Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Umami, you sexy!

Dear reader, I feel it is incumbent upon me to inform you about umami, the fifth sense of taste. You may have heard of umami already – it is a buzz word in culinary circles in the western hemisphere, even though it is old news in much of the eastern hemisphere. Unlike other, lesser food writers, I will not just inform you about the history and scientific nature of umami, but I will also instruct you on how to utilize this knowledge in your kitchen in view of improving the flavour of your food and, ultimately, the quality of your life.
Umami is a hot topic in the western hemisphere because scientists confirmed its existence only very recently – in 2001 to be exact. Yet, the concept of umami is one century old. A Japanese chemist called Kikunae Ikeda first documented umami in 1908. Professor Ikeda was intrigued by what made dashi – a broth made with a type of seaweed called kombu – so delicious. Ikeda was gifted with a highly discerning pallet; in dashi, he was certain that there was a taste component that was neither sweet, nor sour, nor salty, nor bitter. He eventually isolated a substance that was unusually abundant in kombu and that appeared to stimulate this fifth taste: monosodium glutamate (MSG). He noticed that the flavour of many savoury foodstuffs was enhanced when sprinkled with this substance. Hence, he dubbed the taste MSG imparted umami, Japanese for “delicious”.
Ikeda immediately embarked on a mission to save Japan from the blight of blandness by finding a cheap way of producing MSG. Within a year, he discovered that large quantities glutamate could be obtained by fermenting wheat gluten. The fermented gluten, when mixed with brine (water with lots of sea salt) would yield monosodium glutamate – the glutamate from the gluten would bind with the sodium ions floating in the brine. He began to market the product under the name Aji-no-moto or “the essence of taste”. The product took most of East Asia by storm and the humble chemist became a very wealthy man.
MSG did not cross the Pacific until after the Second World War. According to legend, American soldiers stationed in Japan, tired of Uncle Sam’s rations, began trying some of the rations the demobilized Japanese army had left behind. They found the Japanese rations to be absolutely delicious! Undoubtedly, this was because they were loaded with umami-tingling, MSG-laden treats. Upon completing their tour of duty, the legend goes, the soldiers went back to America with a collective addiction to instant ramen noodles. It would not take long for instant ramen, and their magic ingredient, to follow the soldiers back to the land of apple pie, where both would proliferate rapidly.
Initially, Americans, or at least the burgeoning American processed food industry, embraced MSG with great zeal. Alas, the honeymoon with this magical substance, which had the power to impart flavour to even the blandest can of soup, ended abruptly in the late 1960s. A Chinese-born American physician, Dr Ho Man Kwok, wrote a letter to a medical journal in 1968 in which he described a set of symptoms that he experienced whenever he ate at a Chinese restaurant. The symptoms, which began appearing within 20 minutes of starting a meal, included “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitations…”. Interestingly, Dr Ho did not implicate MSG as the cause of these symptoms. Other scientists and the media began investigating other reports of similar symptoms; the phenomenon was soon dubbed “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” (CRS). MSG, a substance used widely and generously by Chinese restaurants, was singled out as the culprit. Mass panic ensued. Bans and labeling requirements on products containing MSG soon appeared in several western countries. Chinese restaurants across the western hemisphere started offering no-MSG options (and, some claim, often using MSG anyway). Meanwhile, people in East Asia continued wolfing down truckloads of Aji-no-moto with reckless abandon, totally un-phased by CRS.
The hysteria surrounding MSG appears to be completely unwarranted. In the 40 years since Dr Ho wrote his letter, science has repeatedly failed to conclusively link MSG to any health problem. MSG’s bad rep in the west is undoubtedly related to the popular misconception that it is a synthetic chemical, like the many dyes and preservatives commonly added to processed food. Yet, the molecule at the heart of MSG, glutamate, is nothing other than an amino acid - one of twenty that make up the proteins in our bodies. In fact, our bodies produce it.
Glutamate abounds naturally in many foods, although most of it is locked within proteins. Some foods, however, contain significant amounts of glutamate on its own, not bound to any protein – called free glutamate. Kombu is one such food; there are many others (see Table 1). Generally, fermenting, curing, and cooking foods with protein-bound glutamate releases free glutamate and therefore imparts umami taste. Curiously, the consumption of Roquefort and Parmesan cheese has never been linked to CRS.

