If you are a food enthusiast or a culinary lover, you might surely have come across this buzz in the taste spectrum called the Umami flavor.
You might also have heard people referring to some food taste as savory.
But what exactly are these two tastes aside from the usual sweet, salty, bitter, and sour tastes that we are used to in food flavor vocabulary?
Is there any difference between Umami and savory tastes? Can the terms be used interchangeably?
Well, as we shall see here, Umami and savory tastes are actually two different tastes based on the definitions from the people who first isolated them.
Before we go far with Umami vs savory, it would be unfair to simply ignore touching on the first four basic tastes.
The 5 Basic Tastes in Sensory Evaluation
Just imagine how difficult it would be to talk about our culinary experiences without describing food flavors based on the tastes we know!
The sense of taste has been with us since the ancient times and we have been using it to appreciate and describe our food experiences.
With a little bit of science added to it, the sense of taste was first narrowed down to 4 distinct tastes.
These tastes were identified with clear demarcation of the tongue based on receptors responsible for each food flavor.
A fifth taste (Umami/savory) was later added into the spectrum making the basic tastes officially 5 in number.
The jury is still out there whether these 5 tastes are the only tastes our tongues can identify.
1. Sweet Taste
This is a taste that signals presence of sugar on our taste buds.
The sweet taste is instrumental since it is the pathway for our bodies to allow intake of carbohydrates to energize our bodies.
Its receptors or taste buds are strategically located at the tip of our tongues to ensure we don’t miss it.
2. Salty Taste
The salty taste is another pronounced taste that is synonymous with isolation of sodium chloride flavor on our tongues.
Since man has been using salt to enhance food flavors, our tongues’ receptors based on the lower sides of the organ have made our pallets more sensitive to the distinct salty flavor.
3. Bitter Taste
Bitter taste can be described as the most sensitive taste that warns the body of potential ingestion of toxic substances.
I would call this taste the ‘gatekeeper taste’ due to its receptor’s position at the far end of the tongue and the fact that it protects our digestive system from unpleasant and toxic food experiences.
But not everything that tastes bitter is toxic or harmful.
A little bit of bitterness in food; for instance, the bitter taste of espresso coffee can actually enhance the overall food experience.
4. Sour Taste
The sour taste receptors are responsible for detecting acidity on the tongue.
They do this effectively through their ability to detect hydrogen ions in ingested substances.
Many foods contain edible organic acids such as citric acid (citrus fruits), lactic acid (milk), acetic acid (vinegar), oxalic acid (pepper), malic acid (apples), and tartaric acid (grapes).
The sour taste is pleasant in small quantities but unpleasant in large quantities.
As such, it helps our tongues to determine whether food is palatable or not as the case of knowing ripe fruits and unripe fruits.
5. Umami/Savory Taste
This is the latest discovery in the taste spectrum.
It was first discovered in 1908 by a Japanese chemist who isolated glutamate as a protein flavor characterized by a meaty taste.
Although many people in the food industry still prefer to use Unami and savory interchangeable, their definitions actually disagree a little.
From their definitions and my understanding of what the Umami discoverer described, I will try to separate the two tastes and give examples of foods under each taste.
What Exactly is Umami Flavor
Umami flavor can be described as an appetitive meaty taste that is neither sweet, salty sour, nor bitter.
It is a taste that essentially combines a hint of the other four basic tastes and is enhanced into a pleasant meaty flavor.
What does umami taste like?
Umami taste is a product of plant and animal amino acids (glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate released as a meaty flavor especially after aging, cooking or curing protein rich foods.
Basically, Umami is a Japanese word for ‘delicious taste’ which means Umami foods taste delicious enough to induce appetite.
It is an underlying flavor that brings out the natural taste of food which triggers our taste buds.
Perhaps the best example of the Umami taste is soy source and monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is a product of the amino acids isolated during the discovery of the taste.
Savory Taste Meaning
Savory taste almost similar to Umami that was popular in Europe and the West when describing foods that are not overly sweet but are tasty and attractive to the pallet.
I usually liken the savory taste to an almost bland tasting fruit that is also full of flavor such as an avocado.
Umami Vs Savory
With the above descriptions of Umami and savory tastes, you will agree with me that as much as the two are commonly used to refer to the same thing, they actually don’t mean the same.
What I have gathered about the usage of these two words in the culinary world is there was a geographical nomenclature entanglement where everyone wanted their vocabulary to be universally accepted in the taste spectrum.
It’s something akin to the metric system vs the imperial system or driving on the right side vs driving on the left side of the road.
In fact, it took the global scientific world almost 100 years to accept Umami as a basic taste.
As seen above, Umami is more of a description of a delicious meaty taste that is basically derived from high protein foods while savory taste encompasses all flavors that are neither sweet nor salty but aren’t specifically from high protein foods.
Umami Flavor Examples
- Soy source or soy-based foods
- Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) flavor enhanced foods
- Cured meats
- Edible mushrooms
- Green tea
- Properly aged cheese
- Seafood and seaweeds
- Cooked/dried tomatoes and tomato paste
- Fish source
Savory Taste Examples
- Raw peanuts
- Cooked Rice
- White flesh dragon fruit
- Irish potatoes chips
- Almond milk
- Oat meal
- Cooked carrots
- Broccoli soup
- How do you get umami flavor without msg?
You can get the Umami flavor through food treatments such as fermentation (for vegetables), curing (for meat and meat products), (aging for cheese), and drying (for tomatoes).
- Is Umami and MSG the same?
Technically yes. MSG is actually considered to be an artificial extract of pure Umami flavors.
It is used as a flavor enhancer for foods aiming to achieve a perfect Umami taste.
- Where do I buy umami sauce?
Umami source can be bought both in physical stores such as Walmart, target and also online at Amazon and eBay.
- What is umami burger made of?
The authentic Umami burger is made from Wagyu Beef which is one of the most expensive foods in the world.
The beef is seasoned in soy source and grounded into a coarse patty.
There are, of course other ingredients such as dried Shiitake mushrooms, caramelized onion rings, ketchup and other toppings such as Parmesan crisps.
- What triggers umami?
Generally, the Umami taste receptors in the tongue are triggered by the flavor essence from plant and animal amino acids especially glutamate, inosinate, and guanylate that are released as a result of cooking, curing, or aging food.
- How do vegans get umami?
There are numerous plant-based foods packed with Umami taste such as dried tomatoes, mushrooms, green tea, truffles, and edible seaweeds.
You can also add soy source in your dishes to get an enhanced Umami taste that is absolutely vegan.