Umami Explained: How to Enhance the Flavours in Your Meals Naturally

When it comes to food, ‘umami’ seems to be the word of 2021. With Celebrity Masterchef currently gracing out televisions, barely an episode goes by when you don’t hear one of the judges using the new buzz word as a way to describe the delicious food they’re tasting.

But what exactly is umami, and more importantly, how can we use it to enhance the flavours in our meals naturally?

The Latch spoke to Nutrition Research Australia’s Dr Flavia Fayet-Moore, who has been researching mushrooms to better understand their health benefits and has contributed to discovering some exciting recent advancements, to find out.

So What Exactly Is Umami?

As it turns out, umami is the fifth basic taste — along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter explained Dr Flavia. The word itself has Japanese origin meaning ‘a pleasant savoury taste’ and is often describes as a savoury ‘meaty’ flavour according to Healthline.

The Mighty Mushie is often described as having an umami flavour, thanks to its natural glutamates or glutamic acid, a common amino acid commonly found in vegetable and animal proteins.

“Mushrooms have natural glutamates that offer a uniquely umami-rich flavour profile and that can help reduce the amount of salt you add to your dishes,” Dr Flavia said.

“This is because umami sensitises your taste buds to salt, so 30-40% less salt can be used without affecting flavour! Parmesan cheese and truffle oil also have umami, and that’s why mushroom risotto tastes soooo good.”

How Can Umami Be Used to Enhance Meals Naturally?

Like Dr Flavia mentioned, adding Australian Mushrooms to dishes helps to reduce the amount of salt needed to bring out the flavours in your dish. But aside from bringing even more umami flavour to your meals, mushrooms such as flat, cup, Swiss brown, button and Portobello actually have increased health benefits when they are cooked too.

“Although Australian Mushrooms are also delicious to snack on or to add to your salads raw, you can enhance the absorption of some nutrients by cooking them,” Dr Flavia said.

“When you cook your mushies, the content of beta-glucans, polyphenol and antioxidants increases! From a nutritional standpoint, grilling or pan-frying mushrooms on lower heat and adding lemon juice is one of the best techniques to preserve your mushies’ nutrients, including vitamin D.”

What Food Pairings Bring Out the Umami Flavour?

Not only does cooking increase umami in savoury foods by releasing glutamate and other umami substances, the umami flavour and nutritional benefits of mushrooms can be further enhanced in certain food pairings such as with lemon juice, olive oil and mixing with meat.

“For example, cooking anything in extra virgin olive oil results in some of the nutrients and antioxidants from the oil being added to the mushrooms for an extra nutritional punch,” Dr Flavia explained. “Not only that, but the addition of the oil to the mushrooms helps enhance the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins — like vitamin D!”

Mushrooms also have a unique and versatile texture, which makes for a great addition to your minced meat.

“It’s pretty amazing — adding finely chopped Australian Mushrooms when cooking your mince (for spag bol, a burger patty or rissoles) will boost their nutritional content, while making your minced meat go further, and at the same time enhancing flavour naturally!” Dr Flavia added.

“The combination of glutamates, unique ‘hydrophobin’ proteins, and chitin, give mushrooms a savoury mouthfeel and flavour. Research has shown that substituting meat with mushrooms in mince dishes has similar palatability and acceptability with less kilojoules, sodium and saturated fat. There are lots of tasty recipes on the Australian Mushroom website, which will help you pair your mushies to perfection.”

So How Many Mushrooms Is Too Many Mushrooms?

Since mushrooms can be used as an alternative to salt, you can add them to your meals to naturally flavour your dishes. But how often should you be doing this? According to Dr Flavia, “the answer is always as often as you enjoy them!”

“Australian Mushrooms are super accessible and versatile. They make a great addition to your meals if you’re looking to naturally enhance flavour (due to their natural ‘umami’ or savoury flavour), and at the same time, it boosts the nutrients in your meal and they are low in kilojoules,” she said.

“How many mushies you add to your meals is down to your taste preference. If you’re wanting to know what the science says, then having about 100g (or three cup mushrooms or five button mushrooms) provides several nutrients that our bodies need every day.”

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