Unless you live in the UK or one of its commonwealth countries the chances are high that you have never tasted yeast extract before. In the commonwealth countries people put a savoury yeast extract spread on their sandwiches. In other countries yeast extract is rarely available for consumers in the supermarkets, but is used almost exclusively by food producers to season their products.
By adding a dash of soy sauce to your food, you can create a similar savoury taste sensation as that created by yeast extract.
In food production yeast extract is always used in combination with other ingredients to round off the taste of foods. The easiest way to describe the taste of yeast extract – if you were to dissolve it in water – is to compare it to the taste of a meat bouillon. This comes as no surprise, as the proteins found in yeast extracts, directly come from the yeast cell and are very similar to those found in meat bouillon.
Natural, savoury umami taste
The term "umami" is Japanese and can be translated approximately as “tasty”. However, ingredients that give dishes an umami taste are not just used in traditional Japanese cooking. The requirement for the savoury umami taste can be observed worldwide in different cooking traditions, whether it is Spaghetti Bolognese with Parmesan cheese or a hearty stew with meat and legumes.
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We love the taste of umami because it indicates ‘protein-rich’ foods such as sweet indicates ‘energy-rich’ foods and ‘bitter’ indicates ‘toxic’ foods. Proteins are made up of amino acids which are vital for life and help us to stay healthy. By maintaining a protein-rich diet we contribute to enable our bodies to maintain cell growth and repairing cells. Muscles, organs and tissues – their major components are proteins. In addition, proteins are vital for processes like digestion, metabolism, the transportation of nutrients and oxygen to blood as well as the production of anti bodies. Umami can be considered as the taste of proteins and protein-rich foods.
As with yeast extract, these foods have a savoury umami taste due to their natural glutamate content. In contrast, monosodium glutamate (MSG) which is an isolated substance that needs to be labelled as an additive with an E-number according to EU food law, the glutamate in yeast extract is the a salt of the amino acid glutamic acid and occurs in many natural foods such as tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and legumes. Yeast extract contains only approximately 5 percent of glutamate.
The Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda first described umami as an independent taste in 1908. He observed that the intensive taste of a Japanese fish stock was unlike any other taste sensation described until then. In the meantime, umami is an established basic taste along with sweet, salty, bitter and sour for both top chefs and hobby chefs.
Learn more about umami in the following infographic