Bread, wine, and umami

No, this is not another post about the Sacrament.  Flying home on United yesterday, I read an interesting article in the airline magazine on “umami.”  Our tastebuds can perceive five different taste sensations, the combination of which–along with texture and temperature–constitutes all of the different flavors of foods.  The five tastes are  sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and “umami,” a Japanese word that I would translate as “savory.”  It’s that deep savory taste you get from a good steak or a piece of aged cheese.  It’s also found in mushrooms and tomatoes.  For a pure hit, which isn’t all that good-tasting by itself, taste some soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce, or MSG.

The point is that  umami needs to be complemented by other flavors to really taste good.  After making that observation, the article said this:

When combined with the acids or, more specifically, ribonucleotides isonine and guanosine—found in fermented foods, from yeast-based bread to wine—“umami synergism” occurs, flooding the mouth with an amped-up savoriness.

This is why bread and wine make food taste better!

via Hemispheres Inflight Magazine » Flavor of the Month.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Tom Hering

    We’re known for our love of cheese in Wisconsin, but when it comes to meat, bratwurst is king. Different regions of the state have distinctive ways of serving brats – varying the kind of roll it’s served on, and the sort of toppings it’s smothered with. Sauerkraut, raw onions and mustard being the most common. But over in Germany, their favorite way to eat bratwurst – and their favorite fast food – is currywursrt: bratwurst cut into one-inch pieces and topped with a curried ketchup (served with french fries or a roll on the side).

    Ahh, curry! An umami tsunami! Even Britain’s favorite restaurant and take-out dish is chicken tikka masala.

  • Tom Hering

    We’re known for our love of cheese in Wisconsin, but when it comes to meat, bratwurst is king. Different regions of the state have distinctive ways of serving brats – varying the kind of roll it’s served on, and the sort of toppings it’s smothered with. Sauerkraut, raw onions and mustard being the most common. But over in Germany, their favorite way to eat bratwurst – and their favorite fast food – is currywursrt: bratwurst cut into one-inch pieces and topped with a curried ketchup (served with french fries or a roll on the side).

    Ahh, curry! An umami tsunami! Even Britain’s favorite restaurant and take-out dish is chicken tikka masala.

  • Louis

    Having made my own wine, beer, cider, cheese, yoghurt and kefir, not to mention baking bread from wild, dried and fresh yeasts, I remain in awe of fermented foods. There is that specific “bacterial” smell, which I think corresponds in some sense to the umami taste.

    Tom: One meat that I find underappreciated here in North America is lamb – which, together with the somewhat tougher mutton, are my favourite form of meat. Maybe also goose and duck – ever had smoked and cured duck breast?

  • Louis

    Having made my own wine, beer, cider, cheese, yoghurt and kefir, not to mention baking bread from wild, dried and fresh yeasts, I remain in awe of fermented foods. There is that specific “bacterial” smell, which I think corresponds in some sense to the umami taste.

    Tom: One meat that I find underappreciated here in North America is lamb – which, together with the somewhat tougher mutton, are my favourite form of meat. Maybe also goose and duck – ever had smoked and cured duck breast?

  • Tom Hering

    Louis @ 2, no, I’ve never had that duck breast. Sounds like it would please both tooth and tongue! As for bread, the loaf I’ll never forget is a pumpernickel brick that came from an old Polish bakery in Chicago (now out of business). It was literally the size, shape and weight of a brick. And packed with rye berries – almost to the point of displacing every other ingredient. Talk about a sour delight! Speaking of Polish umami, there’s “miseria,” a traditional salad made with thinly sliced cucumbers, sour cream, vinegar, sugar, dill weed, salt and pepper. The kind of dish you start out with a small helping of, and the next thing you know, you’ve consumed mass quantities.

