Watch any TV chef and at some point they will mention umami. That mysterious fifth flavour that was recently categorised and is now the talk of the town. A lot of work has gone into studying this ‘new’ taste and we now have a better understanding of what it is and how it works. One thing we learned was that umami can make steaks taste better.
That’s good news for all of us!
Umami and steak
Umami was identified by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda in the early 20th century while researching the Japanese dish Kombu. He somehow detected something other than sweet, salt, sour and bitter when tasting seaweed. He called it umami which is apparently Japanese for pleasant taste with a hint of savoury.
Unfortunately, nobody believed him. It wasn’t until 2002 that umami was formally recognised and categorised as a flavour.
Umami is created by glutamine in protein. As steak breaks down the amino acids, one of which is glutamine, the flavour of umami is created. That glutamine turns into L-glutamine when cooked or fermented which is the basis for umami alongside Inosinic acid and Guanosine monophosphate.
Aged steak has high amounts of glutamine but it is present in all quality steak. As the meat relaxes and begins breaking down, it creates L-glutamine. When steak is cooked, that creates more L-glutamine.
As an aside, Ikeda isolated a salt form of glutamic acid and designed a common food product from it. It was called MSG, monosodium glutamate.
There is a final twist to the umami story. Why we crave it so much. Nobody knows for sure but the common theory is that umami makes us want protein-rich foods. The protein is essential for our continued survival and it is this that scientists think is behind our love for this fifth flavour.
Add to that, the fact that umami-rich foods like BBQ sauce, gravy, tomato sauce, bacon, Worcestershire sauce, peppercorn sauce and others all contain fermented ingredients, themselves high in umami, and you have a double whammy of tasty goodness!
Difficult to detect
The main challenge with umami is that it is difficult to detect unless you have a very sophisticated palate. It’s a very subtle flavour and will work subconsciously for most of us until we can identify it. Once you know the taste and the sensation, you will never miss it again.
If you want to acclimatise yourself with umami, steak is a great way to do it. Umami is often said to be brothy or meaty and that’s true. Join us at The Stone Grill soon and see if you can identify that mysterious fifth flavour!