Umami, Wine and Meatless Meals II

Still not sure about umami? Unlike sweet, sour and salty, umami is a difficult concept (bitter doesn’t seem to be as straight forward either, but easier to understand than umami).  Perhaps that is why it has taken us so long to embrace umami.

Umami was first described and named over 100 years ago in Japan by a Dr. Ikeda.  The word umami basically means, “essence of delicious” which Dr. Ikeda determined was prompted by glutamate. He went on to produce a form of glutamate, MSG, that became a big hit in the East, and then he moved on to other science research.  Umami is a concept much used in Asian cooking, but was barely acknowledged in the West until 2000, when scientists identified the places on the tongue that react to glutamate.  What we now know is that glutamate (an amino acid) is only one part of the equation and that some umami rich foods “light up” the umami receptors, while other foods work to enhance the umami reception.

So what does all this mean in regards to wine and meatless meals?  Umami is most often described in terms of meat, meaty, and with seafood (shellfish in particular).  When cooking vegetarian and/or meatless meals we have to work a little harder to increase the flavor and satiety of a dish. I don’t believe that this is just due to decreased fat in meatless meals, but also to decreased umami.  So, we can plan and prepare delicious meatless meals by keeping a few things in mind:

  • Liberal use of fermented, aged, cured, or roasted foods. These processes increase the umami effect. Use foods like wine, dried or roasted tomatoes, aged cheeses, soy sauce (the real fermented kind), etc.
  • Umami rich foods enhance the saltiness and sweetness of a meal, allowing less use salt or sugar.
  • Cooking with a combination of foods enhances the umami effect. Meatless stews, ragouts, melanges, tangines, etc. all have greater umami than the traditional Western meal approach of meat-potatoes-vegetable. Both the long cooking times and the vegetable-bean combinations lead to more satisfying dishes.
  • Umami enhancing condiments or boosters like soy sauce, miso, kombu, wine,  and dried mushrooms increase that “perfect meal” effect.
  • Stick to “natural” sources of umami as a rule. I do not advocate using MSG to boost umami (it only addresses part of the umami solution anyway). Some food manufacturers use hydrolyzed proteins to increase umami also. Instead, add wine, Parmesan cheese, olives, tomatoes, squashes, peas, even catsup!
  • Nutritional yeast is also a good way to boost umami. But nutritional yeast should be used in moderation, meaning no more than 2 Tablespoons per day.

The main lesson to take away from our discussion of umami, whether or not any of us fully understands it, is to aim for complete flavored meals. For too long, many of our dishes have been full of fat or salt or sugar, and not much else. I am convinced that this has led to our current obesity epidemic. We keep eating, searching for a flavor satisfaction that just doesn’t happen.  Even though our grandparents probably never heard of umami, they understood its effect on a meal maybe better than we do today. They knew that  a cheese rind added to soup increased flavor, that pickles were the finishing touch to an otherwise boring meal, that long, slow cooking improved the end-of-the-season potatoes, carrots, and turnip, and that a cup of red wine added to red sauce added a brightness no amount of salt could lend. So whether you are a taste science aficionado like me or not, aiming for a more “the essence of a perfect meal” can only be a good thing!

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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. […] Add a salty or umami zing. Sliced black or green olives are excellent if you are partial to a salty flavor. Sun dried tomatoes or mushrooms will give the pizza a more satisfying umami feel. Find out more about umami here and here. […]

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