Umami, Wine, and Meatless Meals

Once again it seems that not everything is as simple as high school led us to believe. Apparently that health class lesson on the  four tastes; salty, sweet, bitter, and sour, was not quite on the money. Recent acknowledgment of old science (more on this later this week) has identified at least five tastes, and probably six or seven.  Umami, or the “fifth taste” is a bit more difficult to describe than its four older brothers.  It has been described as “savory”, “richness”, and “meaty”.  But perhaps it can be best understood as “the essence of a perfect meal”. When all the stars align and a dish is just right, not too salty or bitter, nicely enhanced with some “secret ingredient”, that is a meal rich in umami.

There are many experienced and educated voices  expounding on the science of umami and developing delicious umami inspired five star restaurant entrees. But since our focus here is on healthy, convenient, good tasting, meatless food, I’ll try to take a more practical approach to umami.  If you consider that umami has been described as meaty, then it is easier to understand why some find meatless meals lacking – perhaps they lack umami!

Certain foods and combinations of foods enhance the umami in a meal. Some common umami foods are tomatoes, mushrooms, aged cheeses like Parmesan or Blue Cheese, peas, potatoes, and everyone’s favorite – wine – especially red wine but white wine can also enhance umami.

Wine and wine powder act as flavor enhancers, especially with beans or soy or mushroom based meat analogs, giving your meatless meal a fuller, richer, umami taste. Using umami rich wine enhances the other four tastes, meaning that a meal rich in umami will have a a salty brightness with much less salt, and without using salt substitutes or other chemicals. This is just one more reason why cooking at home not only tastes better but is better for you. Our inexpensive fast and processed foods are full of salt. Is this because the actual food lacks umami? I am sure that is so. And perhaps that salt-laden, umami-lacking food is why we eat so much of it; we are searching for the “completeness” that an umami meal gives us, and that fast food doesn’t. Maybe the answer to our national obesity epidemic isn’t some elusive diet pill, but well-balanced, flavored (umami) meals that fill us up and satisfy our palates.

So cooking at home with wine gives your meatless meals a flavorful boost. The best thing, you don’t have to be an expert about what wines go with what foods. Be creative. Start with what you have on hand in the cupboard, add flavor with spices or herbs, and pull the meal together by adding red wine.  Here’s a red-wine umami enhanced experiment. What have you created?

Umami Potato Tacos


First I peeled and chopped a potato, added a little chili powder and cumin, and sauteed it in a drizzle of olive oil. Then I added about 1/2 cup of red wine, reduced the heat, covered and let it cook until the wine was syrupy and the potatoes were almost done. I added some chopped tomato (umami food) and chopped asparagus (umami enhancing), and continued cooking until the asparagus was crisp tender, although I did have to add a little more wine to the skillet.


I used corn tortillas, layered rehydrated red bean granules (no fat and much better flavor than traditional refried beans), the potato wine mixture, a smattering of shredded cheese, low-fat sour cream, salsa, and chopped avocado.

The verdict? Although two of these tacos were plenty filling and didn’t send me searching for desssert, they weren’t spicy enough for my taste. The next time, I will probably add more chili powder and some cayenne pepper.

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About the Author

Renee Pottle, an author and heart-healthy educator, loves to explore and write about the Mediterranean Diet. She blogs at and

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  1. […] tomatoes or mushrooms will give the pizza a more satisfying umami feel. Find out more about umami here and […]

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