  • Tom Hering

    Louis @ 2, no, I’ve never had that duck breast. Sounds like it would please both tooth and tongue! As for bread, the loaf I’ll never forget is a pumpernickel brick that came from an old Polish bakery in Chicago (now out of business). It was literally the size, shape and weight of a brick. And packed with rye berries – almost to the point of displacing every other ingredient. Talk about a sour delight! Speaking of Polish umami, there’s “miseria,” a traditional salad made with thinly sliced cucumbers, sour cream, vinegar, sugar, dill weed, salt and pepper. The kind of dish you start out with a small helping of, and the next thing you know, you’ve consumed mass quantities.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Tom @1: Phrase of the day: umami tsunami

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Tom @1: Phrase of the day: umami tsunami

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Speaking of tastes, does anyone know how “hot” is characterized, as in spicy, not temperature. (Spanish makes the useful distinction between “picante” [spicy hot] and “calor” [temperature hot].) That isn’t listed among what food scientists classify as the five tastes, but surely the vast array of peppers have their effect in this orchestration of flavors. Or is that not a taste but a variety of pain?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Speaking of tastes, does anyone know how “hot” is characterized, as in spicy, not temperature. (Spanish makes the useful distinction between “picante” [spicy hot] and “calor” [temperature hot].) That isn’t listed among what food scientists classify as the five tastes, but surely the vast array of peppers have their effect in this orchestration of flavors. Or is that not a taste but a variety of pain?

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith @ 4: Why, thank you! And it’s easy to say ten times fast.

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith @ 4: Why, thank you! And it’s easy to say ten times fast.

  • Tom Hering

    Re: peppers. Maybe the fact they’re not exclusive to the tongue, but transmit their sensation when rubbed on skin, disqualifies them as a taste. I don’t sense sweetness when I rub Hershey’s syrup all over myself. (Too much information will not be shared.)

  • Tom Hering

    Re: peppers. Maybe the fact they’re not exclusive to the tongue, but transmit their sensation when rubbed on skin, disqualifies them as a taste. I don’t sense sweetness when I rub Hershey’s syrup all over myself. (Too much information will not be shared.)

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erikson

    Louise,
    Lamb is king, no doubt. my son when ever he visits me insists I make Lamb! He is only 8.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erikson

    Louise,
    Lamb is king, no doubt. my son when ever he visits me insists I make Lamb! He is only 8.

  • Joanne

    My culture of preference is kefir. I add it to meat that I cook all day in a crockpot. I add two good plops of kefir right before I turn off the pot and stir it in for the cool-down to serve period. Also, I always cook the meat with the bone in. Gary Larsen’s cartoon of the “Boneless chicken farm” put me off amoeba like farm animals writhing across mucky barnyards. The kefir meat treatment has a catalytic effect on the taste and yes, savory is the word for it.

  • Joanne

    My culture of preference is kefir. I add it to meat that I cook all day in a crockpot. I add two good plops of kefir right before I turn off the pot and stir it in for the cool-down to serve period. Also, I always cook the meat with the bone in. Gary Larsen’s cartoon of the “Boneless chicken farm” put me off amoeba like farm animals writhing across mucky barnyards. The kefir meat treatment has a catalytic effect on the taste and yes, savory is the word for it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think it’s incorrect to say that “all of the different flavors of foods” are constituted by merely the “five different taste sensations … along with texture and temperature.” Just ask anyone with a cold. Smell makes up most of what we call “flavor”. What the tongue can sense is not a huge part of it, I’ve been told. I’d also add that adults consider “pure hits” of almost any single taste to be unpleasant (though kids with less mature palates tend to disagree).

    Also, Tom (@1), you seem to think that “curry” denotes something more specific than “spices”. Not sure it does. I may have had miseria, but I don’t think it sounds terribly umami-laden, based on the ingredients.

    Louis, according to Wikipedia, “the umami taste is due to the detection of the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid.” This does, in fact, occur in higher amounts in some fermented foods, but probably not the ones you mentioned (@2) as much. Still, I have to give you credit for making those foodstuffs, all the same!

