In soup-making, umami is the complement to salty: rich, full-bodied flavors that make a dish satisfying and crave-worthy. Without umami ingredients, we would be stuck salting soup up to the edge of being inedible. Fortunately, there are many umami-loaded ingredients that add complexity and deliciousness to soup. This installment of the Ultimate Guide for Making the Best Soup has all the details.
What is Umami?
Umami (pronounced oo-MAH-mee) is one of the five basic tastes that the human tongue can perceive, along with sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. It’s been described as savoriness or deliciousness and is particularly characteristic of broths and cooked meats.
We detect umami through taste receptors in our tongues responding to amino acids (glutamates) and nucleotides, which are abundantly present in meat and fermented products.
In less scientific terms, umami is the sensation of a bite being deeply satisfying to our hunger brain. It’s that first taste of perfectly braised beef, or a lushly sharp, aged cheese, or a rich, soy sauce-based broth.
Why is Umami Important for Soup?
In soup-making, umami makes the cook’s job of building fabulous flavor considerably easier: instead of salting a soup to within an inch of its life — and ending up with something that tastes like it’s from a can off the shelf — we turn to umami-rich ingredients that create bursts of goodness in every spoonful.
Don’t get me wrong: salt is very important for creating a balanced flavor profile in soup or any dish. But sometimes the core ingredients of a soup need a little more help than what salt can give.
The challenge with soup is that we’re diluting the dish with liquids, so we have to overcome that deficit with extra flavors. A rich stock or broth is a great start, but with the variety of umami-loaded options we have, it doesn’t have to stop there. And it also means we don’t have to worry about using an iffy boxed or canned stock from the grocery store: umami to the rescue!
As mentioned, meat is umami-packed, but it’s not the only option. In this article, we’ll go through the list of common umami ingredients that are superstars in making great soup.
You won’t find mention of MSG anywhere else in this series, so I’m covering it briefly here. As we all know by now, monosodium glutamate is the umami of all umamis. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, and is available in crystalline form at many stores, usually located in the spice aisle.
Setting aside its controversial nature, the reason it won’t be mentioned in this guide is not that I’m opposed to it, but rather because it’s not my personal habit as a recipe developer and eater of soup to literally sprinkle MSG into a soup.
And there are exactly zero soup recipes on SoupAddict.com that call for commercial MSG, because a bottle of MSG is not a typical pantry item found in American households.
You can absolutely use crystalline MSG, of course. But it’s atypical in American soup-making, and recipes in general calling for it are few and far between. There are many other ways to add umami to a soup while adding extra benefits (e.g., the unique flavor of Worcestershire sauce, or the lovely red tinge imparted to a broth by tomato paste).
The list of ingredients that adds an umami punch is satisfyingly long, so I’m organizing them below into groups for clarity.
Note that while the goal is to be informative, this is not a comprehensive list of all umami foods; just the ones most commonly and easily used for soup-making.
Also, there is natural overlap of some of these foods with the other basic tastes. Balsamic vinegar, for example, is both umami and sour; soy sauce both umami and salty.
There is also some overlap among the groupings below, but I’ve listed each ingredient in just one category to keep the list from becoming unwieldy.
While most of these ingredients are obvious in their fit in soups, for others, I’ll add links to soup recipes where I’ve used the ingredient as umami.
Meats & Cheeses
Meat is probably the most common and familiar source of umami in American cooking and soup-making. Seared beef or chicken is almost guaranteed to create a nice savory base for soup.
Strong cheeses have a similar effect as a bechamel or a topping. It’s a soup chef’s trick to add a chunk of the rind from a wheel of Parmigiano Reggiano during the simmer for extra flavor.
- Beef, steak
- Pork, especially cured ham
- Soup broths and stocks made with the above meats
- Egg yolks
- Aged cheeses, such as Parmigiano Reggiano, sharp cheddar, Gruyere, Asiago
- Parm rind (e.g., Italian Meatball Soup)
- Tangy cheeses, such as goat and feta
While fermented foods are a little less common in American soup-making, they’re nonetheless one of the most easily identifiable sources of umami. Their deep and funky flavors add so much delicious complexity to soup.
For example, even though brothy, miso soup has that comforting flavor quality that immediately makes you feel energized. Add mushrooms and nori and you have a bowlful of awesome.
Some, such as kimchi, are amazing as toppings, while others are added to deepen the flavor of the soup broth.
