For many years it was thought that there were only four main flavors we can taste; sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Umami is now considered the fifth flavor, coined in 1908 by a chemist at Tokyo University. It’s quality is a meaty or savory taste. Umami is roughly translated as yummy deliciousness. Foods that naturally contain umami include asparagus, tomatoes, cheese, meat, dashi (stock from the seaweed kelp), and mushrooms. Fermented foods such as soy sauce, cheese, cured meats and fish have it in abundance. The chemist was able to pinpoint glutamate, an amino acid, as the main source of this savory wonder. He then learned how to produce it in industrial quantities. We know that product as MSG.
Slow cooking for an extended period will release natural glutamate. Cooked foods with a high umami factor often have layers of taste, a combination of glutamates and a group of chemicals called ribonucleotides (occurring naturally in many foods). When you combine ingredients containing different umami-giving compounds, they enhance each other. Such is the case with Bolognese sauce with cheese on top. In fact, cooked meat, tomato and cheese are a 1-2-3-punch combo. Think pepperoni pizza, I know I do.
Just as humans evolved to crave sweetness and loathe bitter to help avoid toxins, umami is a marker of protein (which is made up of amino acids) essential for life. We are instinctually drawn to it.
Parmesan cheese is very high in umami. Freshly grated Parmesan, added at the end, will elevate a pasta dish to sublime. Search out the best Parmesan you can find, a little goes a long way and you won’t regret it. Keep it in the fridge or freezer and use it as needed, I think you will find lots of uses. Try in on scrambled eggs, or roast vegetables, even on crisp toasted rustic (slightly charred) bread with a drizzle of olive oil.
Then don’t throw out the rinds once you have grated every last bit of cheese! In Italy a Parmesan rind is often tossed into minestrone for extra depth of flavor. Try one in a simple pot of beans, it makes a big difference. I keep a zip top bag in the freezer and collect them until I have enough to make this absolutely fabulous and delicious broth that is bursting with umami.
Let me introduce you to Parmesan Broth, a powerhouse of the fifth flavor. Use it as a versatile stock for soup, or anywhere you need a flavor boost. For vegetarians this broth is a huge flavor enhancer, it closely resembles a long simmered chicken stock. Simply simmering the broth fills your kitchen with the most amazing aroma, I couldn’t resist drinking a mug full once it was finished.
Parmesan Broth (makes 4-6 cups)
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, peeled and quartered
- 1 head of garlic, halved crosswise
- 1 bunch of fresh thyme
- 1 bay leaf
- 3-4 parsley sprigs
- 1 teaspoon of black peppercorns
- 1 cup dry white wine
- 1 lb. of Parmesan rinds
- 8 cups of water
- Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the onion, garlic, thyme bay leaf, parsley and peppercorns. Cook, stirring often, until the onion and garlic are toasty brown about 5-10 minutes.
- Add the wine, bring to a simmer, and cook, scraping up any brown bit until the liquid is reduced by half, about 5 minutes.
- Add the Parmesan rinds and 8 cups of water to the saucepan, bring to a boil.
- Turn down the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 2 hours. Stir occasionally so the rinds don’t stick to the bottom of the pot.
- Strain through a fine mesh strainer.
Use immediately or store in the fridge up to four days. Freeze for longer storage. This recipe makes a 4-6 cups of stock, depending on how reduced it becomes. You can easily double it if you have more rinds. I don’t salt when making the broth, instead I add salt when it is used.
The finished broth is the most lovely shade of golden yellow!
This recipe was first published in Bon Appetit.