    And Dr. Veith (@5), I think “hot” is purely due to the effect of capsaicin — according to Wikipedia, it affects the mucous membranes in our mouths which are found, in part, on our tongue. And I don’t think it’s accurate to say that picante “isn’t listed among what food scientists classify as the five tastes.” Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:

    Taste (or, more formally, gustation; adjectival form: “gustatory”) is a form of direct chemoreception and is one of the traditional five senses. It refers to the ability to detect the flavor of substances such as food, certain minerals, and poisons. In humans and many other vertebrate animals the sense of taste partners with the less direct sense of smell in the brain’s perception of flavor. In the West, experts traditionally identified four taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. In the Eastern hemisphere, piquance (the sensation provided by, among other things, chili peppers) and savoriness (also known as umami) have been traditionally identified as basic tastes as well. More recently, psychophysicists and neuroscientists have suggested other taste categories (fatty acid taste most prominently).

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I think it’s incorrect to say that “all of the different flavors of foods” are constituted by merely the “five different taste sensations … along with texture and temperature.” Just ask anyone with a cold. Smell makes up most of what we call “flavor”. What the tongue can sense is not a huge part of it, I’ve been told. I’d also add that adults consider “pure hits” of almost any single taste to be unpleasant (though kids with less mature palates tend to disagree).

    Also, Tom (@1), you seem to think that “curry” denotes something more specific than “spices”. Not sure it does. I may have had miseria, but I don’t think it sounds terribly umami-laden, based on the ingredients.

    Louis, according to Wikipedia, “the umami taste is due to the detection of the carboxylate anion of glutamic acid.” This does, in fact, occur in higher amounts in some fermented foods, but probably not the ones you mentioned (@2) as much. Still, I have to give you credit for making those foodstuffs, all the same!

    And Dr. Veith (@5), I think “hot” is purely due to the effect of capsaicin — according to Wikipedia, it affects the mucous membranes in our mouths which are found, in part, on our tongue. And I don’t think it’s accurate to say that picante “isn’t listed among what food scientists classify as the five tastes.” Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:

    Taste (or, more formally, gustation; adjectival form: “gustatory”) is a form of direct chemoreception and is one of the traditional five senses. It refers to the ability to detect the flavor of substances such as food, certain minerals, and poisons. In humans and many other vertebrate animals the sense of taste partners with the less direct sense of smell in the brain’s perception of flavor. In the West, experts traditionally identified four taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. In the Eastern hemisphere, piquance (the sensation provided by, among other things, chili peppers) and savoriness (also known as umami) have been traditionally identified as basic tastes as well. More recently, psychophysicists and neuroscientists have suggested other taste categories (fatty acid taste most prominently).

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, I was thinking specifically of Indian curries, used in both currywurst and chicken tikka masala.

    “Curry’s popularity in recent decades has spread outward from the Indian subcontinent to figure prominently in international cuisine. Consequently, each culture has adopted spices in its indigenous cooking to suit its own unique tastes and cultural sensibilities. Curry can therefore be called a pan-Asian or global phenomenon with immense popularity in Thai, British, and Japanese cuisines.” – Wikipedia.

    As for miseria, sour cream and vinegar are both fermented ingredients. It combines many tastes: sour (sour cream and vinegar), sweet (sugar), bitter (cucumber rind), salty and peppery as well as an aromatic (dill weed). No, it’s not technically umami (meaty/brothy and related tastes), but it’s definitely savory!

  • Tom Hering

    tODD, I was thinking specifically of Indian curries, used in both currywurst and chicken tikka masala.

    “Curry’s popularity in recent decades has spread outward from the Indian subcontinent to figure prominently in international cuisine. Consequently, each culture has adopted spices in its indigenous cooking to suit its own unique tastes and cultural sensibilities. Curry can therefore be called a pan-Asian or global phenomenon with immense popularity in Thai, British, and Japanese cuisines.” – Wikipedia.

