Umami-Rich Ingredients & How I Use Them
Umami is a taste sensation that makes foods savory, complex, satisfying and mouthwatering…it’s the key to great cooking! Here’s a look at how I use and combine ingredients to develop umami in my food.
Last week, I shared some of my thoughts on why developing umami in food is important – especially in vegan cooking (read it here). This week, in part two of the series, I’m taking a closer look at my favorite umami-rich ingredients I like to use, how I combine ingredients to optimize umami sensations and how I take advantage of cooking methods that take umami to the next level.
Let’s begin by taking a quick spin around my kitchen and see what I always have on hand in the pantry and refrigerator to help me build and balance tastes and flavor.
Using Umami-Rich Ingredients
I suppose the easiest way to give your food an umami boost is to go right to the source and add a touch of MSG to your food. But MSG alone will only boost savory tones and not much else. It’s sort of like adding salt to enhance saltiness instead of adding soy sauce, which will do the same plus add some bonus complexity. This is the point of using umami-rich ingredients; they work together to balance a recipe and give it that something extra that could be missing.
There are many vegan ingredients that naturally help boost savory notes without relying on MSG. But it’s also important to understand that many of these ingredients are rich in salt, naturally acidic and have a touch of bitterness. Adding too much of these umami-rich ingredients often tilts the balance of flavors and the end result is not pleasing. Cooking methods may also concentrate flavors – especially true when reducing a liquid. My advice is to go easy when using some of these ingredients until you find your sweet spot and get a good feel for creating a balance of tastes.
Whole Plant-Based Sources
Olives – I use either whole olives or olives in paste form. I think olives are especially effective when paired with green vegetables or in combination with tomatoes.
Tomatoes – Whole tomatoes are naturally high in glutamate, so they will always provide a savory note to food. I use sun-dried tomatoes, a concentrated source of umami, in my vegetable broth or in combination with roasted walnuts. Roasting tomatoes is another way to concentrate their savory character, made even better with a touch of sherry vinegar or balsamic vinegar. Tomato paste is just a concentrated form of whole tomatoes – it is high in glutamates and brings savory and sweet notes to a dish.
·Mushrooms – Whole mushrooms – especially porcini, portobello, shiitake and common brown button – are rich in glutamates. Dried mushrooms are even richer with concentrated amounts of glutamate – and don’t forget about the liquid used to reconstitute dried mushrooms. One of my favorite methods is to dry mushrooms (or purchase dried) and grind them in a mini-blender or coffee blender. I use this mushroom powder liberally in soups, stews and whenever I want to make a meat replacement recipe.
Capers – Both salt-cured and brine-cured capers are rich in savory notes. I use a combination of both types to replace anchovies in recipes. I also like using capers in fatty sauces or with tomatoes to create balance and depth of flavor – leaving them whole is especially effective in getting an occasional bite of savory goodness in a sauce.
Miso – Fermented soybean paste is an ideal way to incorporate umami into a dish. I like to use a touch of miso to finish a soup, stew or sauce. I also use it to glaze vegetables or to help accentuate a cheesy note to a dish. Keep in mind, there are many types of miso pastes – some dark and rich and some light and almost sweet. Not all miso is made from soybeans, so be sure to read the ingredients and understand what you are using.
Pickling Juice – I like to use the pickling juice from sauerkraut, kimchi, preserved lemons, jalapeno peppers and capers to build complex layers of umami flavors – especially in long cooked soups or stews. Pickling juice is especially nice in marinades.
Soy Sauce, Tamari and Liquid Aminos – These ingredients are umami bombs. Using them in combination with other ingredients can elevate the other layers. But be aware of the high salt content in these ingredients. Too much will often result in a salt-heavy outcome – not my favorite. I like combining these fermented ingredients with acid-rich ingredients and a touch of sweetness for extra umami-rich marinades.
Fermented Black Beans – Beans add a dense, chewy texture that is especially savory when they are fermented. I also combine fermented beans with tofu for an interesting and “meaty” outcome like this recipe.
Kelp (Kombu), Dulce, Nori Sheets, Wakame – The natural white substance found on kombu (dried kelp) is a natural form of MSG. I like to use pieces of sea greens in broths or soups to elevate savory notes. I often slip a piece of dried sea green in my rice as it cooks (classic for sushi rice) to really lift the flavor of rice. I also grind dried dulce into a powder and use it as a salt replacer in many recipes – oddly delicious in popcorn. Finally, I crumble nori sheets and mix them with sesame seeds to create a wonderful aromatic and umami-rich sprinkle for rice or salads.
