So what's all the fuss about umami flavor and what is it? Well, if you want to cook vegetarian (or vegan) dishes, you need to know.
Umami is a Japanese word translated as “a pleasant savory taste”. Simply put, umami is the meaty savory flavor a lot of vegetarians miss as times.
Think of it as a flavor bomb.
Technically, umami flavor is the glutamate content of a food that connects to the umami taste receptors. If you're interested in diving more deeply into the science, this is a great article to read.
10 easy ways to add umami flavor to vegetarian dishes
Last month in this Vegetarian Challenge Series, I wrote about Essential Ingredients for a Vegetarian Pantry, and in February, I wrote about Great Vegetarian Protein Sources. You'll see a number of them on the below list too! The list below is not intended to be all-inclusive. But it covers the umami boosts I use most often in my own kitchen.
If you want to move to a more vegetarian diet, but not sure the best steps to take, join the Monthly Vegetarian Meals Challenge. Each month I'll post some tips – great plant protein sources, must-haves for the vegetarian pantry, ways to build flavor, and more. Additionally, we tackle 1 – 3 seasonal recipes tied to the theme that month. Subscribe here >> to Monthly Vegetarian Meals Challenge.
Sun-dried tomatoes are a fabulous way to add umami flavor to a dish, along with these Slow Roasted Balsamic Tomatoes. I keep a jar of each on hand at all times.
Add slivers of sun-dried tomatoes to casseroles, soups, stews, and currys. Or use them to make this Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto. Tomato paste is another great approach.
Just as dried tomatoes have more umami flavor than tomatoes fresh from the vine, dried mushrooms are superior to regular mushrooms. David Chang famously pulverizes dried shiitake mushrooms into a powder. He then adds this “umami dust” to many dishes, such as vegetables and his ramen broth (and yes, meat).
Miso is a soybean-based fermented paste often seen in Japanese cooking. And it brings a rich, salty umami backdrop to many dishes. I particularly like to add it to mashed potatoes, dressings and soup.
Miso packs a lot of flavor in a small amount, so start with a small amount when adding it to a dish.
Olives and Capers
Other fermented foods that add umami flavor are olives, especially kalamata olives, and capers.
I add kalamatas to a lot of vegetable dishes, pastas and salads, like this Moroccan Citrus Salad. This Easy Swiss Chard Sauté with Quinoa, one of the long-time popular recipes here, uses both olives and capers!
Hoisin, an excellent vegetarian substitute for Fish Sauce in Chinese food recipes, is packed with umami. Soy and Tamari sauces are great options too for adding a deeply flavored “meatiness” to dishes.
Vinegars are great little spurts of umami, and balsamic vinegar is the most powerful of them all. Sherry wine vinegar is another excellent option.
I add it to soups, pasta dishes and vegetables. It’s great sprinkled on zucchini and then sautéed. I also shower it over delicata squash slices and then roast them in the oven.
But my favorite way of using this fabulous ingredient is making nutritional yeast popcorn. It’s completely addictive.
Roasted Tree Nuts and Toasted Seeds
Roasted almonds and walnuts provide great umami and crunch to dishes, and I particularly like adding toasted pumpkin seeds to salads like this Warm Cauliflower Salad with Mushroom Vinaigrette, and all kinds of vegetable dishes like this Stuffed Delicata Squash.
I keep toasted pumpkin seeds in my panty all the time, but admittedly don't do as much personally with nuts due to family allergies.
Making a batch of toasted pumpkin seeds, also known as pepitas, is so easy with this recipe.
Onions and Garlic
Onions and garlic both offer some umami flavor to dishes, but caramelized onions and roasted garlic really hit the mark! Check out this Balsamic Roasted Brussels Sprouts dinner for a great example of this. It uses both caramelized onions and balsamic vinegar to amp up the umami flavor!
Parmesan-Like Cheese and Eggs
These are my only non-vegan ways for adding umami flavor, so I'm grouping them together.
Freshly grated Parmesan-like cheese has a unique salty, nutty, almost brown buttery flavor. This complex combination puts it above other cheese for adding umami flavor to a dish. Authentic Parmesan cheese is not vegetarian as it uses an animal rennet for coagulating the cheese. Trader Joes has a great Parmesan – like cheese sold under their name Trader Giotto that's vegetarian. I also like Whole Food's 365 vegetarian Parmesan. Here's a list of vegetarian cheeses!
It barely needs mentioning, but adding an over-easy egg with its runny yolk elevates almost anything from a warm salad to roasted vegetables or a veggie-burger, and turns it into a meal.
3 bonus umami ingredients you might not have on hand
Kombu, an edible seaweed, is often referred to as the king of seaweeds for both its flavor and nutritional value.
If you're looking for ways to use it, Vegetarian dashi, a Japanese soup stock full of umami flavor, is always made with kombu. Or add it to stews, salads, or your next pot of dried beans to make them more digestable. This article provides some ideas for you.
For an easy way to try kombu, try it on dishes using these freeze-dried flakes.
Marmite is a sticky, dark brown spread made from a yeast extract. It's intensely flavored and very salty – think of it as a yeasty-salty-soy saucey flavor. If you're familiar with Vegemite, Marmite is a little milder and slightly sweeter.
A popular way to use Marmite is in a pasta dish, like this one.
Better Than Bouillion
I confess, I'm a huge fan of the Better Than Bouillon products. They even have a line of 6 products that are vegan / vegetarian. My favorites, that I always have in my pantry, are their Vegetable Base and No-Chicken Base. I also like their Roasted Garlic Base.
I add it to many soups, stews, vegetable casseroles and curries with great success when I need an extra push of umami.
The Next Challenge Recipe
I'll be back in a few days with a curry recipe I've been working on over the past week that we can make together this month. It's packed with flavor thanks to several of these umami boosts. I'll offer prep tips, ingredient swaps to accommodate what you have on hand, and serving suggestions for the meat eaters at the table.
Oh, and I'll announced the winner from April's Vegetarian Cooking Challenge! I'm so excited! I hope you are too.
Meanwhile, do you have a favorite ingredient for boosting umami flavors? I'd love to hear what it is in the comments below!