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Pantry Engineering Pt. 2: Umami Agents

Part 2 of my Pantry Engineering series is all about umami. In order to maximize the utility of your umami agents it’s imperative you 1. Identity what each agent contributes besides umami AND 2. Understand what umami IS. The first is easier to explain: tomato paste is sweet, tart and umami whereas doubanjiang is salty, spicy and umami. (MSG is just pure umami, which is why it’s so versatile.) Make sure you are familiar with each agent’s potency and ability to withstand heat, as this determines where it sits on the cooking/finishing spectrum I discussed in the oils & vinegars post. I would classify a good majority of umami agents as “cooking”, especially because you want them incorporated into the entirety of the dish, but there are some more delicate items like this sakura shoyu (pictured above) or yuzu kosho (not great cooked) or grated hard cheese like pecorino that adds an extra something even in very small quantities.

Now, what IS umami? I really geeked out about this for @TheTakeout, so here’s an excerpt (full article in bio):

“At a chemical level, what we describe as protein—both animal-based, like chicken, or vegetable-based, like soy—is built from amino acids, or organic compounds made of carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, or sulfur that are necessary for life. This matters because the taste of these amino acids are what we associate with the flavor of “umami”, so much so that over the course of evolution, we have developed separate taste receptors on our tongue to specifically detect it.

Scientists theorize these umami-seeking receptors evolved to help us determine which foods are most rich in protein—particularly in FREE amino acids. Foods with free amino acids contain protein compounds that can break down quickly and release (or “free”) their amino acids so our bodies can use them immediately. This freeing of amino acids occurs most rapidly through some sort of heat transfer in the cooking process, but can also develop slowly through fermentation and aging.

The layering of different types of amino acids and their friends, nucleotides, are what make certain dishes particularly umami-rich. Chefs have discovered that mixing glutamate with inosinic acid (mostly found in meat and fish) and guanylate (most common in mushrooms) can be very rewarding, which is why you’ll often find velvety bowls of tonkotsu ramen made from a combination of pork and chicken, or decadent stroganoff built from beef, mushrooms and sour cream (made by adding lactic acid to cream).”

What does this mean? If you want to build layers of umami you need to use different TYPES of umami agents, made from different sources in different ways. Maggi is cooked wheat and soy based; dashi is fish and seaweed based, also cooked; gochujang is chili and rice based, but fermented. You don’t need to go overboard, but understanding how to mix-and-match umami agents to find a sweet spot you enjoy is the first step in harnessing the power of umami.

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