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The Missing Link: How to Add Umami Flavor to Your Vegan Meals


You know the four basic tastes: sweet, sour, bitter and salty. It is now believed that there is a fifth taste and it is called “umami.” What exactly is umami? It is considered to be the taste sensation that makes foods savory, complex and deeply flavorful. It is what makes foods mouthwatering and satisfying. Without umami, food may taste bland. In 1908, the term “umami” was coined in Japan by a scientist who discovered that certain foods have high levels of glutamate, a naturally occurring amino acid. Over one hundred years later, umami has become a buzzword in the culinary world and scientists have recently discovered a taste receptor for umami, which they believe evolved in humans to make us enjoy eating umami-rich foods. In fact, breast milk is high in glutamate, meaning we may develop a liking for umami as infants. Umami is found in many animal products including meat, aged meats, cheeses, salted fish like anchovies, and foods that have been caramelized or cooked at high temperatures.

What does that mean for vegans? Research has suggested that some people may not experience umami and for them, giving up animal foods and meaty tastes would be much easier. But for others, it could be that umami is why it is harder for them to feel satisfied on plant-based diets or why they may continue to crave meat and cheese. The theory is that these people may, in fact, be craving umami. It may also explain why many vegans, me included, make a lot of meatless food that tastes meaty. The good news is there are lots of vegan-friendly sources of umami, foods that will add depth of flavor and dimension to dishes. Even if you don’t experience cravings for umami, it is always a good idea to make food as flavorful as possible. Let’s look at which plant-based foods are loaded with umami.

1. Fermented Foods   

Fermented foods are rich in umami. These would include soy sauce or tamari, liquid aminos, vegan Worcestershire sauce, balsamic vinegar, umeboshi plum vinegar, miso, wine, beer and tempeh. There is lots of umami to be found in these Miso Roasted Tomatoes and Spiralized Carrot Noodles, Pomegranate Roasted Vegetables and Balsamic BBQ Tempeh Ribs. Sauerkraut and kimchi are also fermented. Learn how to make your own raw sauerkraut and your own kimchi and indulge in the deliciousness.

2. Mushrooms and Tomatoes

Mushrooms (especially shitakes and porcinis) and tomatoes have naturally occurring umami, and drying them concentrates it even more. Therefore, dried mushrooms, sun-dried tomatoes, tomato paste, and ketchup are flavor-packed choices. These Potato and Porcini Mushroom Ravioli in Broccoli Cream Sauce is the epitome of savory food. Semi-dried tomatoes are part of what make these Tomato, Chive and Chickpea Pancakes so amazing.

3. Sea Vegetables

You can find umami in sea vegetables and seaweed such as kombu, kelp and nori. Indulge in the umami of the sea with these Kelp Noodles in Peanut-Miso Sauce and this Easy Seaweed Salad.  If you’re a sushi-lover, read How to Make Vegan California and Teriyaki Tofu Sushi and make your own rolls.

4. Nutritional Yeast

Nine out of ten vegans swear by nutritional yeast. Ok, I don’t know if that statistic is correct, but I do know that many vegans love their nooch. It adds a cheesy, salty taste to food as well as a bunch of important vitamins and minerals including vitamin B12. Use it in tofu scrambles, mac and cheese, baked kale chips and dips. Check out 10 Recipes that Can Be Transformed with Nutritional Yeast for more recipe ideas.

5. Green Tea

You probably know that green tea has lots of health benefits such as boosting immunity, lowering blood pressure and reducing certain cancer risks. But did you know that green tea can also be used in recipes? That’s right, so you have more than one way to experience the umami of green tea. Try these awesome Green Tea and Mango Sandwiches, these Matcha Green Tea-Chocolate Chip Brownies and these Matcha Green Tea Cupcakes.

6. Toasted Nuts and Seeds

When nuts and seeds are toasted, their flavor gets stronger and so does the umami. Try this Muhammara Spread which has toasted walnuts and hemp seeds or these Beet Greens with Garlic and Toasted Almonds. Toasted peanuts are the umami-filled garnish for my Kung Pao Tofu. My vegan Sesame Tofu is topped with toasted sesame seeds for an extra dash of umami. The Ultimate Seed Guide has everything you need to know about nuts and seeds. Take a look at it and then indulge in delights like this Pumpkincredible Hummus with toasted pumpkin seeds.

7. Savory Spices

I certainly wasn’t surprised to find that a few of my favorite spices are high in umami. If you asked me to look in my spice cabinet and tell you which ones I couldn’t live without, cumin and paprika would be on the top of the list. Toasted cumin seeds are so savory, they add a deep, almost meaty accent to food. Cumin goes into all my Spanish and Indian recipes like my Mexican-Spiced Tofu Scramble and my Casbah Tofu with Yellow Rice. Smoked paprika adds depth and heat to dishes. It works perfectly when you want your food to have a smoked flavor such as in Coconut Bacon or barbecue sauce. Other spices which contain umami are rosemary and thyme. Try these Flaky White Bean Biscuits with Rosemary Butter and these Thyme-Scented Roasted Grapes.

8. Vegetables and Vegetable Broth

Many vegetables have varying levels of umami and some have more when they are cooked. The veggies that pack the most umami are asparagus, peas, sweet corn, beans, carrots, sweet potatoes, soybeans, cabbage, avocados, spinach and winter squash. Nothing says savory like a plate of Pan-Roasted Root Vegetables. Cooked celery, onions and potatoes also deliver umami as does vegetable broth. Learn How to Make the Best Vegetable Stock and use it for soups, stews and sauces.

Roasting, browning, grilling, sautéing, and caramelizing foods increases the amount of umami in foods. The cooking releases glutamate from the proteins. Enjoy these Tacos with Spinach, Mushrooms, Potatoes and Caramelized Onions or these Grilled Avocados with Roasted Tomatoes for a double-dose of umami.

Long before I knew what the word “umami” meant, I knew I loved savory foods. Seven years after becoming vegan, I still strive to make my recipes mouthwatering with lots of spices and complex flavors. Reading a list of plant-based umami-filled foods is the same as reading a list of all my favorite ingredients. I guess I’m an umami kind of girl.

Lead Image Source: Kelp Noodles in Peanut-Miso Sauce

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0 comments on “The Missing Link: How to Add Umami Flavor to Your Vegan Meals”

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Melissa Hoffman
3 Years Ago

Thanks for this, Rhea. Your story parallels so much of my own. Always been a good \'cook\', but now learning the skills of \'umami\'--studying the pioneering work of many chefs like Rene Redzepi. I truly think this will open the culinary world to \'vegan\' gastronomy. Nice that you compiled this article so well. Had one like it brewing in my head, then found you had done it! Always more to add over time. Thanks again. Melissa from Teal/SHo Farm, Permaculture Food Lab.

4 Years Ago

I love your content but why do you have to have so many annoying and distracting popups? The on on the lower right is totally useless. Please remove these from your site - I find I cut my visits here short because I don\'t like being so abruptly distracted from what I\'m reading so often.


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