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The Science Behind Umami

created on: 06/03/10As far as the cook is concerned, there are two forms of umami, "basic" and "synergizing." Many foods have both, in particular such high-protein foods as meat, milk, mushrooms and seafood.

Basic umami comes from amino acids, particularly glutamic acid, explains food expert David Kasabian, but it must be in the "free" form (the type found in plant or animal tissues) to provide its characteristic taste. In general, the more mature a food, the higher its level of free amino acids — thus the superior flavor of a tomato that has been allowed to fully ripen before harvesting.

Foods composed of "bound" amino acids (those that are part of a protein molecule with other amino acids), on the other hand, need to be coaxed a bit in order to emphasize the taste of umami. This can be accomplished through cooking, in which the heat breaks down the amino acids or through enzymatic action in the form of aging, curing and fermentation. Through these processes, the amino acids become more available for the body to use; the food also increases in umami. And, generally speaking, the more slowly you cook something, the more flavor it develops, including umami.

Foods that are already high in basic umami can get a flavor boost through either cooking or enzymatic action. Dry-aged steak, for instance, has more umami than ground beef; cook that steak and the umami sensation is multiplied. Likewise, sauteĢed mushrooms have more umami taste than raw mushrooms; as do dried.

created on: 06/03/10Synergizing umami is delivered by nucleotides, chemical compounds that are the building blocks of RNA and DNA. Nucleotides, writes Kasabian, "are found in abundance in meats, shellfish and mushrooms. They too may be in free form or bound up in large, tasteless molecules. Like basic umami, synergizing umami is developed when these large molecules are broken down into their tasty free nucleotides by cooking andenzymatic action. We call this synergizing umami because both research and everyday experience have shown that when synergizing umami is eaten along with basic umami, the umami sensation is multiplied... knowing which foods contain which kind of umami and what state it is in can help you make meals that are
more delicious."

Additional References/Resources

The Fifth Taste: Cooking with Umami , by David Kasabian & Anna Kasabian
Umami Information Center
Research Chefs Association
International Glutamate Information Service

Photos: Courtesy of The Mushroom Council, (top) Oysters Rockefeller, Chef Richard Landeau Horizons, Philadelphia. (bottom) Thai Mushroom Stroganoff, Chef Monica Pope, t'afia, Houston.


Jan 18, 2011 20:59 CST

Just got back from the Fancy Food show in SFO and boy did i have some umami- great cheeses, fabulous white soy and a pleathora of cured meats. my palate is sated, but readyfor more new stuff!!!


Dec 26, 2010 08:19 CST

GREAT article! loved it! it is fascinating to me understanding why food is what it is! thanks!!


Nov 2, 2010 23:37 CDT

Love this article! Helped me with a presentation for nutrition class. Thanks!


Sep 1, 2010 19:10 CDT

Great information. Am glad the issue of umami is   now being recognized by chefs.  For the longest time it had been associated solely with the use of monosodium glutamate   which had a negative connotation for  most chefs.


Aug 17, 2010 23:36 CDT

Great info. Thanks!


Jun 14, 2010 01:45 CDT

THanks For the new information!


Chef Lewi

Chef Lewi
Jun 10, 2010 16:46 CDT

I 've always for the technique slow food  cooking process. I now have a better understanding of the science behind the development of food flavors.


Jun 8, 2010 08:06 CDT
that is wonderfull i try it in my kitchen and realy thanx about this platinum informations


Jun 8, 2010 06:09 CDT

Wow, this is really great! Thank you for this very informative article... I always did the process back home but never knew it has its new name now... Uhhh-Mommy! Lol!

Thanks Chef CWK


Jun 7, 2010 22:55 CDT

This is great. As everything that i remember from back home in Mexico, when you use fresh and fully ripen product the result is amazing, my chef is trying to get most of our product from within our province here in New Brunswick.

I always tell people that at home when you go to a street market you can smell the carrots.....they are so is anything else.....



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