Producing spectacular burgers loaded with umami can be daunting for the home cook. So we wondered if a chef steeped in food science could help us focus on the best ingredients and cooking techniques and really zero in on what makes a umami burger supremely flavorful. In short, how would science, guided by a chef's wisdom, design the most delicious umami burger?
We went for guidance to Jonathan Zearfoss, an award-winning high-end chef and head of the new culinary science bachelor's degree program at The Culinary Institute of America. He gave us guidelines – not a recipe – that any guy can use to produce a drop-dead delicious burger, customized to his personal tastes. Zearfoss insists that for ultimate deliciousness, umami should not be working alone – the Maillard reaction should also be in play.
Umami is the fifth taste (after sweet, sour, bitter, and salty), identified in 1908 by Japanese chemist Kikunae Ikeda, who realized his dashi broth with kombu did not fit any of the four known tastes. In the 1980s, scientists recognized that umami is detected through our tongue receptors for glutamates. Thus, foods rich in glutamates (among them, many Asian foods) are rich in umami. This includes foods such as cured meat, fish and shellfish, broth such as dashi, fermented and aged foods such as soy sauce and cheese, mushrooms, and ripe vegetables such as tomatoes and spinach. In everyday language, we could call umami “delicious savory taste,” Zearfoss says.
Maillard, named after the French scientist Louis-Camille Maillard, who first described it in 1912, is the nonenzymatic browning reaction "in the presence of an amino acid and a reducing sugar," as in grilled steak or toast, Zearfoss says. It increases substantially at 300°F. (This is different from caramelization, which is the browning of sugar; unlike Maillard, it has nothing to do with amino acids.) You could call the Maillard reaction "browned deliciousness," says Zearfoss.
"Each of these – umami and the Maillard reaction – are distinct, but they complement each other," says Zearfoss. In other words, they work together to produce more powerful flavors than either can by itself.
Jonathan Zearfoss's Guidelines for Flavor Blaster Umami Burgers
- Medium rare, Zearfoss's go-to. For rare, cook the burger less. For medium well, turn the grill down and cook longer. Or get grill marks and put patty on the shelf in the back of grill to finish cooking.
- All beef, Zearfoss's preference. Should be 80 percent meat, 20 percent fat. (Ask a butcher to make this.) Get grill marks for browning benefits.
- Or a beef mix. Same beef as above, but fold in ground shiitake mushrooms, which are highest in glutamates; add 20 percent by weight of the burger.
- Season gingerly because salt builds up fast with umami ingredients. (Salt enhances umami flavor, but many umami-rich foods are also salty. So go easy with salt, or you could end up with way too much. Taste often.)
- Miso-mustard sauce (1 tbsp Dijon mustard mixed with 3 tbsp miso and 3 tbsp rice vinegar). Miso boosts browning. Brush on light coating of sauce.
- Optional: Mix umami-rich soy sauce or fish sauce (both are salty) with miso-mustard sauce.
- Grill. Aim for a lot of browning. Use gas grill with wood box. Wood: contributes to Maillard reaction. Use mix of mesquite and cherrywood (mesquite has a higher smoking temp). Or use charcoal, but add wood chips in a wood box (available at hardware stores).
- Aged cheese, thinly sliced, that melts. "It's got to be a cheeseburger," says Zearfoss. "There's a lot of umami in aged cheese, because umami develops with age." Parmesan: the ultimate for umami. Or Vella medium-aged dry Monterey jack (Vella invented the dry version when Parmesan was unavailable during WWII). Or aged Cabot cheddar. Or an aged Gouda or older Gruyère. Or Vella and Cabot together. Your choice.
- Optional: Place crisp bacon on top, for the Maillard reaction from browning the bacon. Adds to overall aesthetic. From a farmers' market: "There's always a guy from a local smokehouse," says Zearfoss. Or mail order, for chef-quality bacon: Benton's of Tennessee, Broadbent's of Kentucky, or Edwards of Virginia."
Pretzel roll from a bakery or a supermarket bakery. Split roll in half. Brush with a little butter or miso-mustard mix. Toast on inside only for 15 seconds, to keep bread soft and chewy inside, but dry outside – to stand up to ingredients and add to Maillard reaction.
- Ripe tomatoes (full of umami), in season or best possible. Save the juice – where the most umami is, as well as in the gel part that holds the seeds. The rest is cellulose structure.
- Sweet onions – grill slices and get browning marks for Maillard reaction (this is not caramelization, as commonly thought).
- Shiitake mushrooms, highest in glutamates. Grill whole and get marks; brush with miso-mustard, or dilute it as 80 percent olive oil, 20 percent miso-mustard. Slice and place on top of burger.
- Kombu, a sea kelp, packed with umami. Tenderize first: Place in a pot and cover with water. Simmer for an hour until soft. Cut into strips. Place short strips on top of burger.
- Optional: sliced avocado, but it won't add anything to the umami effect. "However, I love that unctuous texture, and it adds to the fat content and the overall mouthfeel," says Zearfoss.
Fermented add-ons (packed with umami)
- "Definitely a pickle" (made in a brine, not in vinegar), says Zearfoss.
- Or kimchi, if you like spicy.
- Or Chinese fermented black beans.
- A shmear of miso-mustard.
- And/or Zearfoss's (easy) umami ketchup: Soak sundried tomatoes (for concentrated umami flavor) in hot beef broth – just enough to cover them – until soft. Puree really well with cooled broth in blender. Add splash of sherry vinegar with a little leftover tomato juice. Taste; if necessary, add a little soy sauce for salt.
- Optional: mayonnaise. Many people like it, but it would help neither the umami nor the Maillard flavors. Zearfoss is not a fan.
To serve: Pair with a nutty, brownish ale. In summer, go with a Flemish or Belgian sour ale, says Zearfoss. A simple baby spinach salad with a balsamic vinaigrette would go well with this. For a light potato side, prepare fingerlings (parcook, split in half lengthwise, brush with olive oil and herbs), and grill, cut side down. Bonus: "After all this, you still haven't messed up the kitchen much," says Zearfoss.