As research for my new novel, I started taking a wine class this month. I love it! It’s so much fun to learn why wines taste the way they do, and how they complement or conflict with different foods.
One of the things we’ve talked about is umami. You’ve probably heard it described as the “fifth flavor” (along with sweet, salty, sour, and bitter)—the word translates from Japanese as “pleasant savory taste.” Umami is that rich, deep, almost meaty quality found in foods like mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, cured meat, or MSG. It occurs when glutamate breaks down into L-glutamate via fermentation, braising, or ripening. (This NPR article offers a detailed explanation.)
If it sounds elusive, that’s because it is. The taste of umami “can be difficult to isolate,” says my wine textbook. Honestly, I’ve been mystified by it for years, but last week I learned a surefire trick to REALLY taste it:
Take an ordinary button mushroom. Slice it in two. Microwave one half for 30 seconds. Then, take a bite of the raw half, versus a bite of the cooked. When I tried it, the raw half tasted flabby and faint. But the cooked half exploded with deep, earthy, meaty flavors—it was like the essence of the mushroom distilled into a bite. I was amazed at the difference!
(If you don’t have a microwave, try baking, steaming, or plain sautéeing the mushroom for the same effect.)
Umami makes many foods delicious, but it’s also considered “high risk,” which means it’s difficult to pair with wine. In class, they suggested drinking a wine that is more fruity than tannic— “the umami in the food will emphasize the bitterness of the tannins” —so I might consider sipping a white with your next umami burger :)
What’s your favorite umami food? (Or do you think it’s a myth?)
UPDATE: Preston from Paris by the Glass left this fantastic tip on my Facebook page: “Foods with lots of umami almost always go with fino or manzanilla dry sherry,” he says. “Try it… it’s delicious! There’s a savouriness to the wine itself that goes marvellously with these foods.” I’ve recently been enjoying an evening tipple of Oloroso sherry, which seems to have an umami quality of its very own. Can’t wait to try it with Parmesan cheese.