Umami is a Japanese word for one of the five tastes we can detect, the word meaning “pleasant savory taste”. The umami taste receptors sense the presence of glutimate, an amino acid used by our bodies to synthesize proteins. The other four tastes are sweetness, sourness, saltiness and bitterness (typically indicative of poisons).
I first heard of the term Umami Bomb while reading The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt. I highly recommend this book: he runs experiments on cooking! And is an entertaining author, and of course there are numerous excellent recipes, based on the principles he has proven through analysis and testing. The book is 916 pages and with steady progress I’m up to 785 — which is amazing for me for a non-fiction book. In this book he describes the Umami Bomb as being a triumvirate of foods with very high glutimate concentrations that will also fade into the background of your dish and not overpower it: anchovies, soy sauce and Marmite.
For years I’ve heard about the wonders of anchovies in dishes. Periodically I’d buy some. Then years later I’d decide they were too old and probably deadly and throw them out. Having tasted everything-on-it-including-anchovies pizza once (a hideous experience), really, how could one tell if they’ve gone bad or not? An Italian woman at work gave me a firm look while expounding on the virtues of adding anchovies to spaghetti sauce. Kenji was talking up the non-anchovy tasting result of his Umami Bomb, so finally I tried it in a Savory Squash Casserole that I made up due to having Kabocha squashes on hand and no recipe that inspired me. None of the three ingredients in the Umami Bomb could be tasted, and the resulting casserole had did have a savory meatiness beyond the amount of sausage present.
SAVORY SQUASH CASSEROLE
Toast slice of toast — I like whole grain
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
- 2 cups roasted winter squash. I used Kabocha, but acorn squash or pumpkin would be fine.
- 1 mild, cooked Italian sausage (2 might be even better)
In a skillet soften one small chopped onion in a dash of olive oil on low heat. Then add and cook until mixed and anchovy dissolved:
- 1/4 cup dry white wine
- 1/2 teaspoon Marmite
- 2 teaspoons soy sauce
- 2 teaspoons tomato paste
- one anchovy fillet (next time I may try two)
Soften 2 cloves chopped garlic in a little olive oil — I used the microwave
Mix everything plus 4 oz. of shredded Gruyere cheese, and salt (or seasoned salt) to taste.
Put in a meatloaf pan and pat down.
Tear the toast into small chunks and food process with:
- A drizzle of olive oil
- 1/4 teaspoon of seasoned salt
- Rounded teaspoon grated Parmesan cheese
Add in an even layer to the top of the squash mixture in the meatloaf pan and pat down.
Cook until breading is browned: 20-30 minutes.
There’s no escaping the slight sweetness of the squash, but in an effort to create a purely savory dish, I count this a success.
Below is a audio interview with Kenji going over some of his culinary experiments and describing his Umami Bomb.
Inside the Food Lab with Kenji López-Alt
The first thing he goes into is the bread experiment, which caused me to do my own experiment and I think his experiment was set up incorrectly!
In the audio he describes that pizza crust from New York is thought to be superior. In the book, it’s Rome. The idea being that the location’s (New York or Rome) high mineral content water used to make bread makes superior bread. In both experiments he uses mineral water versus low mineral water. The mineral content of these waters were high in magnesium as well as calcium; whereas the mineral content of the water in Rome is very high only in calcium because acidic water percolates through limestone saturating the previously acidic water. I suspected there was insufficient calcium in the Kenji experiment, and the added variable of high magnesium levels. So, I crushed up a calcium carbonate supplement — the identical chemical found in limestone — and used vinegar to dissolve it. Added some to one loaf of Italian bread and none to the other; each otherwise prepared and baked identically side-by-side. The one with the added dissolved calcium did not brown as well, but was noticeably more chewy and wonderful. I now have a pint jar of vinegar saturated with calcium carbonate for future Italian bread baking.
However, other than this one issue, Kenji was brilliant. The audio also goes into the best way to grill hamburgers, and with Labor Day tomorrow, knowing that may be timely!