I used to be a food purist. I would never use pre-made sauces or stocks in my cooking. It all had to come from the meat, vegetables, or grains I was cooking. If it didn’t, I just added more salt.
But then I discovered umami bombs.
I discovered it largely through an American food website called Serious Eats, particularly The Food Lab. I first started following them because of their dedication to determining recipes for the best of the best of junk food. Then I discovered the Managing Director, J.Kenji Lopez-Alt and his dedication to boosting umami in his All-American dishes. This recipe helps illustrate what I’m talking about. I thought there was a whole post talking about umami, but Google is coming up with nothing.
What is umami? No one fucking knows. No one. Alright, maybe it’s glutamate, which is an amino acid, but it’s more than that. People say it’s savoury, but it’s more than just that. It’s that combination of salty-sour-sweet-tiny-bit-bitter-wait-is-that-a-bit-off-check-the-use-by-date. It just makes everything better.
Anyway. To my ‘umami bombs’.
1. Use your own instinct and, most importantly, sense of taste.
2. You must wait.
The second point is just as important as the first. You cannot rush umami (unless you are cooking Asian food, then, by all means, go nuts). If you are cooking Western style stews, soups, and braises, you must wait for the umami to develop. You can’t rush it, or you’ll end up with a beef stew that tastes mainly of soy sauce. Or worse, Vegemite.
Anyway! In order of (my) preference:
German mustard: It says it’s hot, but it’s not hot. American mustard is a good substitute. It’s got the sourness and saltiness a number of dishes need, without the in-your-faceness of fish sauce or Vegemite. I use it in vegetarian stews and in fish chowder. Use it where a light touch is needed.
Soy sauce: This is mainly salty with a touch of bitterness. It’s useful for all meats, except creamy fish dishes, but definitely use it in robust fish and vegetable dishes that use tomatoes.
Vegemite: I use with all dark meats, especially kangaroo. I have also used it in my Tofurkey recipe, to give the tofu a more meaty flavour. Beware – I believe using Vegemite in my Tofurkey was a gateway drug to using umami bombs.
Fish sauce: But not just any fish sauce, Red Boat brand fish sauce. It comes from Phú Quôc Island in Vietnam, where, I have heard, the anchovy fish are put in a barrel, fresh, with a heap of salt, and nothing else, and just left to ferment. The sauce is the liquid that comes out of the funnel at the bottom of the barrel. Apparently other fish sauces are not as pure. Use it sparingly, when your dish needs a big kick in the pants, like a hearty beef stew or the like.
I don’t think I’ve ever used one type of umami alone. All of my dishes use a combination of two or three, four if I’m feeling lucky. I usually start with mustard or soy sauce and build from there. It’s not like adding salt. There are layers. It’s almost an art form.
Also, remember to season with salt and pepper well after your umami has been built. Don’t do it at the same time, or it will be too overpowering.
There you have it. Go forth and make flavourful dishes!