In the age of molecular gastronomy, the whole language of cooking is changing fast. Tradition-flouting chefs are throwing around such terms as osmosis and desiccation and sous-vide, all of which are fine and kitchen-scientific. But the most important new word is actually as accessible to home cooks as it is to wizards of foam: Umami.
This tantalizing synonym for delicious is Japanese, but it is on its way to becoming as universal a description as sweet, sour, salty or bitter. Umami is literally the fifth flavor, one that is very difficult to describe but impossible to miss in seared steak, aged cheese, most seafood and many other foods. Sometimes translated as savory, or meaty, it is the taste that makes anything feel hauntingly rich and full and rounded on the palate. It’s in ingredients as disparate as soy sauce and shiitake mushrooms, ketchup and French fries, truffles and squid, even though many people, chefs included, still have no idea what it is.
Umami was discovered and named in Japan nearly a century ago, but it is only now being recognized in the West as a true phenomenon worthy of serious exploration. A Tokyo scientist in 1908 determined that this “deliciousness” was what gave the kombu used in soup stock a fullness and richness that was beyond mere saltiness. For decades umami meant only monosodium glutamate, the food additive that imparts intense flavor in small doses, but now it has finally been acknowledged as a taste in its own right.
Umami has especially caught the fancy of envelope-pushing chefs, names like Heston Blumenthal at the Michelin three-star Fat Duck in Bray, England, where the wildly inventive specialties include snail porridge and sardine-on-toast sorbet that use all the latest kitchen toys and techniques. He, like a growing number of chefs around the world, sees science as half (or more) of cooking, and lately he has been making news by studying the umami in ordinary foods like tomatoes and pizza.
You don’t have to be a molecular gastronomist to experience umami, though. Just swallow a freshly shucked oyster, with its briny-fatty richness, or bite into a chunk of well-aged Parmigiano-Reggiano, a cheese with a flavor that takes you into a dimension beyond salty. But the indescribably savory taste can also be found in potatoes and carrots, walnuts and truffles, squid and legumes, and pork products such as pancetta, prosciutto and bacon.
For a home cook, what makes umami especially appealing is knowing that it is impossible to overdo. Add too much salt to a soup, or sugar to a dessert, and the result is overwhelmingly one-note, if not inedible. But if you double up on umami, or even use three ingredients with it, you get better flavor, not monotonous flavor. You can make a meal of it by combining aged Cheddar with shiitakes in a strudel, or oysters and pancetta in a pan roast. For maximum umami, you can dress lentils with truffle oil, marinate skirt steak in soy sauce, layer both sweet and white potatoes in a gratin with Parmesan and, for dessert, team carrots, walnuts and walnut oil in a torte.
Despite all the serious study of umami, not everyone is convinced it actually exists. But umami is not evolution. Tasting is believing, and understanding. And if new planets can still be discovered, why not new flavors?
OYSTER-PANCETTA PAN ROAST
2 ounces pancetta, cut into fine dice
1 tablespoon butter
2 shallots, minced
1/3 cup minced celery
1 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 cup dry vermouth
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
36 blue-point oysters, shucked, with their liquor reserved
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Fry pancetta in butter in a wide, deep saucepan until translucent but not crisp. Add shallots and celery and sprinkle with salt. Saute until softened, about 5 minutes. Add vermouth and cook until reduced to a glaze. Add cream, Worcestershire sauce and cayenne and bring to a high simmer. Cook 10 minutes, until reduced by about a third.
2. Strain oysters and add their liquor to the pan. Cook 2 to 3 minutes to incorporate. Slide oysters into simmering cream and cook 3 to 4 minutes, just until edges start to curl. Season with pepper to taste.
3. Divide among shallow bowls. Serve with sliced crusty bread. Serves 6 as a first course.
TRUFFLED LENTIL SALAD
1 1/2 cups French green lentils
1 small onion, peeled
1 carrot, peeled and cut crosswise into quarters
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
4 scallions, green part only, thinly sliced
8 piquillo peppers, seeded and diced (or 2 large red roasted bell peppers)
5 tablespoons white truffle oil
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1. Sort over lentils to remove any stones. Rinse well and place in large saucepan. Stud onion with cloves and add to pan. Add carrot, bay leaves and salt. Add water to cover by 3 inches. Bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, until lentils are just tender, not soft, 20 to 45 minutes, depending on their age.
2. Drain lentils well. Discard onion, bay leaves and carrot.
3. Transfer lentils to bowl and add vinegar, scallions and piquillos and mix well. Add truffle oil and mix well. Season with pepper to taste and add more salt if needed. Serve warm or at room temperature, in a bowl lined with red-leaf lettuce. Serves 6.
