How is it that different cooks can use the same recipe and come out with such different results? It’s because a recipe is a description of how to create a dish, and those directions can be interpreted differently. Some people know instinctively how to get the most out of ingredients, cooking methods, and flavorings; others need a little help.
It begins with – I’m sure you’ve heard this multiple times – selecting good ingredients. A mealy, too young tomato can never rival a properly ripe one. It means knowing how and when it’s OK to make substitutions. Someone who shall remain nameless, following a recipe for cheese sauce which I’d given her, used mozzarella because it was all she had in the house. Melt a bland cheese into a base of butter and milk and — ho hum — no wonder it had no taste.
If a recipe calls for something to be browned, brown it. Searing won’t happen in a pan that isn’t properly heated, or a pan that’s crowded. Food gives off liquid which must be evaporated off quickly, or the result will be steamed or boiled food. What makes a grilled steak so tasty? It’s the browning that occurs over the high heat of a grill, a process that’s known as the Maillard reaction. A complex reaction between sugars and amino acids which produces hundreds of aromatic, flavorful by-products, it’s what produces that wonderful “meaty” result. However, it can happen in foods other than meats, like mushrooms and tomatoes.
The Maillard reaction is similar to, but not the same as, caramelization. Caramelization is a breaking down of sugars in foods. In cooking, water is removed from the food as steam, and the sugars are broken down. A perfect example of this is glazed carrots.
There are five tastes — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami, which means delicious or yummy in Japanese. It’s so called because until the early 20th century, there were thought to be only four tastes; but in 1908, it was a Japanese professor in Tokyo who identified this fifth “savory” one and called it “deliciousness.” Umami is caused by a type of amino acid called glutamate and ribonucleotides, which occur naturally in many foods such as meat, fish, vegetables, and dairy products. And returning to the Maillard reaction, it produces umami in protein-rich foods.
Asian fermented seasonings like fish sauce (nuoc mam or nam pla are two well-known ones), miso, soy sauce, and fermented black beans, and dashi (made with kombu, a seaweed, and bonito, dried fish flakes) all provide plenty of umami seasoning. In Western cuisine, such things as anchovy paste, Worcestershire sauce, mushrooms (mushroom ketchup in Britain), tomatoes (fresh, paste, ketchup, chili sauce, salsa, etc.), stocks, beef, pork (particularly ham, bacon, pancetta, and prosciutto), veal, chicken, fish and shellfish, and fermented foods like cheese, all contain umami and are used as flavor enhancers.
This is why you often find a bit of tomato added to kick up the flavor of a soup. You can mix and match cuisines, too. I discovered years ago that a bit of soy sauce in a beef stew enhanced the beefy flavor of the stew without revealing its presence as such.
Umami is not a flavor in and of itself; think of it as a flavor enhancer. Umami intensifies the taste of salt and sweet, and balances bitter and sour. A bit of salt brings out the umami in a tomato. Try it next time you have a nice ripe tomato. Take a bite of it plain, then sprinkle a little sea salt on it and take another bite. It really makes a difference; the plain slice tastes good, but a little flat. Salt plus the umami naturally present in the tomato combine to kick up the flavor a notch.
Steamed vegetables and tofu can be boring. However, add a dipping sauce with soy sauce in it, and now your meal’s a lot more interesting. Fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut contain umami and enhance what they’re served with.
Returning to the bland cheese sauce mentioned earlier, you now know why the bland mozzarella did nothing for the taste. More salt wouldn’t have helped. A cheese with more umami, like cheddar or gruyere, however, would have. Think umami next time you’re pondering how to improve the flavor of a dish. There are lots of choices now that you’re aware of this fifth taste and the foods and seasonings which are rich in it.