It’s all about developing umami
Umami is a taste sensation that makes foods savory, complex, satisfying and mouthwatering…it’s the key to great cooking!
I’m coming around to the idea that cooking really tasty food is all about developing umami – get the balance of umami, acids, sweetness, saltiness and a touch of bitter right and everyone will rave about your food. And as it turns out, it doesn’t matter at all if the food is plant-based or animal-centric.
I was initially one of those stubborn chefs clinging to the belief we only have four different taste receptors: sweet, salt, acid and bitter. I brushed off early claims from industry experts that umami should be considered a taste. To me, the concept of umami was more of a combination of senses and not an isolated taste. I simply couldn’t jump on the bandwagon because of the lack of actual scientific evidence claiming humans could taste savory. Hell, at that time, no one could even define what savory meant, other than some mysterious notion of an undefined sensation that made foods taste irresistible.
Finally, after years of debate and back and forth discussions among food scientists, chefs and increasingly opiniated internet influencers, umami was scientifically proven. Neuroscientists from the University of Miami successfully located taste-bud receptors for umami in 2006. That’s when I began to slowly come around to the idea of umami, and I realized accepting umami as a separate taste experience matters a great deal when it comes to cooking – especially plant-based cooking.
What is Umami?
The four taste elements most often discussed are simple to understand. Most of us recognize the taste of sweet…or salty. It is simple to identify with the puckering sensation caused by acidic foods or that sense of medicinal dryness that arises after chewing on something bitter. But what exactly is umami? The general consensus can best be described as an intensely savory or meaty sensation that lifts – or enhances – other tastes and flavors. It’s that savory sensation found in dried and re-constituted mushrooms, or that taste found exclusively in soy sauce…or a rich dark miso.
Or put another way…umami is that ingredient used to balance a dish that seems to be lacking something.
The umami experience comes from glutamate, an amino acid that produces the umami taste when it is not bound by other amino acids. This often occurs when glutamate-rich foods are cooked in a certain way (fermentation, drying, aging and high-heat cooking), but it can also develop through natural ripening (a ripe tomato has much more glutamate than an unripe tomato).
Umami is subtle – it loves to play the role of a supporting actor in a cast of flavors. Think about an unctuous teriyaki sauce made with a bit of vinegar, a touch of soy sauce, a hint of heat and some sweetener – in theory, all four tastes are present in this sauce and balanced. Now, make the same sauce and replace the soy sauce with just a bit of salt. It’s not anywhere near the same thing without the soy sauce. This is umami…and how it works.
Most people are already familiar with this sensation – especially anyone who has had a lot of experience eating meat or aged cheese. These are umami-rich foods and the sensation is enhanced by cooking, or in the case of cheese, by aging. Plant-based foods are less obvious, although many plants are rich in umami. A properly prepared tomato sauce is delicious on pizza or tossed into spaghetti – it’s also full of umami. When the tomato sauce wasn’t properly reduced or lacked seasoning, it tastes flat…maybe watery or overly acidic. Something is missing…and that something is umami.
Plant-based cooking relies much more on proper seasoning and cooking techniques to bring out naturally occurring umami tastes. By adding umami-enhancer ingredients, plant-based recipes develop into exceptionally tasty foods – foods that do not need to be classified as vegan because they are simply tasty foods.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I will further explore how to develop umami in vegan foods. I will look at common umami-enhancer ingredients I use in the kitchen, go into cooking techniques that expand and enhance umami and discuss the role texture plays in the umami experience we crave. I hope you follow me on this fascinating journey…and begin to develop your own style and explore ways that may help you cook some incredibly satisfying meals.
As always, I would love to get your feedback. Please feel free to spark a conversation with me or other readers by leaving a comment below. Or if you prefer, simply send me a private email with your comments or questions.
Black Bean and Mushroom Burgers
One problem with vegetable burgers is the consistency and texture. I usually find them very soft. Even if they taste impressive, the soft texture thing really bothers me and makes for a less-than-satisfying burger experience – especially if they fall apart when you bite into them.
These burgers look a lot like ‘meaty’ burgers and the texture is definitely firm. They are delicious served with pickles, mustard, avocado slices and some sprouts…and of course, sandwiched between my sliced whole wheat burger buns!
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: about 4-6 large burgers
200 grams (7-ounces) cooked black beans
150 grams (5 ½-ounces) cooked black rice
200 grams (7-ounces) brown mushrooms
75 grams (2 ½-ounces) walnuts
1/2 beetroot, grated
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika
1 bunch fresh coriander, chopped
1 tablespoon, red miso paste (see notes for GF)
1 teaspoon lite soy sauce or tamari
1/2 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Freshly ground black pepper to season
Sea salt as necessary to season
75 grams chickpea flour
Place the black beans in a clean bowl and lightly mash them. Add the rice to the beans.
Chop the mushrooms in a food processor until they are fine. Remove them and add to a preheated medium sized non-stick pan. Add a light amount of salt and pepper to the mushrooms and cook over medium heat until they release their water. Continue to cook and keep the mushrooms moving so they don’t stick to the pan. Cook until the water evaporates and the mushrooms turn brown. Add the cooked mushrooms to the beans and rice.
