Sweet, sour, salty, bitter—four primary tastes that everyone knows. But the fifth taste, umami, remains a mystery to many consumers. Some have never heard of it; others recognize the word but can’t define it. But for chefs, umami is fundamental. It’s like a secret seasoning, an ingredient that makes every dish more craveable. Mastering umami—how to unleash and exploit its potential—should be part of every professional chef’s training.
Bill Briwa, chef-instructor at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone, has been studying umami and teaching novice chefs about it for many years.
For lack of a better definition, umami is a savory flavor that tends to linger on your palate. It has a mouthwatering effect. Most of the time, umami and salt go hand in hand. High-umami foods tend to be high in salt as well. High-umami foods that don’t have salt—like ripe tomatoes—taste really unbalanced until you season them.
We know sweet flavors come from sugars and sour flavors from acids. But where does umami come from?
From free glutamates. Typically glutamates are bound up in foods and we can’t perceive them. But through fermentation or long cooking, glutamates break down into a form that we do perceive. And when we taste them, we tend to like them. Cured meats like Prosciutto di Parma and Prosciutto di San Daniele and aged cheeses like Montasio and Grana Padano are loaded with free glutamates that come from long fermentations.
Is umami something you think about when you’re creating savory dishes? Are you always trying to add umami?
It’s top of mind as I’m working. A young chef once asked me for some tips on how to become a better chef, and I told him that paying attention to umami is important. I know this from my experience pairing wine and food. High-umami foods make wine seem stronger, more tannic.
Thinking about uses for Grana Padano, I decided to challenge myself to create a seasoning that would address all the basic tastes. So I developed a blend that you might put on popcorn or potato chips, and it includes Grana Padano and dried wild mushrooms—both of which have a lot of umami—plus salt, celery seed and juniper. I got sweetness from butter solids and more aroma from turmeric. It was a fun exercise. I’ve always been curious about what food scientists do to make processed foods so craveable. One technique is that they try to engage every part of your palate.
Recipe: Savory Grana Padano Umami Seasoning
People around the world enjoy the flavors of Italian food. So why limit those tasty ingredients to Italian cooking? The cured hams and aged cheeses that make the Italian table so inviting can add umami depth, originality and appeal to savory dishes from everywhere.
It’s not much of a stretch to imagine using Prosciutto di Parma in a Chinese noodle dish, fried rice or egg-drop soup. (After all, Italians have their own egg-drop soup, the lovely straciatella.) Or in Japanese, the silky egg custard, with shiitake mushrooms. Or in bánh xèo, the Vietnamese rice-flour crepe. Prosciutto di San Daniele can also cross borders. Deploy this sweet, supple ham to dress up deviled eggs or to tuck into buttermilk biscuits for brunch.
Montasio and Grana Padano shouldn’t be stopped at the border, either. Take advantage of Montasio’s meltability in a quesadilla with onions and chilies. Shower Grana Padano on black bean soup. Diners remember dishes that surprise them—that mind-expanding experience of finding familiar ingredients in an unexpected place.
Some more ideas to free up your thinking:
Recipe: Togarashi Flatbread with Grana Padano Three Ways and Soy-Grilled Vegetables
Recipe: Asian Pear, Daikon Sprouts, and Prosciutto di Parma Roulade with Wasabi Aioli
An antipasto platter should be as inviting as the rest of the meal—maybe more so since it makes the first impression. Yet so many chefs seem to be “phoning it in” with antipasti. You’ve had that tired assortment: the canned chickpeas, jarred peppers, vinegary olives and indifferent salami.
It’s time for a refresh. Think of the antipasto platter as a canvas for creativity and personalization. With Prosciutto di Parma or Prosciutto di San Daniele on hand, you have a first-class foundation. Keep the accent Italian with cheeses like Montasio or Grana Padano. Add something crisp, like farmers’ market radishes or fennel wedges, and something handmade like fig conserve or herb butter.
Here are a “baker’s dozen” suggestions to help you reboot your antipasti:
Prosciutto di Parma is made from specially fed pigs that must be raised on approved farms in a defined, north-central region of Italy.