A History of Taste and Umami
Up until a couple centuries ago, science recognized four main tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, and sour. The conclusion was drawn from the shape of human tongue receptors that align with the varying shapes of the molecules that make up foods with the four main tastes. However, in the late 1800s, Escoffier changed the way people cooked and considered taste. He created veal stock and brown sauces that did not align with the four tastes, rather seeming to highlight the existence of another taste category altogether. In 2002 scientists and chefs finally began to recognize the validity of this “new” taste. It turns out that tongue receptors also recognize L-glutamate, the broken down chemical of glutamate, which is found in many organic (living) ingredients. They coined this taste as umami.
Umami and MSG Food
Umami is a fantastic justification for restaurants’ MSG use. Mono-sodium glutamate is occasionally used to enhance the flavor of food, similar to a spice. It is especially common in preparation of Chinese food, supermarket snacks, and soup mixes. MSG food is speculated to have negative health impacts, so many consumers are wary of eating and ordering food known to contain it. Though MSG food is stereotyped as delicious, people actually prefer it when it is used similar to salt, in moderation and relatively small quantities. Cooks should be cautious with the use of MSG in cooking. There are other, natural ways to add umami taste to foods and maximize the components that make up the flavor, in foods that contain the necessary chemical compounds.
Putting the Science of Cooking to Use
In the science of cooking, the best food will target tongue receptors from all sides, balancing the five tastes. Cooks are encouraged to regularly sample the food they prepare to ensure customers are receiving appealing dishes. When weighing which flavors are missing from the dish, all five tastes must be considered. Fish, shellfish, cured meats, ripe vegetables, and fermented and aged products are high in the chemicals that give food umami flavor. Using stocks to create sauces and soups, and Grilling ingredients such as meat, fish, vegetables, and aged cheeses, can help bring out and maximize the umami flavor in dishes.
The science of cooking is a great reference point for chefs to take tips from nature and apply them to the improvement of their skills. The discovery of the umami taste altered the science of cooking by adding a taste factor for cooks to consider when seasoning their dishes. By using taste profiles of dishes in relation to tongue receptors, chefs and cooks can create tastier dishes.