Thursday, April 24, 2014

U is for Umami, Unsalted Butter, and Utility Knife

Yep, another one of those days I couldn’t not bring you three terms. If only you saw all the terms I have eliminated this month, you’d be impressed I got it down to the number I did!

Do you try to guess what my next terms will be? I do, as I travel around the A-Z Challenge blogs. If there’s a category, I gotta guess.

U is for Umami (oo-MAH-mee)
While writing my “Month-of-Appetizers” posts last February, I referred to umami quite a bit. I modified that section here, so if you already know this, skip on down to the next U term.
Back in the day, I was taught in science class that there were four flavors: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter. Our tongues supposedly had areas where taste buds specialized in those flavors. Or something like that. It was a looooong time ago!

For generations people, most people, accepted the conventional wisdom. But some sophisticated palates recognized that there was this one taste that didn’t fit. Some scientists argued that if they couldn’t classify it, it just wasn’t real! Are you kidding me??? As far back as Escoffier, the taste was real and realized in his veal stock.

It took a Japanese scientist--in 1908! So why weren’t we taught this???--to unravel the mystery taste which he named umami meaning something like, delicious or savory. Umami flavor comes from high levels of glutamate, an amino acid. In fact, MSG seasoning was developed to give an umami taste to foods.

Sweet and umami are generally recognized as the only flavors, of the five, that the palate finds pleasing by themselves. Umami, however, is a lot more subtle.

Umami is a meaty, savory flavor. It is that taste in seaweed, potatoes, mushrooms, anchovies (below the salt taste), green tea, and tomatoes, for example. Breast milk is an umami taste!

U is for Unsalted butter
Why would you buy salted butter? Did you know that salted butters differ in the amount of salt per stick? Did you know you can have up to a whole teaspoon of salt in one stick?

Okay, so salt is a preservative and unsalted butter will not last as long as salted butter. Got it. But, with unsalted butter, you can better control the salt content while cooking.

Do you ever cook with clarified butter? If so, you know that that butter must be unsalted butter so you can cook at higher temps.

Unsalted butter has a creamier, sweeter taste than its salted sister. Having said that, it must be recognized that some people prefer the taste of salted butter to unsalted butter. If your family is among them, wean them off the salted gradually so you can go to unsalted butter down the line.

U is for Utility Knife
While the chef’s knife is generally agreed to be the one kitchen knife to have if you can only have one good knife, the utility knife is a close runner-up. The blade is shorter than the chef’s knife blade (usually 4-7” long) and it is terrific for a variety of light cutting jobs. You might think of it as a paring knife, but that one is shorter.

Still, you will find yourself using your utility knife for many jobs your paring knife does. You’ll cut a variety of medium to small veggies, fruits, herbs, and other foods with ease.

Some utility knives have a serrated blade so you can cut breads, hard boiled eggs, and soft-skinned fruits (like tomatoes) more easily. However, I prefer my utility knife to have a non-serrated edge so I can keep it sharp.

Remember. Love your knives, and they’ll love you. Handwash them in non-harsh detergents and dry immediately. Store in a protective sleeve if possible to guard against blade-banging.


  1. Sharon, I'm utterly fascinated and still perplexed about umami. How do you get that taste? What do you buy? Should it go on fish? Help! (

    1. Corinne, I am not surprised at your confusion with umami. You can put MSG on some foods to get an umami boost, but it occurs naturally in many foods. Think about it. Sugar cube, lemon, diced aspirin, potato chip---the first taste you register is sweet, sour, bitter, or salty, right? Well, do the same with an unseasoned mushroom or piece of beef. The first taste you register is---umami! It is so different from the other flavors. When people denied for so long that there was a fifth taste, they were just dumb! Of course there is a flavor mushrooms have! Does that help?

  2. that is interesting about umami - I learnt five flavours studying traditional chinese medicine - sweet salty bitter sour and spicy but spicy doesnt seem to relate to umami at all.

    1. What I understand of it all, Sandra, is that spicy isn't really a true flavor because it uses different nerves to send the message to the brain. Now that sounds plain weird to me, but some have included "spicy" as a sub-category of umami. Beats me, cause spicy does seem distinctive. I guess it's a scientific thing. Sorry I couldn't be more help.