Roast the walnuts by placing them on a baking sheet and into a cold oven. Turn the temperature to 150°C (325°F) and set a timer for 30 minutes. Process or chop the roasted walnuts until they are fine, then add them to the bean mixture. Pulse this mixture in a food processor until everything is well-mixed (you can also use your hands here and just mix everything together).
Put the mixture into a large bowl and add the beetroot, paprika, coriander, miso paste, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. Fold the mixture together, making sure it is well-kneaded. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Add the chickpea flour to the mixture until it begins to get firm. Chill the mixture for 30 minutes, then form patties.
Bake in a preheated 180° C oven for 20 minutes, grill until well-marked or dry sauté until browned on both sides.
Tips and Variations
Make sure the mixture is on the dry side before forming them into patties. I’ve needed more chickpea flour in the past, depending on how well I drained the beans and cooked the mushrooms.
You can also add more chopped walnuts to the mix to help absorb some moisture, but this also adds a touch of bitterness to the burger.
The final mix should be dry enough to stick on a hot BBQ grill without falling through the cracks…my litmus test for the perfect vegan burger mix.
Be sure to select a rice- or soy-based miso to keep everything gluten-free. Many ‘red’ miso pastes are made from (or include) barley.
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Mediterranean-Style Grilled Tofu
I was drawn to the flavor combination of lemon, olives, rosemary and a touch of heat from chili peppers while living and working in a Michelin-starred restaurant on the Ligurian coast. It was one of those unforgettable taste sensations. I knew right away these ingredients would play an important role in my cooking while I matured as a professional chef.
And I was right…the flavors of Liguria never left me and seem even more important today while I continue developing as a professional vegan chef.
I use whole olives or cut-up olives. I use small black olives or large green olives. I like to play with the amount of lemon I use – sometimes I mischievously create a surprising pucker in my food! I always use fresh rosemary to produce that unmistakable pine tree-like essence. I use small and spicy chili peppers, cayenne pepper or chili flakes to create a noticeable tickle in the throat that is designed to wake up the senses and allow the other flavors to come out and play.
And this was exactly the process I went through while developing this grilled tofu recipe.
I think the keys to making this tofu taste exceptional are to allow plenty of time to sit in the marinade – 8 hours seems optimal but 1-2 hours works just fine, allow the cooked tofu to cool completely in the remaining marinade and to give the tofu a slight smokiness by grilling it or adding a bit of liquid smoke. Enjoy the tofu as is…or turn it into a delicious sandwich – it’s perfect for a long drive or as you sit in an airplane.
Yield: 8 portions
400 grams (a bit more than 14-ounces) firm tofu
Juice of one lemon
2 tablespoons green olive tapenade (see tips below)
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
1 1/2 teaspoons dried chili flakes
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon sea salt
liquid smoke (optional)
Begin by preparing the tofu. I use 2 packages of tofu, each weighing 200 grams (about 7 ounces). Slice each piece in half horizontally to create two equal-sized portions. Cut each portion in half to create 8 pieces of tofu about 5 x 8 1/2-cm (2 x 3 1/2-inches). Place the tofu on a clean towel and pat dry.
In a baking dish large enough to hold all tofu in a single layer, combine the lemon juice, olive tapenade, chopped rosemary, dried chili flakes, extra virgin olive oil and salt. Mix well.
Add the dried tofu to the marinade, cover with plastic wrap and marinate for a minimum of 2 hours and up to 8 hours (a longer marinade creates a more flavorful tofu).
Heat the BBQ grill over moderate heat about one hour before you are ready to cook the tofu. Season the hot grill (see tips below), add the tofu and cook on one side until the tofu has noticeable grill marks (check by lifting one piece and looking at it). Turn the tofu and cook the other side in the same manner. Return the tofu to the leftover marinade and turn to coat the tofu evenly. Add the optional liquid smoke to the tofu at this point. Eat right away or cool to eat later. Grilled tofu will keep refrigerated for 5-7 days.
Tips and Variations
Always use a very firm tofu for this preparation. Softer tofu will simply fall apart and create a mess.
You can use a store-bought tapenade or make your own. Try to use a tapenade that only has olives, lemon juice, olive oil and sometimes a pinch of salt (check the ingredients on the label of store-bought to make sure). Here’s my suggested way to make tapenade.
I recommend seasoning the grill before grilling. This helps to prevent the tofu from sticking – don’t worry, there won’t be any residue left to create harmful properties on the tofu. To season the grill, cut an onion in half and stick a large fork in it. Coat with oil and apply to the grill. Do this 3 times over a 30-minute period.
Don’t try to turn the tofu over until it releases easily from the grill – a sure sign there will be nice grill marks.
As a variation, try frying or baking the tofu steaks. Fry over medium heat until lightly browned on both sides – there is no need to add oil if using a non-stick pan. To grill the tofu in the oven, preheat to 220°C (450°F) using only the top heat and placing the baking tray near the burners – oven grill about 6-8 minutes per side.
More umami-rich recipes on myfreshattitude.com
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