    As for miseria, sour cream and vinegar are both fermented ingredients. It combines many tastes: sour (sour cream and vinegar), sweet (sugar), bitter (cucumber rind), salty and peppery as well as an aromatic (dill weed). No, it’s not technically umami (meaty/brothy and related tastes), but it’s definitely savory!

  • C. Randal

    I’ve taken to adding Fish Sauce to nearly anything to add the umami component to everything form soups to hamburgers (pre-grilling) to Caesar salad. My general experience is that folks say “I don’t know that it is but it tastes great”…it also seems to have the same addictive element as MSG.

  • C. Randal

    I’ve taken to adding Fish Sauce to nearly anything to add the umami component to everything form soups to hamburgers (pre-grilling) to Caesar salad. My general experience is that folks say “I don’t know that it is but it tastes great”…it also seems to have the same addictive element as MSG.

  • Dan Kempin

    Louis, #2,

    +1 to you. Smoked duck is da bomb.

    I’ve gotten as far on your list as cider, and I’ve always been curious about making cheese. Don’t have access to fresh milk at the moment, but someday.

    And of course Lamb is king. I remember a few years back when the olympics were in Greece, the network did some “local” coverage and the reporter was fascinated by the fact that everyone there seemed to like lamb. “Why is that?” she asked a local citizen. Giving her a priceless look of puzzlement and condescension he said slowly, “Because it is good?”

    Tom, #3,

    Speaking of Polish Umami, (which is probably pronounced the same but has 14 extra letters,) how about kieshka? Mmmm . . . kieshka!

  • Dan Kempin

    Louis, #2,

    +1 to you. Smoked duck is da bomb.

    I’ve gotten as far on your list as cider, and I’ve always been curious about making cheese. Don’t have access to fresh milk at the moment, but someday.

    And of course Lamb is king. I remember a few years back when the olympics were in Greece, the network did some “local” coverage and the reporter was fascinated by the fact that everyone there seemed to like lamb. “Why is that?” she asked a local citizen. Giving her a priceless look of puzzlement and condescension he said slowly, “Because it is good?”

    Tom, #3,

    Speaking of Polish Umami, (which is probably pronounced the same but has 14 extra letters,) how about kieshka? Mmmm . . . kieshka!

  • Tom Hering

    Yes, Dan – fourteen extra letters, and they’re all consonants! (Actually, the consonant groups aren’t hard to pronounce once you understand they’re just different spellings of “ch” and “sh” etc. – and that some consonants are vowel sounds, like “j” for “y.”) But don’t get me started on Polish sausages! Yes, “keishka” – black blood sausage (fried up with eggs!). And “kielbasa” (with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut!) And “cabanos” – which puts a Slim Jim to shame. Umami, oh mommy!

  • Tom Hering

    Yes, Dan – fourteen extra letters, and they’re all consonants! (Actually, the consonant groups aren’t hard to pronounce once you understand they’re just different spellings of “ch” and “sh” etc. – and that some consonants are vowel sounds, like “j” for “y.”) But don’t get me started on Polish sausages! Yes, “keishka” – black blood sausage (fried up with eggs!). And “kielbasa” (with mashed potatoes and sauerkraut!) And “cabanos” – which puts a Slim Jim to shame. Umami, oh mommy!

  • Cincinnatus

    I thought there were only four primary “tastes”? Things, apparently, have changed since I was in elementary school.

    I see tODD notes something similar.

  • Cincinnatus

    I thought there were only four primary “tastes”? Things, apparently, have changed since I was in elementary school.

