Umami is the flavor that adds a special something to the foods we love. We might not even know exactly what the flavor is but it just makes things taste better. New research has shown that we crave the flavors that we think are beneficial to our health even if they’re not. For example, our addiction to sugar comes from a caveman instinct that subconsciously made us want food that quickly produced a caloric boost. Umami is the newest of these flavors and we crave it because we need protein to survive.
What is Umami Flavor?
According to Cameron Staunch, author of Vegetarian Viet Nam, umami is a savory flavor that was first discovered by the Japanese but has since been adopted by most all cuisines. It’s known as the “fifth taste”, after salt, sweet, sour, and bitter. It’s that depth of flavor that you get from grilling or roasting meats. As mentioned above, umami flavor signifies protein, which is something that we humans need to survive. That’s why we enjoy the flavor and that’s why we crave more. Protein is made up of amino acids which are the building blocks of all living beings and of human cells.
How to Add Umami Flavor to Vegetarian Cooking
Umami flavor is closely associated with high protein foods and especially meats and cheeses, but according to Staunch, mushrooms can help intensify umami flavor in vegetarian dishes. For an umami point of view, try reconstituting dried shiitake mushrooms and adding them to Asian dishes. Dried porcini mushrooms add umami flavor to European dishes. If you know someone who forages, consider adding chanterelles or morels, which can add an umami bomb of flavor to your cooking. This umami powder is the perfect condiment to add beneficial mushrooms to your favorite dishes.
“Mushroom powder is magical. It’s meaty, smoky, and filled with intense umami flavor. I prefer the natural glutamates found in dried mushrooms, although Vietnamese vegetarian cooks often turn to a manufactured vegan mushroom seasoning called hạt nêm nấm to impart added savoriness,” says Staunch. “I add it habitually in small amounts, like salt and pepper, to soups, stir-fries, and braises.”
Cameron Staunch's Umami Mushroom Powder
- 1 ounce (30 g) dried shiitake mushrooms
- Break the mushrooms into smaller pieces with your hands, scissors, or a knife. (Break off the hard stems of large shiitakes and store in the freezer to use when making vegetable stock.) Put into a spice or coffee grinder (or a blender with a narrow bowl) and grind for a couple of minutes. Stop occasionally to use a spoon or spatula to loosen any large pieces that may get stuck under the blades. (Note: When stopping the grinder, leave the top on for a minute or two to allow the mushroom dust to settle.) Tip the powder into a small bowl. Gently tap the grinder cover over the bowl or use a spatula or a clean, dry brush to collect any powder that has stuck to it.
- Transfer to a clean, dry jar and store indefinitely in a cool, dry place.
The Health Benefits of Mushrooms
Mushrooms are a vegetarian source of protein that provides a host of other vitamins and minerals like selenium, which helps the immune system work properly and prevents damage to cells and tissues. Mushrooms also contain vitamin D, which helps our bones to absorb calcium and reduces your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and cancer.
A study published in the September 2017 edition of the International Journal of Molecular Sciences found that mushrooms served as prebiotics, a food ingredient that helped with the growth of beneficial microorganisms and was good for gut health. Another study published in the October 2017 edition of Food Chemistry demonstrated that “certain mushroom species are high in glutathione and ergothioneine and should be considered an excellent dietary source of these important antioxidants.” Another study published in the 2010 edition of Nutrition and Cancer found that mushrooms decreased the risk of breast cancer in premenopausal women.
We crave umami flavor because we crave protein to survive but you might consider reaching for a vegetarian source of protein in the form of beneficial mushrooms. Chalked full of antioxidants and easily accessible, you’ll be glad you did.
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