Umami magic: finding the perfect pair
Umami is one of fifth basic flavours, along with sweet, sour salty and bitter. In Japanese, umami translates roughly to “savoury deliciousness”. It’s often associated with the earthy flavours of meat, mushrooms, broths and vine-ripened tomatoes. It enhances saltiness and sweetness, while reducing bitterness, which is why most people love it. But does umami exist in drinks? And if so, which fermented beverage has the most umami potential? And what happens to flavours when these drinks are paired with foods?
A first-of-its-kind study published in the journal Food Chemistry has investigated the average umami flavour content in a range of wines, champagnes, beers and sakes. The study results found that sake (Japanese rice wine) reigns supreme on the umami scale, far ahead of beer, followed by champagne and finally wine.
Determining the umami flavour content of a drink involves finding out how much of an amino acid known as glutamic acid there is in it. Umami flavour reaches us by way of glutamate as it lands on the specialised umami taste receptors of our tongues.
“Our results suggest that the longer a beverage’s fermentation time, the higher its glutamate content — which leads to more umami flavour,” says postdoctoral researcher Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, one of the study’s authors. “This is probably why sake leads the pack, as it’s typically fermented using both yeast and a mould culture called koji.”
But even if other drinks can’t match sake’s umami flavour on their own, the researchers say that the flavour can be improved by pairing drinks with food.
“We already know about food combinations which pair happily – like ham and cheese, for example,” Vinther Schmidt says. “Therefore, we calculated the effects of pairing shellfish like oysters, shrimp and scallops with the various beverages, so as to investigate which combinations would synergise and provoke an emergence of umami.”
The study found that each of the drinks bring out an umami flavour when paired with oysters and tuna; and that sake, certain aged wines and champagne can also exhibit umami flavour when paired with scallops.
According to the researchers, this is because pairing high-content glutamate drinks with foods high in something known as ribonucleotides creates “synergistic flavour magic” through which the best qualities of both drink and food emerge.
“If one takes a drink with glutamate and a food with just as many ribonucleotides, the umami flavour can generally be multiplied by eight,” Vinther Schmidt explains. Try it for yourself and really take a decadent seafood feast to the next level.