We all know pizza is pretty much the best thing on the planet, but what exactly makes it so delicious? Research shows that delectability of pizza can be largely attributed to its umami characteristics.
“Umami” is much more than a popular buzzword of the past decade – it’s a scientifically recognized flavor profile with more than 100 years of data behind it. And, thanks to years of painstakingly fun research, we can definitively explain why we develop cravings that only a slice can satisfy.
What is umami?
“Umami” was coined by chemistry professor Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. While enjoying a bowl of Japan’s famed miso soup, Ikeda realized that he was enjoying a flavor that could not be attributed to the four known categories of taste: sour, salty, sweet, or bitter. After further inspection and research, Ikeda came to realize that kombu, an edible kelp used to make the dashi stock, imparted a deeply meaty flavor upon the soup, despite the absence of any meat in the dish.
Umami qualities, he later discovered, were present in tons of other foods. Ultimately, this was proven to be a common link between certain types of shellfish, green vegetables, and, wait for it, tomatoes, cured meats, and certain types of cheese!
The umami wave didn’t catch land in the Western world until many years later, but Ikeda’s discoveries were the beginning of a culinary revolution.
The sauce: An underrated umami bomb.
Have you ever had a pizza that had almost all of the characteristics of a perfect slice? The crust can have perfect integrity without being overly crunchy and the cheese can be on point, but if the sauce lacks flavor, then it’s unlikely to be a memorable nosh.
A proper pizza sauce, on the other hand, can pack a serious punch of umami goodness. As the heroes at the non-profit Umami Information Center explain, the humble tomato is a force to be reckoned with:
“Of the many plant foods that provide umami in western tradition, the tomato is foremost. Its attractive, full, rounded ‘meaty’ flavour comes from its heavy load of glutamates, and this flavor is reinforced by its unique crimson color, the color of blood which is the very essence of animal life. The umami theme remains constant, though the way it is expressed varies from culture to culture.”
Is the cheese umami too?
Short answer: Yes. Slightly longer answer: It depends.
You may be surprised to learn that mozzarella cheese, the most common cheese to top a pizza, does not offer a ton of umami flavor. While mozzarella is delicious, it is a younger cheese, and the more mature cheeses are the ones that tend to really pack an umami wallop.
Parmesan is one of those mature umami-laden cheeses thanks to its lengthier aging process which results in a high level of free glutamate. In fact, the aforementioned kombu is one of the few foods that can give parmesan a run for its money in the free glutamate metric.
Don’t forget the crust!
The crust of a pizza may also contain some umami characteristics, depending on how it is prepared. Some pizzerias, including some of that are near you and open now, will age their dough over the course of multiple days through the process of cold fermentation.
The cold fermentation process is widely-beloved for the way it fortifies the texture of the crust, but it can also enhance the flavor of the dough in a way that brilliantly compliments everything on the upstairs level of the pie.
…Or the toppings
Pizza and pepperoni go together like a Q and a U, and that’s a result of the umami flavors within cured meats.
Feeling fancy? You need not limit your umami pizza experience to just the classics. Prosciutto, speck, and guanciale all make for heavenly toppings and are becoming more and more commonplace.
Veggie-lovers can further boost the umami levels of their pizza by adding mushrooms of all different varieties. That includes everything from standard white button mushrooms to truffles, the world’s most expensive fungi.
If you don’t know, now you know.
Ever feel like your sole purpose on this planet is to consume exceptional pizza? Well, you may not be far off.
We are, in a sense, programmed to seek and enjoy umami-rich foods, and pizza delivers every time.
— Zack Links is an L.A.-based sports journalist who is equally concerned with the outcome of the game and what he’ll be eating at halftime. In addition to serving as a staff writer for The Sauce, he’s also the lead writer and editor of ProFootballRumors.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachLinks and on Instagram @FatZachLinks.