Understanding Umami And Why It Makes Us Lose Our Minds Over Cheese Pizza

Kid eating pizza like an a-hole

"Chill, kid. You seriously gotta chill."

Pizza lovers, rejoice! Tomorrow is your day! National Cheese Pizza is upon us! Whoever declared this to be Officially A Thing should be lauded and given an award. Or maybe just an extra-large cheese pizza.

But not thrown on their roof, because that’s not cool.

While it’s clear that Americans love cheese pizza, I’m here to ask the question, “Why do we love cheese pizza so goddamn much?” Is it the way the perfectly stringy, salty mozzarella interacts with the tangy acid in the tomato sauce? Does the crust have anything to do with it? Or is it… umami?

You might have a general idea of what umami is. It’s that satisfying, savory taste you get when you’re eating a good bowl of ramen or dishing up your fourth plateful of fried rice at the Chinese buffet. It’s the fifth basic taste, joining sweet, salty, sour, and bitter on the completely false tongue map we all had to memorize in elementary school. But where did it come from? And why the strange Japanese name?

We’ll answer these questions and more with this quick Umami Primer:

The Name

Umami is a Japanese loanword that can be translated as “pleasant savory taste” or “deliciousness.” Why Japanese? Read on, friends.

The History

Obviously, umami isn’t a modern-day flavor invention — it’s always been present in food. We just never had an English word for it, beyond “yum.” That is until 1907, when Japanese scientist Kikunae Ikeda decided to take a closer look at dashi, a popular broth made by simmering bonito flakes with kombu (bonito = fish, kombu = seaweed). Ikeda was interested in the question of what gave the broth its specific, savory flavor — a flavor he also found in roasted tomatoes and asparagus while studying in Germany. A lot of technical sciencey stuff later, Ikeda isolated the compound MSG (yes, that MSG!), which met the taste criteria he was looking for. And thus, the fifth flavor was born.

The Science

Basically, MSG, along with two other chemicals (inosinate and guanylate), interacts with receptor cells on your taste buds and tell your brain, “Hey! Umami!” The unique thing about the umami-flavored chemicals is that flavor receptors appear to hold onto them longer, which is possibly an explanation for why umami works so well when it’s combined with other tastes (think prosciutto-wrapped figs).

The Expert Opinion

To get a pro’s opinion on the subject, I chatted with chef Jason Quinn about all things umami. Quinn is famous for judging snacks on MTV with Chrissy Teigen, winning the Great Food Truck Race, and dropping a scathing response to a negative Yelp review of his restaurant, the Playground DTSA (my favorite quote: “KOBE BEEF SHOULD NEVER BE WELL DONE… If you disagree, YOU ARE WRONG,” also, “Burn in hell”).

Speaking on the phone, he pointed out that too much umami in food, unlike too much salt or too much sugar, is difficult to pinpoint, but can feel like an assault on the taste buds. He cited a recent example of when he was making pasta with corn — in need of broth, he used some leftover dashi, and then topped the pasta with Parmesan at the end. The conclusion: It didn’t work. There was too much pleasant savory taste and nothing to brighten the palette.

Where Can I Find It?

Obviously, there’s the food additive MSG, created by Ikeda himself, who marketed his powder as an easy means of spicing up bland meals (and, side note: may not be the villain everyone makes it out to be). There’s also kombu, the seaweed used in dashi, which, as Quinn pointed out, is the food that contains the most naturally-occurring MSG on the planet: 1800 mg/kg. Compare that to the next-richest source, another type of seaweed, at 300 mg/kg.

MSG powder and seaweed aside, umami flavor can also be found in tomatoes (particularly the jelly that houses the seeds), Parmesan cheese, mushrooms, caramelized onions, beef, chicken, pork, soy, potatoes, carrots and seafood.

And In Cheese Pizza?

Quinn pointed to tomato sauce as the main carrier of umami in pizza. “Cooked tomato has umami, but mozzarella doesn’t really,” he told me. And of course, Parmesan is a big carrier of umami, but you wouldn’t really put that on a pizza beyond a few sprinkles after it’s out of the oven.

So, okay. Maybe cheese pizza isn’t umami heavy, but it is perfectly umami balanced. Which goes a long way toward explaining why the dish works so well and gets its own day!