- Preserved lemons (e.g., Preserved Lemon Chicken Soup)
- Vinegars, especially apple cider and wine vinegars (and see balsamic below)
- Soy sauce (see next section)
Soy sauce is a fermented umami ingredient and so belongs in the group above as well. But I’ve separated out these soy sauce-based items simply because the list is long on its own.
Sauces made with soy sauce impart the same umami effect.
- Soy sauce/Shoyu
- Liquid Aminos
- Worcestershire sauce
- Teriyaki sauce
- Hoisin (e.g., Mongolian Beef Soup)
- Korean BBQ sauce
Edible fungi, such as mushrooms and truffles, are amazing sources of umami, featuring rich, earthy flavors that can be found nowhere else. There’s no mistaking the flavor of a truffle!
When cooked in a soup, fresh mushrooms impart umami in two ways: their liquids are infused into the soup broth, and the mushrooms themselves have umami qualities.
Dried mushrooms — especially porcini — are particularly potent and can either be ground into a powder and added to the aromatic vegetables stage of cooking or rehydrated first and added to the soup the same as their fresh counterparts.
I’m also including nutritional yeast in this group. Nooch, as it’s affectionately called, is a single-celled fungus and is packaged flaked as a seasoning. It has a deep, nutty flavor that is often used as a dairy cheese substitute in vegan cooking. I always have a jar on the counter to sprinkle liberally over leftover soup.
- Fresh mushrooms: portobello, cremini, button, shiitake, etc.
- Dried mushrooms: porcini, shiitake (e.g., Wild Mushroom Miso Soup)
- Nutritional yeast
From the Sea
Products originating from sea life have a natural saltiness that is the perfect fit for umami. By themselves, I’m not a particularly big fan of any kind of sea-sourced food (except for shrimp and salmon) but added to a dish, their salty-funky flavors add a big kick of something you can’t quite put your finger on.
Fish sauce (see in the vessel below) is a great example of that. A fermented brew that’s best not sniffed from the bottle, fish sauce adds an immediate complexity to many kinds of soups, expanding wide beyond Asian cuisine.
One of my favorite salad toppings is taking a sheet of nori — easily found in most grocery stores; sometimes also packaged as “seaweed snacks” — and just crumpling it over the salad, the same way you might sprinkle dried herbs. Such a punch of flavor from just a few flakes.
Umami is one of the reasons why we love sushi so much: nori binding seasoned rice and fish, dipped in soy sauce.
- Nori (seaweed)
- Kombu (kelp)
- Anchovies and sardines
- Fish sauce (e.g., Thai Red Curry Noodle Soup)
- Shellfish (also use shells to create soup stock, e.g., Shrimp Perloo)
- Dashi (stock made of dried kombu and bonito)
- Furikake (a Japanese seasoning blend found in the spice aisle)
From the Farm
This group is a catchall for other ingredients that don’t fit neatly into the groups above. And they all happen to be items that can grow on the land.
It should be pointed out that tomatoes reign supreme on this list and are convenient sources of significant umami. Diced tomatoes and tomato sauce are common umami ingredients for soup. But tomato paste is the bomb.
Tomato paste is made of tomatoes that are cooked to within an inch of their lives and are a potent source of umami. When allowed to simmer in the pot following the aromatics, tomato paste’s flavors bloom and deepen to magical levels with a bright, acidic note.
For soup-makers, another advantage of tomato paste is purely cosmetic: it adds a lovely color to a soup, which is especially handy for certain recipes, such as mushroom soup, which can turn out a dull brown/gray and a bit unappetizing. Tomato paste makes everything pretty!
Note that I’ve included balsamic vinegar in this group because it’s actually not fermented, as other kinds of vinegar are. Even though it’s a bit of an orphan in this list — although made from grapes, so still counts! — don’t underestimate its umami power. It adds an impactful punch to soup and is quite lovely.
- Tomatoes: tomato paste, tomato sauce, fresh tomatoes, sundried tomatoes
- Onions and garlic
- Potatoes (fun fact: potatoes are botanically related to tomatoes)
- Green Peppers
- Balsamic vinegar
I hope this list of amazing flavor-building ingredients inspires you the next time you prepare soup, whether creating your own or putting your own thumbprint on another recipe.
Before reaching for the salt, try some umami!
Up next soon: Stocks and Broths!
Other posts in the Ultimate Soup Guide Series:
Sunday 23rd of April 2023
I recently found Umami and am never going to be without it! I use it on, at this point, soup. I can take a simple, quick soup, add some veggies, a bit of salt and pepper, then comes Umami and sweet paprika, voila! Great tasting, amazing so.