s. It’s made from malt vinegar, molasses, and some other secret ingredients. Worcestershire works perfectly with lots of seafood dishes, and you can’t make a Bloody Mary without it.
Olives have a meaty texture and flavor that work great in adding umami to meatless dishes like Puttanesca.
Tomatoes, in general, add savoriness to foods, so imagine what super concentrated tomato paste can do. Of course, it’s excellent in tomato sauce but try adding a tablespoon or two the next time you sauté onions.
All mushrooms contain umami, but dried mushrooms deliver a bigger punch because they’re concentrated. They can make a plain tomato sauce taste as hearty as meat sauce.