The dude who helped make “umami” a household word, Adam Fleischman, along with LA-based writer (and former Food Republic contributor) Tien Nguyen, bring us Flavor Bombs, the cookbook dedicated to adding that fifth dimension of flavor to every dish possible. Build your pantry to maximize flavor.
There are many, many ingredients that have a lot of natural umami in them. Of course, I keep a lot of them in my pantry and fridge. These umami ingredients—along with basic seasonings like acid, salt, and heat—are added in intervals, always at least at the beginning, middle, and end.
Mix this umami pantry with some cherished memories of meals past, a little risk taking, and patience, and you will be a great cook in no time.
Anchovy Fillets, Anchovy Paste and Dried Anchovies
Anchovies pack a ton of umami, and they meld into sauces perfectly. The fillets come in cans that are easy to store in the pantry, but the tubes of paste are good for those times you just need a hint of umami and don’t want to break open a new tin of fillets. Two fillets are equal to about 1 teaspoon of paste. I also have a packet or two of dried anchovies in my pantry, which you can pick up at an Asian grocery store or online at Amazon. Once you open a pack, place it in an airtight container or bag and toss it in the fridge if you’ll use the rest within a week. For longer storage, it’ll keep better in the freezer.
Canned Italian or Californian Tomatoes
Fresh tomatoes are great for fresh recipes, like my Blender Gazpacho (page 84). But for sauces, gravies, stews, ragus, or anything else that requires actually cooking the tomatoes, canned is usually better. Canned tomatoes are grown specifically for their concentrated flavor. They are usually smaller tomatoes, with thicker flesh—which is where all that umami is.
Ok, I’m cheating a little here. Chocolate isn’t technically an umami ingredient. But it gives you such a deep sense of satisfaction. Keep at least one bar around the kitchen. Always go with a trusted producer of chocolate: I like the chocolates from Callebaut, Michel Cluizel, Valrhona, Guittard, and Scharffen Berger. If you can’t find those, chocolates from Belgium or France are good ones, though check the label. If sugar is the main ingredient, you’re better off staying away.
Keep packets of dried porcinis, dried morels, and dried shiitakes in your pantry and throw them in a stock, or blitz them for a spice blend. Use the best-quality mushrooms that you can afford; my favorite dried mushrooms come from Far West Fungi (see Sources, page 248). If you’re tossing them straight into a sauce, it’s a good idea to first rinse them off in cold water to remove any dirt or grit. If you need to rehydrate the mushrooms before using, warm some water in a small saucepan over low heat. Turn off the heat and add the dried mushrooms. Soak the mushrooms until they’re completely rehydrated, 20 to 30 minutes, and then strain the water through a fine-mesh sieve or coffee filter; discard any grit or dirt. The mushrooms and their flavorful liquid will then be ready to go.
Buy a container of duck fat and keep it in your freezer. You can often find duck fat at Whole Foods or your local specialty grocer; Amazon carries it as well. It’s surprisingly useful: You can use it to confit, of course, or use it instead of olive oil or butter when sautéing vegetables or crisping potatoes. It’ll add an inimitable depth of flavor.
The umami in eggs is found mostly in the yolks. For all my recipes, I use large, organic, pasture-raised eggs.
Fish sauce has a ton of umami in it. It won’t necessarily make your food fishy; used in measured amounts, it’ll actually bring out the meatiness of your food. Quality varies enormously, as does country of origin. My favorite bottle of fish sauce is the one made by Red Boat, a Vietnamese brand that offers both a nonkosher and kosher version.
Green Tea and Matcha
Green tea has high levels of theanine, an amino acid that is chemically very similar to glutamate and imparts a savory flavor similar to umami. Buy the highest quality you can afford. Matcha is a type of green tea that’s been processed into a powder. It’s often divided into two general categories: ceremonial grade and cooking (culinary) grade. Ceremonial-grade matcha has a natural sweetness, and that’s what you use if you just want to brew the matcha to drink. Cooking-grade matcha is processed differently than ceremonial-grade matcha, as it’s intended to be used as an ingredient and combined with other flavors. You can still brew it with hot water and drink it, but it won’t be as sweet or delicate as the ceremonial-grade matcha.