Chinese Black Rice, Brown, Balsamic and Sherry – Combining vinegar with other umami-rich ingredients is one of my keys to boosting the richness of a dish. My favorite vinegar for this purpose is Chinese Black Rice – made from fermented rice, wheat, barley and sorghum. It has a distinctly sweet-tart flavor that marries perfectly with soy sauce…and perhaps a pinch of chili pepper. Brown rice vinegar is milder in flavor – I use it to flavor sushi rice (or other rice dishes). Balsamic vinegar and sherry wine vinegar are my favorite go to umami-rich vinegars for salads and salsas – they combine well with yeast-based ingredients.
Nutritional Yeast – This ingredient is naturally rich in glutamic acid. I use it frequently to finish a dish or during the cooking process to give my food a nutty flavor and slight cheesy characteristic reminiscent to parmesan cheese. I use it in its flake form or in combination with golden flaxseeds and a touch of acid to create a shaker I use in risotto dishes or to finish a pasta dish. Here’s how I make my flaxseed-parmesan shaker.
Yeast Extract – Yeast extracts contain high amounts of glutamate and sodium. I use it sparingly as a small teaspoon is often enough to flavor whatever I’m preparing. Dissolve yeast extract in a small amount of liquid first, then add it to marinades, soups, sauces, stews and especially meat replacement dishes. Combine a teaspoon with a tablespoon of cashew butter to create a flavorful and cheesy spread. Vegemite and Marmite are versions of yeast extract, but with additional flavors from spices and added vegetables.
Liquid Smoke – I use liquid smoke in small amounts to give food a noticeable smokiness without the bother of smoking the product…and smoke gives food a lot of umami sensations. Be sure to select a product that is 100% extracted aroma without any fats or chemical agents – in essence, it should be concentrated and distilled smoke. One caution – it is extremely simple to overdo it with liquid smoke. For me, 5-10 drops of the ingredient I use is usually enough.
Smoked Paprika – Spanish-style smoked paprika is especially effective in creating a background smokiness to a dish. I use it in rubs, sauces and of course, my gazpacho recipe.
Lapsang souchong tea – This tea is wonderfully smoky. I use it in brines or marinades, grind it and use as a part of a spice mix for certain seitan preparations and use the smoky tea to create a sweet soaking liquid for dried fruits.
Cooking Methods that Boost Umami Sensations
Dry heat cooking methods – like roasting, grilling or sautéing – boost umami by concentrating flavors and altering proteins. The caramelized surface sugars of plants take on sweet and somewhat bitter flavors, while undergoing texture changes. These intensified flavors completely change the way in which a simple vegetable tastes. A quick look at asparagus confirms what I’m suggesting. Boiled or steamed asparagus is moist and delicious. Without any additional components, asparagus prepared in this matter is somewhat subtle – grassy notes of spring fill the mouth. Instead of boiling or steaming, the same asparagus spears cooked in a hot oven or on a hot BBQ grill taste much different. The natural water in the vegetable evaporates, leaving concentrated flavors of asparagus. The high heat will have caramelized some of the surface sugars, adding sweetness and a tinge more bitterness to the asparagus – the mouth is filled with much more than grassy spring notes…there is a sweet richness mixing with the slightly charred exterior…it is the difference between a complete orchestra versus a quartet of string instruments. Or if you prefer a simpler metaphor, it is the difference between eating bread or toast…and that depends on your mood.
Next up in my umami series is how to work with meat replacements – especially the kitchen secrets of creating umami-rich seitan dishes. I hope you continue to follow me on this fascinating journey…and use the information I offer to help you develop your own style – or at least explore ways that may help you cook incredibly satisfying vegan meals.
As always, I want your feedback…so, 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.
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This recipe is a perfect example of how tofu can be transformed into a delicious, umami-rich dish. The secret lies in the marinating technique. Marinating the tofu for a minimum of 30 minutes allows flavors to soak right into the tofu. The sautéing is done in a dry pan to caramelize the exterior sugars and create both flavor and texture. Finally, the remaining marinade is reduced to a concentrated glaze and the tofu sits in this delicious glaze for another 10-15 minutes to infuse even more flavor.
Yield: makes about 4-6 servings
300 grams (10 ½ ounces) firm tofu, cut into 3-cm pieces
60 grams (2 ¼ ounces) tamari or soy sauce
2 tablespoons mirin
1 large tablespoon brown rice vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
Sea salt to season
chili flakes to taste
Begin by marinating the tofu. Combine the tamari or soy sauce, mirin, brown rice vinegar, maple syrup and seasoning in wide and shallow dish large enough to fit the tofu in a single layer. Be cautious with the amount of salt used in the marinade – it should be on the light side because the sauce will reduce to a concentrated glaze. Add the tofu pieces and marinade for 30-60 minutes. Remove the tofu to a clean plate, making sure to reserve the marinade.
