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Umami: Plants, Flavour and Oomph!
Everything you need to know about unlocking umami, with just plants.
One of the biggest misconceptions about plant-based cooking and eating (after the whole ‘lack of protein’ thing) is that you can’t create umami with just plants. Both are very incorrect, but today we’re talking about the second. Adding richness, depth and that conjoining ‘sweet, sour, salty and bitter’ taste, which umami consists of, to plant-based cooking is doable and oh so delicious. Here’s the allplants guide to unlocking umami with plants.
If you’re not familiar with it, miso is a Japanese paste made by fermenting soybeans, rice or barley with salt and koji (a Japanese fungus) over a long period of time. Are you still with us? It’s a little funky looking (and tasting) straight out of the jar, but used in harmony with different vegetables, fruits and grains it can be bring out a powerful depth of flavour and layers that you just don’t get by simply using salt. There are several types of miso, but our favourite is white miso, for its versatility and sweetness. Get yourself a jar and try it out in dressings like this one, soups like this one, and vegetable marinades like this one.
This is the second of three fermented umami-source on the list. You can probably guess why ‘umami’ was discovered and termed in Japan. They have so much fermented food over there! There’s something about the process of using nature and time that draws out such deeply layered flavour. Fermented vegetables, like miso and soy sauce (below), can add punch, tanginess and richness to otherwise simple flavours. It's one of the reasons why our Kimchi Grain Bowl is so delicious. Try adding kimchi or kraut (different types of fermented cabbage) to your soups, warm sandwiches, dips, stir fries and porridge for a savoury twist.
As the food geniuses over at Bon Appetit said “you should think of soy sauce less as a condiment and more as umami and salt in liquid form, something you can use to add complexity and punch whenever it is needed, a dash at a time”. Use it when sauteeing greens like kale, add a splash to tomato sauce and dressings and deglaze caramelised onions with it. It significantly ups the ‘savoury factor’ of whatever you’re cooking.
Nutritional yeast, aka Nooch
What you’ve all been waiting for! The backbone of cheese-less cheese sauces. In much the same way that parmesan is known to be the dairy source of umami, nooch is the non-dairy source of umami. When used in plant-based creamy sauces like our mac and cheese or nacho cheese sauces, it brings with it the nutty and cheesy notes typically associated with regular cheese. Try adding it to your sauces, popcorn, crackers before baking, or creamy dips.
Simply put, tomato paste is made by cooking down tomatoes. What results in cooking the water from the tomatoes away is an intense and concentrated paste which packs a robust and fresh punch of tomato flavour in very small quantities. It’s typically used in stews, but can go a long way in simple sauces, bean soups, marinades and pizza sauces. To really up the flavour profile of whatever you’re cooking though, you’ll need to caramelise the tomato paste slightly as this will brown the natural tomato sugars and really bring the flavour out later on. For example, if you want to use it in a sauce, sautée and sizzle the tomato paste in your olive oil and onion for 4-5 minutes before adding the rest of ingredients, rather than adding the paste directly with the your sauce. This small change goes along way.
So this isn’t technically a food, it’s a cooking process. But it’s a powerful one. It has the power to turn a simple vegetable like an onion into a rich and complex flavour bomb that ticks all the umami boxes and elevates the depth of a dish tenfold (similar to the tomato paste situation above). Think about it, caramelised onions are sweet and salty and intense and perfect. All of this, just from cooking the natural sugars of a vegetable until browned. In fact, I think we can confidently say everything is significantly better when caramelised onions are involved. Don’t know how to make them? Here you go. Don’t know how to use them? Fold them into warm salads, toss them onto dips, smear them on your sandwiches, cook them into your stock and the classic, stack them on your burger.
Now it's your turn. Pick a couple of these up, choose your next dish and add some 'oomph!' to you cooking.