Umami (pronounced "oo-mah-me") has been grabbing a lot of attention in the food world recently (consider the national expansion of the Los Angeles-based Umami Burger chain and the recent launch of Umami Barbecue). Closer to home, a growing number of grill and pit masters are talking umami in the context of barbecue and using the concept to score big at competitions.
The human tongue can detect five different tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. Most of us Westerners have grown up understanding the first four of these tastes. Umami embraces a cluster of rich, meaty, earthy, savory flavors associated with foods as diverse as meat, anchovies, soy sauce, seaweed, and cheese. For this reason it's often referred to as the "fifth taste."
So how can you maximize the fifth taste the next time you fire up your grill? Try these ingredients to up the umami factor:
- Soy sauce: Soy sauce is a salty condiment made from fermented soybeans (and sometimes wheat) popular in many Asian cuisines for good reason. Make our Soy-Glazed Grilled Pork Chops to experience umami hot off the grill.
Fun fact: What's the largest brewery in Wisconsin? If you're thinking beer, think again. It's Kikkoman—the #1 soy sauce brand in America. (Hats off to one of my food science professors for teaching me this conversation-starter.)
- Tomatoes: Yes, the popularity of tomato-based barbecue sauces from St. Louis is due, in part, to umami. Try Steven's version of Maull's Barbecue Sauce. It includes more than a few ingredients on this list.
- Shiitake mushrooms: Fresh shiitakes are great for adding umami. Grill these Shiitake and Scallion Kebabs to experience the savory taste for yourself.
- Parmesan cheese: The levels of umami in Parmesan cheese are practically off the charts. Shave some on your next grilled pizza.
- Anchovies: Like soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce is another fermented condiment. But did you know that it gets its complex flavor from anchovies? You can thank these little fish for many of your favorite savory dishes, including Steven's grilled Caesar salad.
- Bacon: Cured pork holds its position as one of America's top umami ingredients, along with Parmesan and tomatoes. Bacon and other cured pork products, like chorizo or ham, can add rich umami flavors to an almost endless variety of dishes. Try blasting tonight's dinner with umami with these five bacon recipes.
How do you unleash the power of umami to up your game at the grill? Tell us about your favorite umami-rich recipes on the Barbecue Board!
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Steven Raichlen is the author of the Barbecue! Bible cookbook series and the host of Primal Grill on PBS. His web site is BarbecueBible.com.