Umami tsunami: Three ingredients to try today

Over the past several months, I’ve enjoyed playing with some umami-boosting ingredients in various dishes.  Umami is sometimes described as a savory or meaty taste or, more simply, something that makes food taste good.

Despite its association with meat, it is quite possible to build umami flavor in vegetarian dishes — mushrooms or soy sauce are a quick and easy route (the title for this post popped into my head while eating a dish containing both mushrooms and soy sauce) — but there are other ingredients and methods.

1. Dal
I first started experimenting with dal (daal) back in August, when  my food swap with Nupur started an Indian cooking kick.  Dal describes any of a variety of split peas or beans.  I began my explorations with two four pound bags of dal: toor dal (split yellow pigeon peas) and moong dal (split mung beans).

I discovered that well-cooked dal, simmered with bay leaf and seasoned with various spices, makes a rich, savory vegetable stock.  I use the stock for a variety of soups and stews, and the dal provides a nice flavor and texture boost.  I also made one of my best batches of chili ever with a dal base.

Depending on the size of your soup recipe, and assuming you aren’t trying to make lentil stew, start with 1/4 to 1/2 cup dry toor or moong dal (or a combination).  Early in the day, cover the dal with water to soak.  When ready to use, rinse in a mesh colander, add a bay leaf, and cover with water to cook.  When tender, liquify with an immersion or traditional blender and incorporate into your soup recipe.

2. Nutritional yeast
Nutritional yeast is a fairly common ingredient in vegetarian cooking, providing a nutty or cheesy flavor.  As its name indicates, it’s also rather nutritious, a great source of B vitamins in addition to being a complete protein.

I add nutritional yeast to a variety of one-dish meals (grain + beans + veggies) to boost flavor and nutrients.

Look for nutritional yeast in the bulk bins at natural grocers or WF.  The price per pound (~$7-$8) seems high, but the yeast flakes are very light — one pound of nutritional yeast can enhance many meals.

To use, add directly to dishes, or mix with a small amount of hot water to make a sauce.  It also functions as a nice component of salad dressings.

3. Miso paste
Like soy sauce (another fermented soy product), miso paste possesses real umami-boosting power.  Think beyond miso soup and use this flavorful ingredient as part of a rich sauce:

Whisk two to three tablespoons miso paste with one cup of water and a tablespoon (or more, depending on desired thickness) of almond or cashew butter.

Serve sauce on top of a cooked quinoa or millet with sauteed or steamed vegetables for an easy, healthy lunch or dinner.

Mix and match
Try sauces, salad dressings, and soups that include a combination of two or more of these ingredients to really kick up the umami flavor in your cooking.


  1. These are all great ingredients! I’m a huge fan of Indian cooking too – there all so many new ingredients and combinations to try. I’m going to definitely try your tip of using lentils to make chili!

  2. EcoCatLady says:

    Interesting… I’ve got some miso hanging around in the fridge, perhaps I’ll try to find a creative way to use it up!

    BTW, have you ever tried nutritional yeast on popcorn? It’s a total flavor boost… sorta like homemade Doritos!

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      Never tried the popcorn thing, will have to do that. I did recently discover a similar effect with popcorn dipped in hummus — tastes like cheddar popcorn without the fake cheese powder.

  3. Great ideas! I tried nutritional yeast when I did a 30 day vegan challenge, and it never really did anything for me. Perhaps its time I give it another chance.

    1. Melissa @ HerGreenLife says:

      I have had the best results when combining nutritional yeast with other rich ingredients, like nut butter sauces, rather than trying to make “cheese” sauce with just nutritional yeast and soy milk. Oh, and enjoying it for what it is, rather than expecting it to taste just like cheese, also helps. Hope you enjoy!

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