For finished dishes that taste a little dull, I often turn to ingredients that instantly enhance umami — the flavor category for savory or meaty tastes. These condiments work as last-minute seasonings that quickly and naturally boost umami flavor.
Fish sauce — the liquid from salted, fermented fish — might smell offensive to some people, but its fishy qualities aren’t noticeable in small doses. Instead, it adds a subtle combination of umami and salty flavors. Fish sauce is a staple ingredient to Southeast Asian cuisine, but don’t hesitate to add a dash of fish sauce to dishes without Asian origins. I like to stir a few drops of fish sauce into mild vegetable soups, such as butternut squash soup, to balance the vegetable’s natural sweetness. Look for fish sauce in the Asian section of grocery stores.
Shiitake Mushroom Powder
I thought that I had invented a brilliant new condiment when I ground up some dried shiitake mushrooms to rub on steaks. It turns out that many cooks use shiitake powder as an umami enhancer. Chef David Chang uses shiitake powder to add depth to flatbread in this recipe from Wired. Ground shiitakes can also imbue vegetarian dishes with a rich, meaty flavor. You can buy shiitake powder online, but it’s easy to make your own by pulverizing dried mushrooms in a spice grinder. Dried shiitake mushrooms are available at Asian markets and most grocery stores.
Dark Soy Sauce or Tamari
When I lived in Shanghai, I learned that Chinese cooks often use a dash of dark soy sauce to add a depth of flavor to their dishes. Dark soy sauce has a richer, less salty flavor and a slightly more syrupy consistency than standard soy sauce. Tamari, a Japanese soy sauce made without wheat, is similarly dark but not as syrupy. You can find dark soy sauce and tamari at Asian markets. Tamari is also available at many grocery stores.
For centuries, Japanese artisans have used a rice mold called “koji” to ferment miso, sake, and soy sauce. Shio koji is a recent innovation that combines koji with salt, in a porridge consistency, to use as a seasoning. I first learned about shio koji from Umami Mart, and now I’m hooked. Shio koji adds a savory, salty, and slightly sweet flavor that is perfect for marinades, sauces, and dressings. I also like to use shio koji as a final addition when I cook dried beans. Look for shio koji in the refrigerated section of Asian markets.
“The New Food Lover’s Companion” — Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst
“On Food and Cooking” — Harold McGee