How to Create an Umami Bomb

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

What do mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, meat, and soy sauce have in common? They all comfort the soul via the palate.

Just as mashed potatoes coat your mouth like a warm blanket, many other foods provide your brain with the same experience courtesy of a natural compound called glutamate. That protein exists in a number of foods such as aged cheeses, tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, soy sauce, and the list goes on. It creates a sensation called umami, which is often referred to as the fifth sense. The others being sweet, sour, salty and bitter.

By now the term “umami” has hit the masses, no longer relegated to chefs and fervent foodies. Most have experienced it at one time or another, but didn’t have a label for it. The best way to describe umami is a taste that made you say “wow” and left you craving more.

As a sense, umami doesn’t hit your palate as much as it hits your mind and your body to create a soul-warming sensation. How do you knock someone off their feet with umami? Create an umami bomb – something that’s loaded with different layers of umami, which creates an over-the-top flavor.

First a little history
Though umami seems like a more recent revelation, it has actually long been a natural component of foods. It was identified in 1908 by professor Kikunae Ikeda from Tokyo Imperial University who discovered the distinct savory taste common in tomatoes, cheese and meat was different from the four existing tastes.

While working with kombu, an edible seaweed traditionally used in Japanese cuisine, he identified glutamate – one of the most common amino acids in nature – as the compound responsible for umami. This led him to the study of glutamate salts – calcium, potassium, ammonium and magnesium glutamate – and eventually monosodium glutamate (MSG), the sodium salt of glutamic acid and a naturally occurring amino acid.

Creating umami
Creating an umami experience can be as simple as choosing foods already rich in quintessential umami – ripe tomatoes, prosciutto, shitake mushrooms, kombu, fish sauce, etc. Techniques like searing, roasting, fermenting, aging and curing will also enhance umami.
Debates aside, MSG is also extremely effective. It basically works as a flavor enhancer because it balances, blends and completes the total experience of other tastes.

It’s all about layering technique and rich ingredients to create an umami bomb and an unforgettable experience.

Steak and Eggs

The Art and Health of Smaller Portions

Originally printed in Food & Flourish magazine.

To me there is nothing more artful in the culinary world than a thoughtfully composed tasting menu.

A good tasting menu will stretch a chef’s imagination, engage every sense of the individual eating it, and take them on a journey through a variety of flavors. More importantly however, are the portion sizes.

I may have reached a point of contention with that last sentence, but stick with me. Yes, the portion sizes on tasting menus are smaller and will rarely leave those with healthy appetites feeling stuffed, but this is intentional. The point is to leave you pleasantly satiated without being stuffed to the point of discomfort.

Overconsumption has long been in an issue in our country, made more prevalent in recent years with the onset of any number of health issues. It’s not too often you hear a chef talk about it, but the way I see it it’s up to us as chefs and restaurateurs to be calorically responsible by scaling down portions to healthy sizes. Of course, as consumers we’re not completely off the hook. There’s a mentality shift that needs to happen too.

Value is often shown through larger sizes and it’s what we’ve grown accustomed to in nearly every area of life from food to the massive family size packages of household items. Value sizing certainly has it’s place, but when it comes to food is where it becomes concerning.

According to a review published by the National Institutes of Health larger portions not only contain more energy, which is not being burned, but also encourage people to eat more. The problem is we don’t necessarily eat to our appetite or hunger. We eat what’s in front of us. So portion size leads to overconsumption of calories. We’ve also learned it’s good manners to clean our plate, and we certainly don’t want to waste food, but we also shouldn’t feel obligated to eat a 16-ounce steak just because its served to us.

We have to understand that food is fuel for our bodies. It’s fuel that can and should be enjoyable, but it’s all about portion control.

To be honest, I really wasn’t aware of portion sizes until I moved to San Francisco and began working in kitchens in the city. I noticed plates coming out of the kitchen were about 15 percent smaller. Then I started realizing the green nature of it – if you don’t have five scallops every time you go out, instead you have two, naturally there will be a lot more scallops in the world. This theory can be applied to any ingredient – seafood, beef, heirloom vegetables, bacon (oh wait…there’s no bacon shortage).

The bacon shortage hoax raises an interesting point though. It was an effort to reduce the blow of the impending bacon inflation in the UK. Food inflation may force us to think twice about buying that extra large piece of steak, and instead fill the craving with a reasonably sized portion.

Smaller portion size doesn’t have to be a negative thing though. Think of it this way, it opens the door to more variety and exploration. No one is saying you have to eat less, you just allow yourself to enjoy more flavors. With smaller portions of bold flavors, you will feel satisfied. Chef’s honor.

Let’s put a bigger emphasis on quality over quantity and the adventure food can afford us. Have fun with your food. Experience it, and remember a stuffed stomach does not equate to satisfied taste buds.