The Science of Umami: Exploring the Fifth Taste in Soups

When understanding taste, we know the basics of spicy, salty, sour, and sweet, but what do you know about the fifth taste, otherwise known as umami? You’ve heard it mentioned, and it is something that has been discovered over the last century. When you are building your soups, it is essential that you not only know how to recognize umami but find ways to add that flavor profile to your dishes so that it is well-rounded.

What is Umami?

In order to grasp umami, you have to know what you are looking for. This flavor palette is a savory one, and it has a taste that is both brothy and meaty. This flavor comes from an extensive amount of glutamate, an amino acid that is found in several different ingredients.

In the 1900s, there was a search conducted for that fifth taste that no one could seem to put their finger on, and it was discovered in Asia, where the taste is most prominent. The term “umami” is a Japanese word that simply means savory and pleasant.

After identifying this flavor in the 1980s, it had to undergo certain criteria to be listed as the fifth taste by the Society for Research on Umami Taste. Since then, Umami has been heavily researched and more foods are identified as having this flavor when cooked and added to different dishes. Not all of these ingredients are easy to locate, as some are sold in specialty markets while others are in markets everywhere.

How Does Umami Enhance the Taste?

You may have heard about this flavor in another variation, MSG or monosodium glutamate. This is often found in Asian dishes and has a unique flavor that enhances all the flavors in each dish, no matter if it is a sweet or savory option.

Umami can enhance the flavor by merging the sweetness and saltiness of the dish and moving those flavors throughout each bite. When you add ingredients to a dish that has an umami flavor, it will stimulate the taste buds and trigger that taste. You will then taste that with every bite, even when you enjoy the salty, sweet, and other flavors that are combined in the dish.

Best Ways to Give Soup That Umami Flavor

As you decide to start adding umami flavor to your soup, there are some ingredients that you need to keep on hand to impact that flavor. The umami flavor can be found in the following ingredients:

  • Parmesan Cheese
  • Aged Cheese
  • Sun-dried tomatoes
  • Fish Sauce
  • Anchovies
  • Soy Sauce
  • Kimchi
  • Smoked Protein
  • Miso Paste
  • Mushrooms

These ingredients can be added to various soups as a way to enhance the umami flavor and even nutrients of your soup. Parmesan cheese and other aged cheeses added to a cream-based soup are great for bringing in the four basic tastes together and balancing them with the umami.

If you are making any dish that is Asian-based, you should always have a teaspoon or two of fish sauce handy to balance and bring it together. You can find this in any market and keep it in your fridge and pantry for a while so that you do not have to run out to the store each time you need it.

If you enjoy smoking meats regularly, adding smoked ham or bacon to a soup that needs that additional fat flavor will give you the umami flavor and add the wanted salt and protein flavor that your soup needs.

Examples of Umami in Soup

For example, ham and bean soup gets the most umami if you use smoked ham instead of regular baked ham chunks in your soup. Please take it to the next level by making this in the slow cooker where all the flavors are able to blend.

For me, I like to add mushrooms to as many soups as I can without it being weird or impacting the texture. I believe in sauteed mushrooms, and I love adding them to anything that is creamy or meat-based. They embellish the protein flavors in Chicken Potato Soup and even Chicken Soup.

I use the first soup for comfort and the second for healing, but I want to enjoy a flavorful dish no matter how I am feeling. Being able to enjoy the umami flavor when I am not feeling well is sometimes all I need to start feeling better.

Ingredients You May Not Care For

Any soup that is seafood based should have one or two anchovies in the base. I know it is an ingredient you may not care for, but the flavor will be totally transformed. We all know that anchovies is the secret behind an amazing Caesar dressing, and that same umami flavor can be added to your soup.

As long as you do not have any seafood allergies with your diners, it would help if you considered adding this one in regularly. When I want to make a seafood-veggie stock for the house, I use anchovies and a teaspoon of fish sauce to build that flavor to use later in another dish.

Why You Should Pack Umami Flavors In Your Next Soup Bowl

Sometimes, it is hard to find the flavor that you are looking for in your dish, and it is because you are simply missing umami. I will admit that I was not familiar with it until I started cooking on my own and discovered the power that it can have on my soup. I add at least one of these ingredients to all of my soups regularly, especially when I am cooking for others so that they are talking and guessing about that taste.

Once you start building the umami flavor in your own soups, you will build your confidence when cooking. This is important if you are looking to cook more at home and want to truly replicate your favorite dishes from restaurants and your childhood.

Make sure to keep a handful of these ingredients at home so that you can always have a little something to add, especially since a little goes a long way with umami.

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