Heat a large non-stick pan over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the tofu (work in batches if necessary to prevent overcrowding) and increase the temperature to medium-high. Turn the tofu after a minute – they should be lightly colored on the cooked side. Cook another minute. Remove the cooked tofu to a clean plate and continue to finish cooking all the tofu pieces.
Once the tofu is cooked, return them to the hot pan and add the leftover marinade. Cook until marinade thickens and becomes a glaze. Toss the tofu well in the glaze. Serve hot with steamed rice and some steamed vegetables if you like.
Tips and Variations
You can also make the same recipe using tempeh slices instead of tofu. The result will be similar… just a bit heartier.
Gluten-free variation - I prefer using a lite soy sauce when making this recipe but go ahead and use what you have on hand. Tamari makes the recipe gluten-free.
The mirin adds a touch of sweetness to the tofu. Use plain sake or even white wine if you do not have any mirin in your pantry.
Brown rice vinegar is my favorite. Alternatives could include white wine vinegar, apple vinegar, Chinese black rice vinegar or even balsamic vinegar.
I use maple syrup as the sweetening agent…feel free to use honey (the traditional method) if you’re on that side of the vegan fence.
Lamb’s Lettuce with Smoky Crumbled Tempeh and Sumac Onions
I’ve chosen my version of smoky crumbled tempeh for this recipe, which adds a rich depth of flavor and offsets the tangy sumac-cured onions and tangy yogurt dressing. The entire recipe is simple to make and the combination is delicious and packed with umami sensations.
Yield: makes about 4-6 servings
500 grams (one pound) fresh lamb’s lettuce
one medium size red onion
sea salt for seasoning and marinating
1 teaspoon ground sumac
freshly ground black pepper
Smoky Crumbled Tempeh
250 grams (8 ounces) tempeh
4-6 tablespoons lite soy sauce
2 tablespoons dried oregano
1 medium onion, peeled and quartered
1 clove garlic, peeled and crushed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon liquid smoke
2 teaspoons Chinese black rice vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons nutritional yeast
Tangy Yogurt Dressing
6 tablespoons soy yogurt
1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
1 tablespoon freshly grated horseradish
juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1/2 clove garlic, peeled and grated
2 tablespoons capers
1 tablespoon cashew butter
1 tablespoon nutritional yeast
60-120 ml. soy milk
Wash the lamb’s lettuce well. It may take 2-3 washings to remove all the grit from between the leaves. Dry the lettuce on a towel.
Make the sumac onions. Peel the onion and slice moderately thin, then place them in a small bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon sea salt and 1 teaspoon ground sumac. Knead the onions with your fingers to work the salt and spice into the onions. Set aside and allow the brined onions to soften – this will take about 10-15 minutes.
Make the smoky crumbled tempeh: Place the block of tempeh into a pot just large enough to hold it. Add 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dried oregano, the quartered onion, the crushed garlic clove, the bay leaf and 1/2 teaspoon of liquid smoke. Add just enough water to cover the tempeh block. Bring the liquid slowly to a boil, then reduce the heat to keep a simmer and gently cook for 15 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and cool to room temperature. For best results, refrigerate overnight. Remove the tempeh and discard the liquid. Cut or crumble the tempeh into smaller bite-sized pieces and place in a bowl. Add 1/2 teaspoon liquid smoke, 2 teaspoons black rice vinegar, 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 1 tablespoon dried oregano and 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Mix well. Heat the oven to 220°C (425°F). Add the crumbled tempeh with any remaining liquid to a baking tray lined with aluminum foil. Bake 8-12 minutes, or until the tempeh is golden and slightly darker around the edges. Remove the tempeh from the oven and combine 1 tablespoon soy sauce with the nutritional yeast. Coat the tempeh well and return to the oven for 1-2 minutes.
Make the tangy yogurt dressing. Combine all the ingredients for the dressing in a blender. Use the smaller amount of soy milk initially. Blend until the dressing is smooth and somewhat thick – about one minute. Adjust the consistency with the added soy milk if you like. Season with sea salt.
Put the salad together. Add the lamb’s lettuce to a large salad bowl. Add about one half of the dressing to the salad and mix well. Serve the salad on individual plates, topped with sumac onions, pieces of smoky tempeh and sliced radishes. Top with more dressing if you like and season with freshly ground black pepper.
Tips and Variations
Lamb’s lettuce has many names. It is sometimes called Corn Lettuce, Field Lettuce, Mâche or Nut Lettuce. It usually grows in sandy conditions, so make sure you give it a good wash to get rid of any hidden bits of grit between the leaves.
Sumac is a spice that is typically found around the Mediterranean – especially Turkey. It comes from ripe red berries of the sumac bush. Once harvested, sumac berries are dried and ground to a consistency similar to coarse chili powder. Sumac is mild tasting with a noticeable acidity similar to lemons.
