Umami, known as the fifth taste, is what makes certain foods savory and deeply flavorful.
When you taste something with complex layers of flavor that fill the mouth and satisfy the soul, it’s likely you’re tasting umami. Umami is famously present in many animal products including cheeses, aged meats like salami, salted fish like anchovies, and fresh meats and seafood that have been caramelized at high temperatures. Luckily for vegetarians and vegans, umami exists in any food that contains the amino acid L-glutamate, including many plant-based foods.
Great vegan and vegetarian cooks know how to use umami-containing or umami-friendly ingredients to their best advantage to unlock the flavor in their dishes. Read on to learn their secrets.
Soy Sauce or Tamari—Fermentation is one way to develop umami in food. Soy sauce and tamari, both made from fermented soy beans, are rich in umami and salt. A tiny dash in salad dressings, drizzled into soups or veggie stews, or onto plain steamed vegetables can intensify the flavors of the other ingredients.
Bragg’s—Bragg’s Amino Acids is another fermented soybean product. Popular in raw food preparation, Bragg’s contains 16 of the 20 amino acids needed for balanced health. Use it as you would soy sauce or tamari.
Ume Plum Vinegar—A Japanese condiment that is derived from traditional Japanese pickled plums, this vinegar is salty, and a little bit sweet, with lovely floral characteristics. When you taste a dish and think that it just “needs something,” this might be the something it needs. Much more complex than Bragg’s or soy sauce, it can be used in the same ways suggested above. Don’t be afraid to tweak a Western vegetable soup with this Eastern condiment. It works.
Nutritional Yeast—Available in health food stores -and hip, independent theaters that sell popcorn- nutritional yeast is beloved by vegans for its nutty, cheesy flavor. Sprinkle it on popcorn, add to mashed or baked potatoes, or stir it into vegan casseroles.
Toasted Nuts and Seeds—Toasting seeds and nuts really brings out their flavor, and truly makes a difference in the umami quotient of your cooking. Grain salads, pilafs, and green salads can all benefit from the savory addition of toasted pumpkin or sesame seeds, or nuts, such as walnuts, almonds, and peanuts.
Dried Mushrooms—Mushrooms are treasure troves of naturally occurring umami. Drying them simply concentrates what’s already there. Reconstitute some dried shiitakes and add them to a winter squash stew or a brothy Asian noodle soup. Dried porcinis make swoony risotto and will help your barley soup sing.
Miso—Adding a spoonful of this fermented soybean product is a great way to add depth to vegetarian soups. Simply stir it in at the end of cooking, when you’re adjusting the seasoning. When combined with lemon juice, garlic, and herbs and spices, it makes a great marinade for grilled or roasted vegetables. These same ingredients can also double as a salad dressing.
Nori—why is sushi so crave-worthy? Partially because of the toasty, unique flavor of the nori that it’s wrapped in. You can buy nori in sheets and use scissors to snip it over vegetarian soups, stews and salads, or purchase it in flake form in the versatile Japanese condiment furikake, which is used to season plain rice. When buying furikake, read the ingredients, as some versions contain bonito or other fish.
Tomato Paste or Dried Tomatoes—Like mushrooms, ripe tomatoes contain a naturally occurring form of umami. When dried or concentrated into a paste, the umami characteristics are amplified. Add dried tomatoes or tomato paste to beans, marinades, or vegetable stews for a more complex flavor.
Caraway Seeds—Though spices don’t technically contain umami, they can bring out the umami in certain foods. Caraway seeds add a light smokiness and have a particular affinity for cabbage and potatoes. Add them to potato salads, coleslaws, and breads or rolls.
Cumin—Toasted cumin seeds can make almost any bean or lentil dish better. They have an intense savoriness of their own that adds a meaty character to foods into which they are incorporated.
Smoked Paprika—Adding smoked paprika to a bean dish or split pea soup is a great way to make as if you’ve used bacon. Need I say more? Even if you’re not into pretend meat, you might like to stir a little smoky paprika into potato salad, your favorite vinaigrette, hummus, baba ganoush, or a marinade for grilled vegetables.