Umami: The Flavor That Keeps You Trim
Want to enjoy hearty eats without guilt? Health’s food director shares the secret.
Now that we’re in the thick of winter, are you craving gooey pastas, creamy potatoes and meats—rich foods that are warming and so satisfying? Yeah, me too.
Of course, it’s fine to have those foods sometimes (I can’t imagine a world without baked ziti or my mother’s brisket), but do it too often and, well, you know. Luckily, there’s a healthy way to satisfy that urge. In a word: umami.
You already know the common flavor profiles—sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Umami (pronounced ooh-MAH-mee) is the fifth one; it’s savory, meaty, and rich.
If the word umami sounds familiar, that’s because it's become a trend. There’s an urban restaurant chain called Umami Burger, and Momofuku’s David Chang has a culinary lab dedicated to developing umami flavors.
So what makes umami? A bit of science: The source is glutamates, a type of amino acid found naturally in some foods, including the ones below. Glutamates in the preservative form monosodium glutamate (MSG) are often put into processed food. The natural version gives you plenty of nutrients, which can help keep your energy humming along. Another benefit: Recent research published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that an umami-fied meal leaves you feeling satisfied for longer.
I asked Olivia Roszkowski, a chef who teaches a class on vegan umami at the Natural Gourmet Institute culinary school in New York City (I’m a graduate), for creative, delicious, and simple ways to incorporate the fifth flavor. Enjoy.
Fries with ketchup, chips plus salsa—tomatoes bring umami. Fresh ones are out of season, so make marinara from canned tomatoes, put tomato paste in glazes for chicken, or add sun-dried tomatoes to pan sauces.
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Slice shiitake mushroom caps thin, toss with a little olive oil and salt, spread on a parchment-lined baking sheet and bake at 350ºF until browned, about 10 minutes. Sprinkle the crunchy, smoky bits into salads, enjoy them with polenta, or tuck a bunch into a sandwich.
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Parmesan cheese, wine, and vinegar can give tremendous flavor for very few calories. Shave some Parmesan over roasted Brussels sprouts, deglaze a skillet with wine, or whisk vinegar into salad dressing.
Roots and tubers
Roasting sweet potatoes, carrots, and parsnips brings out their flavor. You’ll want to caramelize them for maximum umami.
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Toast almonds or walnuts and seeds like sesame, sunflower, or pumpkin, then toss into salads for crunch. Also lightly toast grains like oats, brown rice or millet before adding liquid.
BETH LIPTON is Health’s food director. Keep up with her inspiring food and fitness images at instagram.com/healthmagazine.