SEARED SKIRT STEAK
3 pounds skirt steak
3 tablespoons wasabi powder
3 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 3-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely grated or minced
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1/4 cup tamari or soy sauce
1/2 cup peanut or canola oil
1. Trim extraneous fat off skirt steaks without disturbing marbling.
2. Lay steaks into a large shallow glass dish. Combine wasabi and vinegar in small bowl and whisk to dissolve. Stir in ginger, garlic, cayenne, soy sauce and peanut oil. Whisk to blend. Pour over skirt steaks and turn to coat well. Cover and refrigerate overnight, turning once or twice.
3. Heat 2 large heavy skillets over high heat until smoking. Drain steaks. Sear steaks, 2 minutes on each side for rare, and transfer to cutting board. Let stand 5 minutes.
4. Slice steak against grain into thin slices. Serve hot. Serves 6.
TWO-POTATO GRATIN WITH PARMESAN
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 clove garlic, minced
1 pound Russet or Yukon Gold potatoes (2 large)
1 pound sweet potatoes (2 large)
Plenty of sea salt and freshly ground white pepper to taste
7 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Butter inside of 8- by 12-inch gratin or baking dish. Rub with garlic.
2. Peel Russet and sweet potatoes. Cut both into 1/8-inch-thick slices. Layer half of sweet potatoes into prepared baking dish, overlapping. Season liberally with salt and pepper and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon Parmigiano. Layer half of Russet potatoes into pan, season with salt and pepper and sprinkle with 1 tablespoon cheese. Repeat with remaining sweet potatoes, then with Russet potatoes, topping final layer with remaining 4 tablespoons Parmigiano. Pour cream evenly over.
3. Place in the oven and bake 20 minutes. Using a spatula, press down on potato slices to raise the cream and coat the higher layers. Bake 20 minutes longer, then press down again. Bake 20 minutes more, until cream is bubbling and potatoes are soft when tested with a sharp knife. Serves 6.
1 1/2 pounds shiitakes, stemmed
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter, divided
3 large cloves garlic, minced
3 shallots, minced
1 1/2 tablespoons tamari or soy sauce
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
3 cups grated sharp Cheddar
4 large eggs
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
10 sheets filo dough
8 teaspoons fine dry bread crumbs
1. Wipe shiitake caps clean. Cut in half and then crosswise into thin strips. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and shallots and cook, stirring frequently, for 2-3 minutes. Add 4 more tablespoons butter and shiitakes and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes. Add tamari or soy sauce and continue cooking and stirring for 5 minutes. Stir in thyme.
2. Remove from heat and let cool completely, then stir in the cheese and eggs and mix well. Season well with fresh black pepper.
3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Melt remaining butter.
4. Brush work surface with 1 tablespoon melted butter. Lay 1 sheet filo out and brush with more butter. Sprinkle evenly with 1 teaspoon bread crumbs. Repeat with 4 more sheets filo and 3 teaspoons bread crumbs, omitting crumbs on last layer.
5. Spread half the mixture over bottom third of buttered filo, leaving about 1 inch exposed along the long side of the dough. Fold short ends in and roll dough up to enclose shiitakes in a cylinder. Lay onto a buttered baking sheet, seam side down. Brush top with butter.
6. Repeat with remaining filo, bread crumbs and shiitake mixture to make a second strudel. Brush top with butter.
7. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp and browned. Cool slightly before cutting. (Trim off the ends for a nicer presentation.) Serves 6.
1 cup walnut halves
2 large eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground cardamom
1/2 cup walnut oil
1/4 cup peanut oil
2 cups coarsely grated carrots (about 6 medium)
1 cup mascarpone
1/4 to 1/3 cup heavy cream
Confectioner’s sugar for garnish
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Spread walnuts in dry baking dish and toast in oven for 10 minutes. Cool, then coarsely chop.
2. Raise oven setting to 350 degrees. Grease and flour 2 8-inch cake tins. Line each with a round piece of waxed paper cut to fit into the bottom. Set aside.
3. Beat eggs until light in large bowl. Beat in sugar until well blended. Combine flour, baking soda, salt and cardamom in a bowl and whisk to blend. Add to egg mixture alternately with oils and mix well. Stir in carrots and walnuts, blending well.
4. Divide between prepared pans. Bake 30 minutes, until no imprint remains when you press the top of each lightly. Cool on racks before unmolding and peeling off waxed paper.
5. Beat mascarpone until smooth. Add enough heavy cream to lighten enough to make it easily spreadable.
6. Lay 1 cake layer on serving plate and spread mascarpone mixture over. Top with second layer, top side up. Dust with powdered sugar. Serve immediately or wrap tightly and chill. Makes 1 cake.