Understanding Flavour
Before I tell how to utilize this newfound knowledge of umami in your kitchen, I would first like to briefly discuss with you the basic science of flavour. An understanding of the rudimentary mental underpinnings of flavour will allow you to better manipulate this perception.
Flavour is frequently confounded with taste. Strictly speaking, taste is the aspect of food that you detect with your tongue. There are foods that have taste but no flavour – take pure white sugar or salt for example. We humans detect a total of only five tastes: the traditional four – i.e., sweet, sour, salty, bitter – and of course umami. To have flavour, a comestible item must simultaneously stimulate our taste receptors and our smell receptors (see Diagram A). Our smell receptors recognize thousands of different odors.
There are two distinct ways to heighten the perceived flavour of a foodstuff: (1) to heighten the taste or (2) to heighten the smell. Generally, the former is much easier than the latter, as we have access to odorless substances such as sugar, salt, and indeed MSG which can augment taste (and therefore the flavour) without altering the overall smell of a food.
Something very interesting happens when you pursue the first strategy. If you heighten only the taste of a food, you will perceive an increase in both taste and odor. For example, if you are eating bland strawberries and you sprinkle them with some sugar, their perfume will seem more vivid. The inverse also works: if you strengthen only the odor of a food, you will have the impression that it also has more taste. To use the strawberry example again, if you have fresh, ripe strawberries with a strong perfume, they will taste sweeter than bland strawberries even if the actual sugar content in both is the same.
So, by heightening any of the five tastes in a food, you will increase the flavour and you will have the impression that the food has more odor, or aroma if you prefer (see Diagram B). You are undoubtedly already accustomed to adjusting especially the saltiness and sweetness of foods. I encourage you to also learn how to adjust the “umaminess” of foods, especially savoury foods.

Umami in Your Kitchen
Adjusting umami in a savoury dish, just like salting, will extend the flavour of the dish (see Understanding Flavour). In fact, by increasing the umami in a dish, you can reduce the need for salting. (As you have probably been warned, your salt intake is likely to be inversely proportional to your lifespan.) Obviously, you could just add Accent, the North American brand of pure MSG, to your cooking. However, even though there may be no health risks, I do not advocate the use of pure MSG. Instead, I propose manipulating the umami taste through the use of ingredients inherently rich in free glutamate.
To maximize umami in your cooking, I warmly encourage you to follow two basic strategies:
  1. Know your free glutamate sources. Keep them stocked in your kitchen. This is your Umami Arsenal.
  2. Use multiple weapons from your Umami Arsenal. You can maximize umami taste by combining several free glutamate-rich ingredients. Its better to combine a few rather than to max one particular ingredient.
You can equip your kitchen’s Umami Arsenal with the following items:
  • cured meats: prosciutto, pancetta, bacon
  • cured or fermented fish products: anchovies, fish sauce
  • hard, aged cheeses: Parmesan, Romano, Asiago, old cheddar
  • plant-derived free glutamate sources: kombu, shitake mushrooms, soy or tamari sauce, Bragg’s, nutritional yeast, miso paste, tomato paste
Looking at this list, you can see why, for instance, Caesar salad is so delicious. It contains three umami bombs: anchovies, Parmesan, and bacon. Traditional miso soup also caries a nice umami payload: kombu, miso paste, and shitake mushrooms. Add some shoyu (Japanese soy sauce) or tamari and you will be blasted to a four-dimensional umami paradise.
Cured meats as well as anchovies can be used especially in soups and sauces. The process of making many soups and sauces begins with sautéing aromatic vegetables, particularly onions and garlic. Before adding the vegetables to the pan, you can add a small amount of one of the cured meats listed above, finely chopped. You can also add a few anchovy fillets, which will dissolve in the oil on the pan within a minute or two. Do not fret about using anchovies – if you add only a few filets (say, three or four), they will not taint your dish with a fishy smell. Note that both cured meats and anchovies are salty; when you are seasoning your dish, be careful not to add too much salt.
Even if you disdain animal murder, there are still interesting avenues for enhancing your soups and sauces. In your case, you may wish to add kombu and shitake mushrooms to your vegetable broth. Neither of these ingredients need be restricted to the realm of Japanese cooking. Throw them into any oriental or occidental soup or sauce the same way you would throw in aromatics, such as bay leaves or thyme.
Umamilicious hard cheeses are generally added to a dish just before serving but they can also be blended into a dish at an earlier stage. Parmesan in particular is well suited for this. I especially enjoy adding a small amount of grated Parmesan to salad dressings. The Parmesan tends to dissolve in the olive oil and thickens the dressing. Yes, a thick and extra delicious dressing!
When seasoning any dish, I urge you to consider using a few drops of fish sauce in lieu of salt. Just as kombu and shitake mushrooms have a place beyond Japanese cookery, fish sauce too should flow freely beyond the cuisines of Thailand and Vietnam. Did you know that fish sauce was once quite at home in Europe? Garum, as it was called in Latin, was all the rage at the height of the Roman Empire. A few drops of this pungent potion in a soup or sauce, and even in a salad dressing, will tremendously enhance the flavour. Do not be turned of by the pungent smell that will emanate from your dish when you first add fish sauce – it will mellow with time. But do not overdo it either – add it in small amounts, a few drops at a time. Stir for a few moments, taste, and repeat if necessary. If your sense of ethics or general squeamishness prevents you from using fish sauce, apply soy sauce or Bragg’s in the same manner.
Dear reader, I could prattle on like this for several more pages. I think that this will have to do for the present installment. I am confident that I have convinced you of the paramount importance of the umami taste and that you will now take every opportunity to maximize it in your food. Take the above ideas and experiment a little bit. Get a feeling for the items in your Umami Arsenal. Free that glutamate!
Good appetite.

