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Beyond Sweet and Savory: Umami, the Fifth Taste

Beyond Sweet and Savory: Umami, the Fifth Taste

Allison Ford | Divine Caroline

Like many things that we learned in kindergarten, our sense of taste is more complicated than it seems. Even though we’re taught that the human tongue is capable of detecting only four distinct tastes—sweet, salty, sour, and bitter—as we grow up, we encounter many flavors that defy such easy categorization. Although a fine cheese might have notes of sweetness or salt, there seems to be a lot more going on than just those elements. And what about perfectly cooked meat or vintage wine?

Greek philosophers came up with the concept of our four elemental tastes almost three thousand years ago, and their theory remained intact until the late nineteenth century. Then a French chef named Auguste Escoffier invented veal stock and stumbled upon what scientists and foodies call the “fifth taste,” umami.

An Ancient Japanese Secret

Chefs began to incorporate Escoffier’s creation into sauces and savory dishes, and it seemed to make everything tastier—food containing veal stock was more flavorful, more complex, and more satisfying. What he had produced was actually the concentration of a fundamental taste that’s neither bitter nor salty nor sweet nor sour. The Japanese have for years used a seaweed stock called dashi to elicit the best flavor from their food; umami is the name Japanese food researcher Kikunae Ikeda gave it when, in 1908, he sought to chemically identify this new and distinct taste. Ikeda discovered that the source of umami is an amino acid called glutamate, or glutamic acid, which occurs naturally in savory foods, such as meat, cheese, and certain vegetables.

The word itself is Japanese, and although it’s hard to translate, it roughly means “flavor” or “deliciousness.” In English, the concept of umami has been described as “savoriness,” “smokiness,” or “meatiness.” Most organic matter contains some glutamate, but it’s not until the matter begins to ferment or decay (as in cooking) that the glutamate breaks down. The deconstructed form of glutamate, called L-glutamate, is what we respond to in foods containing umami. The food additive MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a chemical flavor enhancer that attempts to mimic naturally occurring amino acids and elicit the same taste.

Scientists know that our tongues contain receptor cells that bind perfectly with the chemical sensations of taste—sour molecules activate certain sites, while bitter molecules activate others. In 2000, a study at the University of Miami discovered the existence of a receptor site that seemed designed to bind with glutamate molecules. A study published in 2009 in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition also found that certain genes played a role in tasters’ detection of and sensitivity to umami; certain people were insensitive to the taste, while others were very sensitive to it. Since these findings align with our existing knowledge about the other four tastes, most people now consider umami to be the fifth fundamental human taste.