Harnessing umami can help cut sodium and boost flavor

Chef Andrew Hunter promotes using umami, the fifth basic taste, to not only reduce sodium but also transform foods into a flavor-packed experience.

Cindy Hazen, Contributing writer

July 8, 2024

2 Min Read

At a Glance

  • Umami, described as meaty and savory, is considered the fifth basic taste and can enhance other flavors.
  • Umami-rich foods like soy sauce and parmesan cheese develop their flavors through processes like fermentation.
  • Chef Andrew Hunter believes food manufacturers can use umami to reduce sodium in dishes while enhancing the overall flavor.

If a quiver holds five arrows, why would a trained archer routinely shoot four? Or, in a food development sense, why limit execution to sweet, salty, bitter and sour tastes? Especially when the fifth flavor has superpowers?

The four basic tastes are instantly identifiable, but the fifth, umami, is abstract. Chef Andrew Hunter, global development chef for Kikkoman, describes umami as meaty, savory, brothy and other flavors that are difficult to put your finger on.

“I call umami the gateway to flavor because it opens up our senses,” he said. “It makes your mouth water, and when you have a physiological response, that’s flavor.”

Reducing sodium

Here’s a bit of its magic. “Umami is foundational to reducing sodium,” he said. Soy sauce, for example, has a salty flavor, but it also has umami, so its salty perception is amplified. When using a reduced-sodium soy sauce, “you can taste all the different 400 flavor components. The salt can sometimes mask the other flavor components.”

A tablespoon of salt has 95 mg of sodium. A tablespoon of Kikkoman’s Less Sodium Soy Sauce has 10 mg. Ponzu, a citrus-seasoned soy sauce, is another flavor-kicking option with just 5 mg of sodium per tablespoon.

“If you reduce sodium by 30% and add 2% or less of soy sauce or ponzu, the taste of soy sauce is imperceptible, but every other ingredient is enhanced,” Hunter said.

Umami-rich foods are high in certain amino acids such as glutamic acid. Umami’s taste develops during fermentation and aging, such as in soy sauce and parmesan cheese. It can also be released during the cooking process. Think of the flavor difference between a fresh cherry tomato and one that has been roasted. Or the way roasted mushrooms deliver flavor compared to those that haven’t been cooked.

The ultimate umami bomb

“Pizza is an umami bomb,” Hunter said. Whether it is pizza from a mainstream company or cooked in a high-end, wood-burning oven, umami is there. “The dough is fermented, the tomato sauce is an umami carrier, and then you put on cured meat and cheese. Pizza is a personification of umami.”

So, Hunter says to chefs, “Why aren't you employing umami in your restaurants? If you know what it is and you understand its power, you should use it. Umami is the answer to reducing sodium, especially when you apply good cooking techniques. “

Manufacturers can do the same. To reduce sodium, he says, rely on solid cooking techniques, such as sequencing the addition of ingredients to develop caramelization and then continuing to build flavor on top.

“They can sequence in their kettle just like a chef can sequence in their pan,” he concluded.

Think of the industrial production floor as a kitchen. For good measure, formulate using ingredients with inherent umami.

About the Author(s)

Cindy Hazen

Contributing writer

Cindy Hazen has more than 25 years of experience developing seasonings, dry blends, beverages and more. Today, when not writing or consulting, she expands her knowledge of food safety as a food safety officer for a Memphis-based produce distributor.

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