On Vegan Umami (and Why You Probably Won’t Miss Cheese as Much as You Think)

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Often when people find out I follow a vegan diet, their eyes widen, an awkward silence ensues, and eventually they ask me how I can possibly live without cheese.

Yeah, it drives me nuts, but I totally get it. I used to wonder about the same thing. Back in the day, I would take great pride in getting my then veggie-phobic husband T and other relatives to scarf down my vegetable preparations. My secret? Lots and lots of parmesan cheese, and maybe some brown butter, and if I was really serious, a drop of bacon or pancetta. Whether it was a spinach salad, stuffed mushrooms, or roasted green beans, I turned to animal products to give my veggies oomph. I felt so sorry for unenlightened folks who were still eating vegetables seasoned with little more than a couple shakes of salt.

When I imagined going vegan, I pictured having to choke down heaping plates of depressingly bland verdure for every meal. And, worse, I worried that cooking would stop being fun. How would I possibly be able to give my food any depth if I had to surrender my secret weapons?

Enter umami. I can’t remember when or how I first heard this word, but it completely changed how I think about food and how I cook.

Westerners describe flavor in terms of 4 types of tastes: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. There are, however, many foods–often animal products–whose flavor can’t be described with merely those 4 terms, instead possessing an almost intangible savoury, meaty quality that makes your mouth water. Think about what roast meat, parmesan cheese, and brown butter have in common. That, my friends, is umami and I’m addicted to it.

Umami is what’s often missing from bland vegetable side dishes, or boring salads. Our craving for it is why we throw blue cheese in our salads and bacon grease on our green beans and why we’re terrified of having to live without these ingredients. Put simply, food without umami is often unappetizing, something we have to choke down or cover with other flavors to make it palatable. Unfortunately, most of the vegan food you’ve probably tried doesn’t have even a drop of umami. No wonder mainstream vegan food rarely seems craveable.

But, here’s the good news: Umami can actually be found in literally tons of plant-based sources. That’s right– there is absolutely no reason that vegan food has to have any less umami than a dinner at a Brazilian steak house. It’s just that many vegan cooks, even professional ones, I’m sorry to say, often don’t know or bother to incorporate these ingredients into their foods.

Now that you know what umami is, though, you’re already thisclose to being able to make vegan food that is better than what they’re serving at some of the most famous vegan restaurants in the country. Incorporate any of the items below into your next plant-based meal and I bet you won’t miss that sprinkle of parmesan one bit. Add a little extra fat (maybe some avocado or a nut butter/cream), and you have a meal that scratches even the most persistent animal product itch.

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Here, in no particular order, is a list of a few umami-rich ingredients you probably already have in your kitchen:

  • crusty bread
  • toasted bread crumbs
  • nuts, particularly roasted or toasted
  • sesame oil
  • tomato paste, or a sauce made of long simmered ripe tomatoes
  • fresh mushrooms, especially when browned
  • dried mushrooms (e.g. porcini)
  • miso (you’re not going to believe this, but the flavor profile of miso is remarkably similar to that of cheddar cheese)
  • soy sauce
  • roasted root vegetables
  • roasted cruciferous vegetables
  • seaweed
  • seeds (e.g. pumpkin, sesame, sunflower)
  • vegetable broth (store bought or prepared from scratch)
  • marmite
  • (vegan) worcestershire sauce
  • nutritional yeast*** (Ok, I know you may not have this in your pantry or even have heard of it, but you need to read the wikipedia page and then run out and get some, stat. Nutritional yeast is literally vegan umami in a shaker and can stand in for parmesan in any preparation you can imagine. I’ll probably devote a whole post to it later, but for now I’ll just say that it’s delicious, nutritious, and a great way to add depth to your vegan food)

I’ll post some umami recipe ideas shortly!

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2 thoughts on “On Vegan Umami (and Why You Probably Won’t Miss Cheese as Much as You Think)

  1. I am not sold on nutritional yeast to be honest. We pay a lot for it here in Australia (well, in Tasmania where I live we do) and it doesn’t really add much of a cheesy taste if I am honest. I find fermenting gives a more true “cheesy” taste and use miso and mustard and lemon juice or cider vinegar whenever I want to replicate the umami cheesy flavour in sauces etc.

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