When Umami Burger founder Adam Fleischman launched the first outpost of his now-famous burger chain back in 2009, it was with a simple goal. Fleischman was determined to bring “umami,” the so-called “fifth taste,” to the American burger landscape. Umami describes a savory, satisfying flavor, distinct from the salty, sweet, sour, or bitter flavors we are most accustomed to, and the idea is that when paired with the right ingredients, both flavors are dialed up in intensity.
So how does it work? Foods high in umami (like asparagus, chicken soup, or a ribeye smothered in sauteed mushrooms) all contain high levels of glutamate, an amino acid. In the early 1900s, researchers found that the quickest path to umami heaven was in synthesizing glutamate, which is how MSG was born (with the “No MSG” Chinese restaurant neon sign business exploding shortly thereafter).
MSG plays a simple but delicious trick on your brain’s chemistry; when there are high levels of glutamate in your food, your brain thinks that food is more protein-rich than it actually is, and triggers a desire to eat as much of it as possible. That’s why Doritos taste like the best thing in the whole wide world: The MSG has your brain tricked into thinking that they are nature’s perfect food, and that you shouldn’t stop eating them until they are all gone.
Synthesized glutamate gets a bad rap; MSG gets blamed for everything from headaches to stomachaches to decreased libido to general ennui (in spite of a lack of actual evidence to support these claims). But if you’re shy about using MSG, or you are part of the fraction of the population that has a reaction to the synthetic stuff (you’re not), adding powerful blasts of umami to food the natural way is still easy.
Umami Burger umamies the pants out of everything they can get their hands on, sometimes to the point of near excess. Their original “Umami Burger” stacks a crisp layer of Parmesan cheese on top of a six ounce Umami-dusted burger patty, then adds Umami ketchup, roasted tomatoes, shitake mushrooms, and caramelized onions. Grab an order of “truffle fries,” thin-cut potatoes topped with “truffle cheese” and “truffle salt,” and you may find yourself veering dangerously close to umami overload.
What’s their secret? Umami Burger’s burgers are dusted with “Umami Dust,” a potent blend of ground kombu (a type of dried kelp), bonito flakes (dried fish bits), and dried shitake mushrooms. You can buy it online (naturally), but it’s just as easy to whiz up yourself in a coffee grinder with ingredients you can find at the supermarket. Cook your burger to medium-rare, then sprinkle with the finished Umami Dust.
To dial this burger up to ridiculous levels of ultimate umami satisfaction, dress it simply with a port wine reduction, and a soft slab of stinky, creamy Stilton.
For the Umami Dust:
- 3 tablespoons bonito flakes
- 1/2 ounce crumbled dried kombu
- 1/2 ounce dried shitake mushrooms
For the burger:
- 1 cup port wine
- 2/3 pounds ground beef or From Away Burger Blend
- Salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1/2 cup Stilton cheese (3 ounces), softened
- A sprinkle of Umami Dust
- 2 brioche hamburger buns, buttered and toasted
For the Umami Dust:
- Combine all ingredients in a spice grinder of coffee grinder, and grind together until smooth.
For the burger:
- In a saucepan over moderate heat, simmer the port wine until reduced to a syrupy two tablespoons. Set aside.
- Get a cast iron skillet screaming hot. Form the meat into two thick patties, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, moving as little as possible, about four minutes. Flip, top with stilton, and cook until cheese starts to melt, about a minute more. Transfer to a plate, sprinkle with Umami Dust, and let rest two minutes. Place burgers on buns, and drizzle each with a tablespoon of the port wine reduction.