Rachael Ray's Secret Ingredient For Easy Umami Flavor

You might not know the word for it when you taste it, but certain foods have a distinctive "umami" flavor. Often described as "meaty" or "savory," the word was coined by the Japanese and translates to "pleasant taste," according to Healthline. Like sweet, sour, salty, and bitter, umami is one of the five basic tastes our brains recognize. 

Umami is important in cooking because, as Cooks Illustrated points out, it brings "a depth of flavor" that makes many dishes, such as pad Thai or bacon cheeseburgers, so appealing. As Food Republic writes, more chefs and home cooks are developing a deeper appreciation for umami and seeking ways to add it or boost it in their creations.

But what are we actually tasting when we taste umami? According to Food Republic, the flavor was identified in the late 1800s by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda. He discovered that the proteins in foods are altered at a molecular level when they are exposed to heat (as in the case with meats) or age (as with cheese). As the proteins break down, the molecule L-glutamate comes forward and gives us the flavor of, you guessed it, umami.

Dried mushrooms amp up the umami

Rachael Ray offered up some advice recently on how to easily impart umami flavor into your favorite recipes. According to Chatelaine, Ray recommended using dried mushrooms to quickly and easily add the "fifth flavor" to nearly any recipe.

Although dried mushrooms can be somewhat expensive, you only need a few of them to impart quite a bit of flavor, according to Kitchn. What type to choose depends on what you're cooking. Shiitake, enoki, nameko, matsutake, and other Asian mushrooms are good choices for dishes like stir-fries, roasted meats, or broths, and ramen or other noodles. European dried mushroom varieties on the other hand, such as porcini or chanterelle, add wonderful, savory umami flavor to your favorite sauce, omelets, stews, gratins, or pasta dishes.

Water, wine, or any meat or vegetable stock can be used to reconstitute (or "rehydrate") dried mushrooms and unleash their flavors, according to Mariposa Farms. And doing so is easy. Simply place the mushrooms in a bowl, pour in enough water, stock, or wine to cover the mushrooms, and allow them to sit for 20 minutes or so. As they absorb the liquid, the mushrooms will expand to four to six times their dry weight. Drain the mushrooms before using them, but save the liquid to use later. Chatelaine recommends cooking grains such as rice with the rich, mushroom-y liquid.

A final word of advice from Kitchn: less expensive dried mushrooms are often gritty, so splurge a little on your delicious dried fungi.