Mmmmm . . . Umami!
Mushrooms are such a versatile ingredient. They’re great in spaghetti, on pizza, or grilled and drizzled with olive oil. You can add them to rice for an elegant risotto or stir them up with cream for a warm and comforting soup.
Why do we love mushrooms in our favorite savory dishes? Because they provide our fifth taste - umami.
Most of us are familiar with the other four basic tastes - sweet, sour, bitter and salty. But what exactly is umami? The word is of Japanese origin and has been translated as yummy, deliciousness or a pleasant savory taste. It was coined in 1908 by Kikunae Ikeda, a chemist at Tokyo University. Ikeda discovered it was the compound glutamate in certain foods that created the savory, umami taste. Humans, it turns out, have specific receptors that respond to these compounds.
So why do we have receptors for different tastes? It’s a matter of biology. Sweetness signals the presence of sugars, the primary source of energy for humans and the foundation of the food chain. Bitter warns us that something could be poisonous and a little salt tastes delicious but too much tastes terrible, helping us balance the amount of salt we ingest. Science is still unclear about the benefit of being able to taste sour. Some researchers speculate that earlier in our evolution it could have been a warning that food was beginning to spoil.
According to the Umami Information Center:
Umami serves as a signal to the body that we have consumed protein. Sensing umami triggers the secretion of saliva and digestive juices, facilitating the smooth digestion of protein
Mushrooms are high in glutamates, making them savory and putting them squarely in the umami category. There’s 180 mg of free glutamate in three and a half ounces of mushrooms. That may explain why mushrooms make a great meat substitute. Portobello mushrooms cooked on a grill take on a savory, meaty taste.
Interestingly, umami seems to occur only when amino acids are released through cooking. Raw meat isn’t very umami. Aged cheeses, however, are - probably from the aging process that breaks down compounds and releases amino acids. Fermented foods are also very umami, again after going through a process that breaks down the raw state of the food, releasing enzymes and other compounds.
The next time you’re craving something savory, add some mushrooms to a dish.
Here’s one of our favorite mushroom recipes high on the umami scale:
2 cups sliced, fresh mushrooms such as shiitake, oyster, chestnut or a combination
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup finely chopped onion
1 clove minced garlic
½ cup dry white wine
5-6 cups stock (chicken or vegetable)
1 3/4 cups risotto rice (such as arborio rice)
1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 Tbsp chopped fresh parsley for garnish
Warm stock in a saucepan.
In a heavy pot or Dutch oven, heat olive oil and saute onion until tender and translucent, about 5 minutes. Add butter, garlic, and mushrooms. Stir occasionally, cooking until mushrooms are tender and begin to brown.
Add rice, stirring constantly; cook until lightly browned. Add wine and stir until the liquid is reduced.
Ladle in a ½ cup of stock. Stir frequently, making sure to keep rice from sticking to the pan. Continue cooking and stirring until most of the stock has been absorbed before adding the next ½ cup. Repeat this process until all the stock has been added to the rice mixture. This will take approximately 25 minutes. The rice should be just cooked, with a slightly chewy texture and a creamy sauce. Add the cheese, season with salt and pepper and garnish with fresh chopped parsley. Enjoy!