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Chef Talk

Umami

I was very excited a few years back when the SLS Hotel and Casino opened an Umami Burger on the property. I had been reading about this chain for years but I had never been in the area of where one is located to give it a try. The chain has been growing mostly in California and is now spreading around the country. The chain is an upscale burger chain, similar to the burger shops that are popping up all over the Strip. The reason I was so excited is the way they make their burgers emphasizing the savory profile of the ingredients. The Umami burger has shiitake mushroom, caramelized onions, roasted tomato, parmesan crisp and umami ketchup. All of these ingredients contain glutamates and nucleotides inosinate or guanylates (more on this later). All of the burgers have ingredients that promote umami richness. As a culinarian I appreciate a restaurant that put together a menu emphasizing this flavor profile.

I am sure most people have heard of umami, the fifth flavor profile along with salty, sweet, sour and bitter. Umami can be described as savory which instills a feeling of “pleasing to the sense of taste especially by reason of effective seasoning or pungently flavorful without sweetness.” This can also be described as a meaty flavor. The flavor profile can be tracked back to the 1800s and it was recognized in use in the kitchen of Auguste Escoffier. He did not know what he was cooking with, and the formal identification of it did not happen until 1908 in Japan, but his use of ingredients show his ability to create the savoriness. It took until the 1985 for the scientific community to fully accept the theory and chefs have been working with it and capitalizing on umami ever since.

Many foods contain natural glutamates, and the reason it was first discovered in Asia is that it is very prevalent in seafood, especially seaweed and shrimp paste and occurs when fermenting fish sauce. Glutamates also occur naturally in many vegetables, especially those included in many Asian cuisines. The list includes tomatoes (vine ripened can contain 5 times the amount), mushrooms (especially shiitake and porcini), soy beans, Chinese cabbage, carrots and sweet potatoes. Glutamates also appear in aged cheeses such as parmesan cheese, eggs and most meat proteins.

Now for the good part: We magnify the effects of the glutamates. If we pair foods high in natural glutamates with foods that are high in nucleotides (Nucleotides are organic molecules that serve as the monomers, or subunits of nucleic acids like DNA and RNA.) we can magnify the flavor by up to thirty percent. This may sound very scientific but it is actually very easy. Soy sauce is high in glutamates; if we pair that ingredient with ground porcini mushrooms, high in nucleotides, we will get the exaggerated effect of savoriness. Some ingredients are rich in both glutamates and nucleotides; not surprisingly, even when used alone in recipes they magnify the savoriness of the dish.            

One of my favorite tricks in the kitchen when trying to boost the flavor of a dish is to add a “secret ingredient” to boost flavor. One of my favorite secret ingredients is anchovy paste. When used sparingly it does not add any anchovy flavor, but it boosts the sensation of the dish. Another secret ingredient is tomato paste or ketchup, also high in glutamates. This is also why you should never discard the rinds from aged cheeses. These should be stored in the freezer until the next opportunity to use them when making a soup or sauce.


FOODS RICH IN GLUTAMATES    (MG/100 G)

Parmesan Cheese    1,200-1,600        

Fish Sauce    950-1,383        

Soy Sauce    800-1,300        

Tomato Paste    680            

Cured Ham    337            

Anchovies/Sardines    280            

Beef    107            

Cheddar Cheese    78            

Worcestershire Sauce    34            

FOODS RICH IN NUCLEOTIDES    (MG/100 G)

Anchovies/Sardines    193 (inosinate)        

Dried Shiitake Mushrooms    150 (guanylate)        

Pork    122 (inosinate)        

Beef    107 (inosinate)        

Dried Porcini Mushrooms    10 (guanylate)

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