TURN'S OUT THERE'S a reason (other than seasonal greed) that we can't help ourselves from face-planting that cheese board, and umami – the savoury taste – is it.
Officially discovered just over a century ago by a Japanese scientist, it's actually something that's been known about since, well, since cavemen first cooked a wildebeest over a fire and said "Yum, these caramelised amino acids taste alright, you know."
Since then, a whole load of science has emerged about what umami really is (the taste imparted by glutamate that occurs in a host of foods including cooked meats, fish, seaweed, tomatoes and strong cheeses), and the benefits it imparts (everything from enhanced satiety to better digestion) but what it really boils down to is this: Umami is that mouth-coating, effortlessly moreish, sometimes entirely unidentifiable thing that makes you want to keep putting fork to mouth.
People mistake it for saltiness, but that's a one-dimensional taste. Umami has layers, depth; it can change its character throughout the course of a dish. It's the best mac n cheese you've ever eaten, a rich venison stew, mushy peas, that broad bean and pecorino dip from Waitrose you're certain is laced with crack it's so addictive. And no one knows how better to achieve it than chefs. Here's how they do it...
"Peruvian food often includes a lot of Japanese influences, so we use dashi – a soup and cooking stock made from seaweed – as a natural flavour enhancer in our duck on rice dish. It's mixed into a saffron butter sauce and cooked in with the rice. We also glaze our lamb belly dish with a mix of white miso paste (available in all Asian supermarkets and online), rice vinegar, light brown sugar and butter so it has a nice balance of salty, sweet and creamy. Even our carrots are cured in miso for three days before being grilled. It extracts some of the juices, increases the natural sweetness and also seasons them without the use of salt. Buy some miso paste or hon dashi (miso soup base) and try it next time you do a roast, make gravy or do a stew. It's great for boosting flavour and minimising the use of salt."
"An easy and really great way that I enhance the umami flavours of any dish is by doing something incredibly easy. Taking a few banana shallots with the skin on, I cover them completely in sea salt and bake them until they are cooked in their own juices. Once baked, remove them from their skin and gently stir fry them in butter until they turn into a dark brown creamy mass. Add the shallots hot or cold to soups or sauces, or layer them in between pieces of meat before roasting."
"Many overlook leafy vegetables and other greens such as cabbage and lettuce as umami sources, but these too can add the desired savoury fullness to your food. I find caramelising them heightens their flavour by extracting their high glutamate content. Next time you make a stock, sauce or any sort of casserole, brown your meat with a few whole heads of baby gem lettuce or cabbage wedges. This browning is called the 'Maillard reaction' – it enhances umami with many foods but when combined with those rich in glutamate you will achieve a fuller flavour."
Seaweed – more specifically kombu – is a great natural source of glutamate. If you want to make a super flavoured hummus, try adding a piece of kombu or kelp to your chickpeas when boiling them. It will enhance the flavour, and make them more digestible. You can also try this when making lentils or beans – it adds a subtle savoury boost without being overpowering."
"I learnt this from an Italian chef I worked with at Al Duca in Mayfair many years ago. We used to save the rinds from the huge blocks of parmesan, grill or roast them and then put them in a pot covered with red wine, salt, molasses, bay leaves and thyme leaves. We would then bring them to the boil, simmer for ten minutes and then leave to cool. When cold we would throw in thick pork chops, legs of lamb or whole beef rumps and brine for three hours, or overnight for the bigger cuts, before cooking. The flavour the brine imparts is like nothing else – parmesan rinds have a really complex taste and the roasting or grilling accentuates it. The wine is the vehicle to transfer this to the meat. It's easy to do at home, just stick to more robust cuts of meat as the flavour is pretty punchy. I think turkey prepared this way would work brilliantly."
"This ingredient, which you can buy from Asian supermarkets and also from Sous Chef (souschef.co.uk), is typical to Sichuan cuisine and the 'secret' of making mala (a spicy hot pot broth in China and Taiwan). It's bold, salty and hot, but with subtle inherent sweetness that is characteristic of fermented bean products. Doubanjiang is brownish red, and is the ingredient that binds all the disparate elements of this broth – the dried chilli, Sichuan peppercorns and Chinese spices – together. It originates from China but also exists cross-culturally in Korea and Japan. Add it to stocks, soups, bone broths or anything you are making that needs a hit of extra flavour."
"Yes, it's got a funny name, but this thick black paste, made from pounding crabs with lemongrass leaves, galangal leaves and guava leaves is just one of the many ways Thai cookery achieves umami. It's fermented and is a deeply savoury umami-builder for relishes and salads. Available at Asian supermarkets and online, it's very strong and pungent with a salty ocean aroma. I use it mixed in fried rice, chilli relish and green papaya and crab salad but you can also use it instead of fish sauce in Thai recipes, or where you'd use anchovies in western cooking – with lamb, for example."
"When we're preparing our beef at the restaurant, we clean off all the fat and melt it at a really low temperature. Kobe fat has a very low smoke point, so once it's melted we leave it to cool. It takes on a butter-like texture and you can use it in much the same way. We use it to cook steaks, emulsion gravies, to make certain dressings and savoury purées and to fry our gyozas. We also use it to make our hollandaise sauce, adding a real depth and richness but not an overwhelming beefy taste. It not only boosts flavour but is full of good omega 3 and 6 fats."
"It was Fergus Henderson who first coined the phrase 'anchovy gunge' and I learnt this from him during my time at St John. All you need to make it is 250g of anchovy fillets, 25ml water, 1l rapeseed oil, 100ml A Mano olive oil, half a garlic clove and 7.5ml cabernet sauvignon vinegar. Simply blitz up the anchovies into a paste using a blender, add in the water, then slowly pour in the rapeseed oil. Once emulsified grate in half a clove of garlic, add the remaining olive oil and vinegar. You can then use this sauce as a seasoning for lamb shanks, in sauces or with beef. Stirred in at the last minute, it's great for adding an umami hit, and don't worry, cooked with other things it doesn't make everything taste of anchovy. I promise."
"We use marmite every day in the kitchen, even though it's not listed as a main ingredient on the menu. It's got a powerful umami flavour that brings out a rich depth in other ingredients. We use it as a marinade for salmon sashimi. To make it at home, simply mix 150ml soy sauce, 150ml sake and a teaspoon of marmite, and marinate the salmon for 30 minutes. It's also great on pork loin, which only requires 15 minutes. Marinate it, wipe with water, wrap, then keep in the fridge overnight before grilling and serving with wasabi and soy sauce."