Most people can instantly conjure images of sweet, sour, salty or bitter foods. If I asked you to picture something sweet, you might think of a piece of cake or a perfectly ripe strawberry. Similarly, a request to define sour may make you envision YouTube clips of adorable babies trying lemons for the first time. But what if I asked you to describe a “savory taste”? Tougher, isn’t it?

Savory (aka umami) – like sweet, sour, salty and bitter – is one of the five basic tastes. But, it regularly occurs with one or more of the other tastes, making its contribution to the flavor profile harder to tease out. It’s often described as a meaty flavor, which makes sense since it indicates the presence of protein (specifically, the amino acid glutamate). Other common descriptors of a savory taste are: “full of flavor,” “delicious,” and “tasty,” which show that it’s really hard to quantify what savory tastes like.

If you’ve ever eaten soy sauce, parmesan cheese or salami, you’ve tasted savory. Foods that have been slow-cooked for a long time (think soup or broth), aged for a long time (think aged meats and cheeses or champagne), or fermented (think soy sauce or miso paste) are powerhouses of savory taste. That’s because these processes all break down the proteins found in the original foods and free the amino acid glutamate to interact with our taste buds.

But salami, soy sauce, and the rest still contain tastes other than savory. So how do you separate out savory to taste it and it alone? The easiest way is to put a small amount of MSG on your tongue. Seriously, try it; this is not an evil trick but an a-ha moment waiting to happen. Because MSG is pure glutamate – the compound responsible for the umami taste – you’ll get a pure burst of savory taste. Like bitter, salty, sweet and sour, it can be quite a strong experience, but add it to almost anything and you’ll understand why it’s a taste people love but have a hard time putting into words.

I’d love to hear from you. How do you describe savory?