The Fifth Taste: There’s More to Umami Than You Thought

By the editors of Cook's Illustrated

The magic lies in the combination of glutamates and nucleotides.

There’s more than one reason that classic combinations like cheese on a burger or the Parmesan and anchovies in a Caesar Salad taste so good: Not only do such ingredients simply go well together, but it turns out that they contain complementary umami boosters that magnify flavor by as much as thirtyfold. What is umami, you ask? Widely considered the fifth taste, it’s the quality of meaty savoriness that brings depth to many dishes.

More and more food scientists are concluding that when ingredients rich in naturally occurring glutamates are paired with ingredients that contain either one of the nucleotides inosinate or guanylate, the perception of umami, or savoriness, is dramatically amplified.

We already discovered this synergy in our recipe for Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup, in which we used a combination of soy sauce (rich in glutamates) with porcini mushrooms (a good source of guanylate) to boost flavor.

THE EXPERIMENT

We dissolved powdered glutamate in the form of MSG in water and compared it with a solution made with a 50:50 inosinate/guanylate powder that we bought from a company that markets this nucleotide product to the processed food industry. We compared these samples to a third solution made with equal parts MSG and the nucleotide powder. Sure enough, tasters found the solutions with MSG or nucleotide powder alone “moderately” and “mildly” savory, respectively, but the sample with both umami boosters scored a perfect “10” for savory flavor.

While both glutamates and nucleotides sound complicated, they’re actually found in many common ingredients, most of which you probably have in your pantry or refrigerator.

Next time you want to really punch up the flavor of a dish, mix and match these tried and true umami boosters.

FOODS RICH IN GLUTAMATES

  • Parmesan cheese
  • Fish sauce
  • Soy sauce
  • Tomato paste
  • Cured ham
  • Anchovies/sardines
  • Beef
  • Cheddar cheese
  • Worcestershire sauce

FOODS RICH IN NUCLEOTIDES

  • Anchovies/Sardines
  • Dried shiitake mushrooms
  • Pork
  • Beef
  • Dried porcini mushrooms

Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup

RECIPE FOR MEMBERS: Farmhouse Vegetable and Barley Soup

Most recipes for hearty winter vegetable soups, it turns out, are neither quick nor easy. We didn’t want our recipe to take the better part of a day to make, so we started with canned vegetable broth. To this we added soy sauce and ground dried porcini mushrooms to punch up the umami factor.

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