    I see tODD notes something similar.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Cincinnatus. In 2006, the umami taste receptors were proven to exist, something some taste scientists had argued for but that was finally definitively proven. I blogged about it then, back on my old World site. You can search for it in the archives, if you want.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Yes, Cincinnatus. In 2006, the umami taste receptors were proven to exist, something some taste scientists had argued for but that was finally definitively proven. I blogged about it then, back on my old World site. You can search for it in the archives, if you want.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I do think, in accord with Todd’s Wikipedia quotation, that more basic flavors await discovery and scientific verification. Any given flavor seems to involve much more than just these five, even if you add spicy hot and aroma. Consider chocolate. Yes, sweet; yes, bitter, in an interesting combination. But there is surely more. There seems to be a sensation of fullness or richness that is also important. (Probably it has to do with our perception of fats of various kinds.) Science applied to aesthetics (which the pleasure we take from food surely is) is nearly always reductionistic. Still, identifying umami as a distinct effect helps us bring it out more, as in all of these savory ideas given here that make me hungry.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    I do think, in accord with Todd’s Wikipedia quotation, that more basic flavors await discovery and scientific verification. Any given flavor seems to involve much more than just these five, even if you add spicy hot and aroma. Consider chocolate. Yes, sweet; yes, bitter, in an interesting combination. But there is surely more. There seems to be a sensation of fullness or richness that is also important. (Probably it has to do with our perception of fats of various kinds.) Science applied to aesthetics (which the pleasure we take from food surely is) is nearly always reductionistic. Still, identifying umami as a distinct effect helps us bring it out more, as in all of these savory ideas given here that make me hungry.

  • Cincinnatus

    The existence of more than a minimalistic four primary “tastes” seems intuitively true. I can’t quite conjure in my imaginary mouth the “unmami” sensation. I’ll keep my buds peeled next time I am eating a steak. Meanwhile, some of tODD’s other Wikipedia finds seem reasonable as well: surely fatty-acids exude a distinct taste separate from those proffered by the traditional four.

    In the end, though, all such categorizations are mere exercises in simplification. Each food has a distinct and unique taste, and assigning broad names like “bitter” and “sweet”, while useful, is, like so much other science, an attempt to satisfy a human “taste” for simplification, categorization, and finiteness. It’s quite a democratic phenomenon. We define things in terms of categories rather than particulars (as Tocqueville observed when comparing democrats and aristocrats). Quite literally the only substance (aside from the unadulterated molecules themselves) I can think of that actually tastes like an unmixed version of its category is salt. Even sugar offers hints of something acidic.

    But now I would like a steak.

  • Cincinnatus

    The existence of more than a minimalistic four primary “tastes” seems intuitively true. I can’t quite conjure in my imaginary mouth the “unmami” sensation. I’ll keep my buds peeled next time I am eating a steak. Meanwhile, some of tODD’s other Wikipedia finds seem reasonable as well: surely fatty-acids exude a distinct taste separate from those proffered by the traditional four.

    In the end, though, all such categorizations are mere exercises in simplification. Each food has a distinct and unique taste, and assigning broad names like “bitter” and “sweet”, while useful, is, like so much other science, an attempt to satisfy a human “taste” for simplification, categorization, and finiteness. It’s quite a democratic phenomenon. We define things in terms of categories rather than particulars (as Tocqueville observed when comparing democrats and aristocrats). Quite literally the only substance (aside from the unadulterated molecules themselves) I can think of that actually tastes like an unmixed version of its category is salt. Even sugar offers hints of something acidic.

    But now I would like a steak.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Everything is in de Tocqueville! So he says that in a democracy people tend to define things in terms of categories, whereas in an aristocracy people tend to define things in terms of particulars? I would think it would be the reverse, that a class-conscious culture would sort things into the categories of classes, while a democratic culture, with its individualism, would sort things into individual particulars.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Everything is in de Tocqueville! So he says that in a democracy people tend to define things in terms of categories, whereas in an aristocracy people tend to define things in terms of particulars? I would think it would be the reverse, that a class-conscious culture would sort things into the categories of classes, while a democratic culture, with its individualism, would sort things into individual particulars.


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X