Monday, 16 January 2012

Searching For Umami

No, not 'your mammy', 'oomaaaahmy'.

Umami is alleged to be the fifth taste, after salt, sour, sweet and bitter, and it's a Japanese word that is variously translated as 'savoury' or 'deliciousness'. Before we go any further, I should explain that 'taste' is what we can detect with our tongues. This is augmented by many thousands of aromas that our noses can experience. It's all a bit complicated.

I've always adored 'savoury' food, and so I've been looking out for 'umami' ever since I first heard of it a bit over a year ago while reading something about molecular gastronomy.

I was given a Heston Blumenthal book and DVD for my birthday in October, and another of his cookbooks for Christmas. There's a good deal of stuff about umami in these books, and it set me off trying various things.

One of the more startling of these things is what I've been reading about MSG (MonoSodium Glutamate). I've always just assumed that MSG was right up there with heroin, crack and PopTarts as something that you really should not be putting into your body. But I realised I had no idea why I thought that. I just knew that it was commonly used as a 'flavour enhancer', especially in the Far East. A bit of Googling came up with 'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome', which I've never really heard of before. It turns out that some people claim to get headaches after eating in Chinese restaurants, and without any formal research ever being done, MSG was singled out as the culprit and instantly demonised. To get the full background on this, read 'If MSG is so bad for you, why doesn't everyone in Asia have a headache?'

Some of the natural sources of umami have certainly surprised me - I would have expected to see onions and their mates (leeks, celery, etc) in the list, but they don't really feature: tomatoes and mushrooms do though, but the winner by a long way is Kombu. Kombu is a seaweed from Japan (it's similar to kelp). I bought some a couple of weeks ago, and I've been using it to add umami to stocks and soups and sauces. It does this very well, and without making everything taste of seaweed. I won't be rushing out to buy MSG any time soon, but I'm certainly enjoying the umami-quest-fest.

UPDATE: umami burger, oh yeah! I forgot to mention mature Parmesan cheese is a great source of umami

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Burger

Here it is then. The bottom part is a BLT - bacon, lettuce and tomato sitting on a blob of mayonnaise and topped with melted cheese. The top part is Dijon mustard, the burger patty, sliced gherkins, tomato ketchup and more melted cheese.

Possibly a bit over the top.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Great Buns

There are few things on this earth that can beat a really good beefburger. Sadly, like pies, some of the things that get passed off as 'good' burgers are anything but. I remember to this day the very first 'hamburger' I ever had. It was at a Wimpy in Doncaster (MacDonald's and their ilk were still a few years away from hitting UK shores, and burgers did not exist in Brit 'cuisine'), and it was very nearly enough to put me off the damn things for life. Obviously, I didn't know what it was supposed to be like, and so I was disconcerted by the total lack of ham in it. I also suspected that the disc of dense brown meatlike stuff in the middle could have been a lot juicier, the inner faces of the bread should not have been dark brown, crispy and carbon-flavoured, and that maybe the addition of some lettuce, tomato and ketchup might have improved things.

I did get over it, and about once a year I'll have a Big Mac or whatever the Burger King equivalent is, just to remind myself of what they're like. They're not like really good burgers, that's for sure.

These days, when I want a burger, I make it myself. The patty element of burgers is actually pretty easy. It's just beef that has been popped through a mincer. There could be a bit of salt. But nothing else; no onion, no filler, nothing to make it hold together (pure meat really doesn't need it). How you cook the patty is up to you, although there's a ton of advice about it on the interwebz. And the crunchy things and sauces that you put into the burger are also a matter of taste.

But the one thing that is critically important to a decent burger is the bread you put it in. Sadly, in Spain at least, the folks who make 'burger buns' think that sweet soft fluff does the trick. They are utterly wrong. A good burger bun needs to be strong enough to hold the contents together. A little bit of crunch on the toasted edges doesn't go amiss. Taste and texture are useful to have. I make my own buns these days.

When I was researching burger bun recipes, I came across this article, and the recipe seems pretty good. I've made it a few times, and I made it again today. But I tried a variation. You see, I wanted the buns to be the same diameter as the burgers, and to achieve this I was going to place the dough for each burger inside a steel ring. It turned out I had a bit more dough than I needed, but I used it anyway, with the result that the buns looked more like loaves. Next time I'll try to take some photos before we consume the finished burgers.