Replace the lite soy sauce with tamari to keep this recipe gluten-free.
Chinese black rice vinegar has a distinctive flavor. It pairs well with soy sauce (or tamari) to create umami flavors. It’s a great choice for vegan cooks in many preparations. Use balsamic vinegar as a replacement.
To save time in preparing this salad, consider making the tempeh crumble, sumac onions and the salad dressing one day in advance. Keep everything refrigerated until you are ready to put the salad together.
Jackfruit and Mushroom Ragu
I experimented with many ingredients to come up with my final combination of shredded jackfruit and chopped mushrooms – all traditionally flavored with the standard vegetables and a bit of tomato. The addition of balsamic vinegar and soy sauce work in combination to add that missing umami flavor. The end result is a very nice vegan ragu I like to use with my favorite pasta (usually just spaghetti or freshly made tagliatelle). I also use this ragu in lasagna, moussaka and shepherd’s pie. It freezes well…so I normally make a big batch.
Difficulty: simple- to moderate
Yield: Makes about 6-8 servings
500 grams (one pound) shredded jackfruit
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
350 grams (12 ounces) brown mushrooms
2 carrots, peeled and chopped fine
4 celery stalks, chopped fine
1 medium onion, chopped fine
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons tomato concentrate
2 bay leaves (ideally fresh)
125 ml. (1/2-cup) red wine
300 ml. (9 ounces) can tomato concasse (optional)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon lite soy sauce
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to season
freshly ground nutmeg to season
Heat a pan large enough to hold the jackfruit in a single layer. I like to heat the pan slowly, starting off on medium-low and turning up the temperature to medium once the pan is hot – about 5 minutes for an electric burner – much less if you are cooking over gas or using induction.
Toss the shredded jackfruit with the extra virgin olive oil and a bit of salt to season. Add the jackfruit to the pre-heated pan and cook over medium heat until the jackfruit browns. This will take anywhere from 5 to 15 minutes, depending on the type of jackfruit you used. Once cooked, remove and reserve the cooked jackfruit.
Place the mushrooms into a food processor and pulse until finely chopped. Avoid using a blender because you don’t want to create a mushroom puree. Use a knife to chop the mushrooms if you don’t have a processor. Return the same pan you used to cook the jackfruit to the stove and heat on medium. Add the mushrooms and cook, making sure you stir to prevent the mushrooms from sticking. Add a half teaspoon of salt. This encourages the mushrooms to release a lot of water – perfect! Keep cooking until all the water evaporates and the mushrooms begin to take on a dark color. Remove the mushrooms and reserve.
Working with the same pan, add the chopped carrots, celery and onions. Season with a half teaspoon salt and continue to cook and stir the mixture until the vegetables turn soft – about 10-15 minutes. Add the whole garlic to the vegetables and continue to cook for a minute or two.
Add the reserved jackfruit and mushrooms at this point. Stir the mixture well, then add the tomato concentrate and bay leaves. Make sure the mixture is thoroughly mixed. Add the tomato concasse now – if you are using it – otherwise, add 300 ml (1 1/4-cups) water. Bring to a simmer and cook 10 minutes uncovered.
Add the red wine to the mixture and cook for another 15-20 minutes, allowing about 1/2 of the liquid to evaporate. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and lite soy sauce. Cook for 5 minutes then remove the pan from the heat.
Adjust your seasoning with salt, freshly ground black pepper and some freshly grated nutmeg to taste (I grate the nutmeg until the aroma reaches my nose).
Serve right away tossed with your favorite pasta (I like spaghetti or freshly made tagliatelle). Alternatively, use in a vegan lasagna, moussaka or shepherd’s pie.
Tips and Variations
I tend to favor the easy path when it comes to using jackfruit in this recipe. I select a pre-cooked and pre-shredded boxed version – preferably without added flavors. You can use canned jackfruit in this recipe, but you will need to spend some additional time processing it. Shred chunks of jackfruit with a fork (harder pieces can be finely sliced with a knife). Toss the shredded jackfruit with a bit of oil and season with salt. Heat a medium pan over moderate heat. Add about 2-3 tablespoons of water and all the jackfruit. Cook until the jackfruit turns a light golden color, making sure to add a bit of water as necessary.
You can use different types of mushrooms in this recipe if you want, or if it is more convenient. I prefer the brown (button) mushrooms because of their woodsy flavor and darker color. White versions of the same mushroom work perfectly well – they will just be a lighter color in the end.
You can place the carrots, celery and onion in a food processor and pulse until fine. This method is much quicker if your knife skills are not so refined.
Tomato concasse is simply chopped tomatoes. Choose a variety without added ingredients. You can also use fresh tomatoes in this recipe – just chop them without worrying about the seeds or skins.
Use tamari instead of soy sauce to keep the ragu glutenfree.
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