What’s the secret? Umami!
Sweet, salty, sour, bitter are the four most widely documented and accepted flavors. They are flavors that are easily recognizable. They are flavors that are important because they have played a key role in our evolution. We cannot survive without salt. Early civilizations flourished around sources of salt and in some cases used the salt as currency. We are immediately drawn to sweet because it tastes good and we have an inherent need for calories. Sour is a little bit of a curveball but seems to lead us to fruit and the very important Vitamin C. Bitter is a pretty straightforward evolutionary red flag; warning! Don’t eat me!
Whereas the four primary flavor are self-explanatory, umami is about flavor itself. Dubbed the ‘fifth flavor,’ it has been described as ‘savory’ or ‘meaty.’ The literal translation from Japanese is ‘deliciousness.’ I like that one! Specifically it is about the presence of the amino acid glutamate. In general it is about how much glutamate is present and how it interacts with the chemicals in other foods. This interaction is known as synergy or why the combination of foods tastes way better than the individual foods themselves. Invariably where there is a lot of flavor there is a lot of glutamate present. That is where we find umami.
The tongue craves what the body needs.
So, where does this fifth flavor fit into evolution, you ask? We all need protein to survive. Protein of itself does not taste like much, but it can be manipulated. Take raw beef, a good source of protein; but tasty? Not really! But make it into a patty and grill it and the transformation begins. First the ‘Malliard Reaction’ kicks in, as the sugars and the glutamates combine with the high heat to develop hundreds of unique flavors. Now add a slice of cheese, a bun, some onion, a pickle, red onion, a daub of dijon and a generous squirt of ketchup and you have a cheeseburger! You have created an interaction of flavors greater than the sum of its parts. A cheeseburger: an umami bomb!
What umami is really all about is MAGIC, or a slightly more technical term, synergy.
It is what makes a cheeseburger so appealing; it is what makes parmesan cheese on top of that meat sauce so delicious; it is why you dip your spring roll into fish sauce; it is why we slather ketchup on literally everything! It is the development of flavor by combining complimentary ingredients. Think of it in musical terms when you put three notes together and it becomes a chord and transcends the individual notes.
So now is the perfect time to enjoy a burger cooked on your own grill in the backyard. Drop by the Meat Department at your favorite Co-op Food Store location and pick up some fresh ground beef. The Produce Department is full of fresh lettuce and red ripe tomatoes. A couple of buns from the Bakery Department, a bit of your favorite cheese and perhaps some potato salad from our hard-working PFD chefs and you are good to go. Oh, don’t forget the ketchup!
Umami, the stealth flavor!
Tips for a great burger
- Buy good, fresh ground beef.
- Use ¼ to 1/3 lb. per burger.
- Form patty gently; make small indent in the middle.
- Sprinkle with salt and fresh ground pepper.
- Refrigerate until needed.
- Preheat the grill.
- Grill should be lightly oiled.
- 2-3 minutes per side will give you a nice pink burger.
- If you don’t like pink, cook it longer.
- Let it rest for a couple of minutes.
- Serve with a nice bun and all of you favorite condiments!