This dried seaweed is sold in rectangular sealed packages, usually at the Asian grocery store. It’s crucial for making dashi, the Japanese broth. Keep it at room temp in your pantry; after opening, place it in a sealed bag and stash it back in your pantry. It’ll last for a few months.
Yeast has a ton of umami, and Marmite is basically that: It’s a yeasty extract sold in distinctive squat jars at the supermarket. It’s spread on toast and crackers and otherwise used as a condiment in the United Kingdom and Australia, but it’s not nearly as popular here in the United States. It can take a while to acquire the taste if you’re not used to it; to ease into it, try adding it to sauces. Once you open it, screw the lid back on tight and keep it on your counter or in your pantry. It’ll last for years.
Miso is a fermented paste made from soybeans. It comes in a wide range of colors, but the most common are white (shiro), yellow (shishu), and red (aka). Generally the lighter the miso, the milder the flavor. The darker misos have been fermented longer and so will have deeper, funkier flavors. Miso lasts forever in the fridge.
Buy the best you can afford—Parmigiano-Reggiano is the best. Grate fresh with a Microplane, and use pre-grated only when it comes from a cheesemonger.
Guanciale, pancetta, prosciutto, bacons, and salamis are all worth keeping around to add to other meats for a savory counterpoint.
Preserved Black Truffles
Truffles don’t need to be pricey, or only used for special occasions. Good-quality preserved black truffles abound and are sold in slices, pastes, trimmings, and butters; you’ll even find them pureed and packaged in tubes for ease of use. My friends at Truffle Brothers will ship you some (see Sources, page 248). Avoid using truffle oils (unless you make them yourself) because they often contain artificial scents and little flavor.
Shio koji is a creamy, fermented rice product that you can find at your local Japanese supermarket or online. Koji itself is a mold with high levels of enzymes that break down proteins and starches; give it some time to ferment with the right ingredients and you end up with soy sauce and miso paste and mirin and sake. I use shio koji to make sauces; it can also be used for marinades and dressings. After opening, store it in the fridge, where it’ll last for about six months.
Soy Sauce, Powdered Soy Sauce and Tamari
I keep a few different soy sauce products in my pantry. I have a white soy sauce (which isn’t white in color, though it is a lighter shade than most soys) for mellow flavor. I also keep a good all-purpose soy on hand, like the Japanese ones they sell at the Asian markets. I also keep a small pouch of powdered soy sauce handy, which is just the dry, dehydrated version of soy sauce, to use in my Master Dust (page 32). Tamari is similar to soy sauce, but thicker in texture and more complex in flavor.
Homemade stock is great, but if you don’t have any on hand, don’t let that stop you from making recipes that call for it. Instead, do what I do and keep packaged demi-glace that you can turn into stock in your pantry at all times. Savory Choice, for example, makes solid beef and chicken demi-glaces, which I use to make quick stocks by diluting them in water (I start with equal parts demi-glace and water and adjust from there, depending on how intense I want the stock to be). Another idea: If you go out for ramen a lot, bring home the broth. Strain it and try using it in most any recipe that calls for stock.
A tube of tomato paste in your cabinet will go a long way. Always get double-concentrated tomato paste.
Another jar in your pantry that will last forever. Don’t—I repeat, do not—buy any truffle honey that uses truffle oil. Instead look for truffle honey that really is made of real truffles and honey. Like truffle salt, truffle honey can be a little pricey, with a 4-ounce jar setting you back anywhere between $10 and $25, depending on where you get it. But also like truffle salt, a little bit goes a long way. It’s worth the indulgence.
It is what it sounds like: salt infused with real truffle particulates. Pick out a good Italian or French one; if you can, smell before you buy, as the aroma will tell you everything about the quality of the jar. It may be a little expensive—between $10 and $15 for a 4-ounce jar or bag—but even a pinch is incredibly flavorful, so a small jar of truffle salt will last you a long while. If the salt stales over time—and it will—you can still use it: just use slightly more than what the recipe calls for.
Umami Sauce, Umami Master Dust and Umami Ketchup
These are all my own blends that I make in huge batches to deploy whenever I need them. See page 30.
Worcestershire sauce is fermented with a ton of umami ingredients, like anchovies and fish sauce. It’s great not just on steaks but also in sauces and other things you want to amp up.