Brine Swine, Dine Fine

Dear vegetarian, in this article I discuss a highly rewarding culinary practice that, due to your choice of diet, you will not be able enjoy. You might as well forgo this installment of Culinary Propaganda – there is nothing here for you.
Dear omnivore, you should read this article with great care as it contains information that will dramatically enhance your quality of life. I will explain to you the paramount importance of brining pork, chicken, and turkey prior to cooking. After reading this article, you will never, ever eat a pork loin or chicken breast that has not been brined.
Brine is a strong solution of salt and water. In addition to these two basic ingredients, brines can contain a variety of flavourings such as sugars or other sweeteners, herbs, spices, and aromatics such as citrus zests, onions, garlic, and ginger. Brining is the process of immersing foodstuffs in brine for a prolonged period of time, ranging from several hours to several days. In times of yore, brining was first and foremost a method of food preservation. The salt in brine protects foods immersed therein from bacterial decomposition. But aside from preservation, brining also affects the flavour and texture of foods – often in very beneficial ways. This is very much the case for certain types of meat.

In general, brining enhances the flavour and texture of “white” meats such as, pork, chicken, and turkey. Although any part of a pig, chicken, or turkey is improved by brining, the ones that benefit the most are the lean ones. In the case of pork, this includes all cuts from the loin. In the case of chicken and turkey, this includes especially the breasts. Other meats, and beef in particular, are not considered amenable to brining as it has an undesirable impact on the texture.
Due to their lack of fat, pork loins and chicken or turkey breasts are easily overcooked and tend to be insipid and dry even if cooked correctly. By immersing them in brine for a certain period of time, you can transform these often-unsatisfying meats into something quite delectable. Brining improves these meats in a number of ways. First, it makes them more tender as the salt in the brine breaks down certain proteins. Second, it makes them more moist as the cells in the meat swell up with brine, resulting in increased water content. Third, brining will yield meat that is perfectly seasoned. A modest amount of salt will evenly penetrate the flesh, resulting in very consistent salting throughout each piece of meat. After soaking in well-balanced brine, there is usually no need to add salt during cooking or at the table. Finally, you can subtly enhance the flavour of the meat by adding flavourings to the brine. This will flavour the meat more delicately than a typical marinade, complimenting its intrinsic taste rather than masking it.
Basic Brine Recipe
  • 4 cups of water
  • ¼ cup coarse, iodine-free salt (e.g., kosher salt, pickling salt)
  • ¼ cup brown sugar, honey or maple syrup
  • Herbs: fresh thyme, fresh rosemary, bay leaves
  • Dry spices: coarse black peeper, paprika, cumin, fennel seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds
  • Fresh aromatics: onion, garlic, ginger, citrus zests
To make the brine, you will put the water in a pot and you will add the salt, sugar and any flavourings that you are using. You will need to heat the water until all of the salt and sugar dissolve. Let the brine cool to room temperature. Put the meat in a non-metallic contained and pour the brine over it. Be sure to completely submerge the meat in the brine. Cover the brine and immersed meat and refrigerate. For pork chops, chicken breasts or thighs, and small pieces of turkey, you will want to start brining the night before, or at the latest in the morning on the day you plan to eat them; for pork roasts, whole chickens, and bigger pieces of turkey, you will want to start brining two or three days in advance. Before cooking, remove the meat from the brine and pat it dry with paper towels. Cook the meat as usual.
You may have to multiply the above recipe to produce a sufficient quantity of brine. There are no hard and fast rules for this – you will have to figure out how much you need yourself. To minimize the amount of brine required, use the smallest possible dish for brining. To give you an approximate idea, if you are brining a pork roast or a whole chicken, for example, multiply the above recipe by two or three; for a whole turkey, by three or four.
Brining, it cannot be denied, entails a modicum of extra work and advanced planning. This extra work and advanced preparation will doubtless strike many of you as onerous. I contend that the work involved is minimal – no more than 15 minutes of your time are needed to prepare the brine. Please do not be lazy, dear reader. I promise you that this small time investment will yield considerable flavour dividends.

I opine that it is your duty to make the most out of every piece of meat that you cook. An animal’s life has been taken to provide you with the piece of flesh that you are consuming. You should make sure that this animal did not die in vain! Dear reader, if pork loin or chicken breast is on the menu, it is your duty to brine it. I am serious. Without brining, you are simply wasting these meats. And even if you plan to dine on parts of pig or bird that are well-endowed in fat – such as ribs and shoulders in the case of pork and thighs and wings in the case of birds – I command you to brine them as well. You will not believe the sensations in your mouth.
You will write to culinary (dot) propaganda (at) gmail (dot) com to thank me. You are at liberty to write to the same address to ask me sensible questions about brining and other culinary matters.
Good appetite.