“Umami” is not a word cattle producers are likely to make a habit of using regularly but has an effect on them whether they know it or not. Umami defines what an aromatic beef dish tastes like and is the reason farmers and ranchers never tire of eating beef.

Umami is a Japanese word derived from umai, which means delicious, and is essentially the taste of protein. The glutamates and nucleotides in protein-rich foods are what give beef its appetizing taste and creates a craving for it. That crave is umami, or the fifth taste receptor in addition to the other four: sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Eastern cultures have been familiar with this subtle taste for generations but the U.S. has only recently acknowledged it. I first learned about umami at an ag conference last year and it’s gradually gaining recognition especially in the beef industry. Learning about this fifth taste receptor also explained how my household can eat beef 90% of the time and still crave it.

Beef’s distinctive flavor really packs a flavorful punch when paired with other umami-rich foods such as mushrooms, onions, aged cheeses, peppers or bacon, for example. The combinations magnify each other which create the craving for these protein-rich foods.

The umami effect is strongest when aroma is present and has been proven at my house. Anticipating a savory, fork-tender pot roast for supper that’s been slow-cooking all day makes it hard to wait for supper. I capitalize on the umami-effect to improve moods. The aroma of hamburger and pork and beans (my husband’s favorite comfort food, not mine) cooking is my weapon for disarming my spouse’s grumpiness.

It isn’t just combining umami flavors together that enhance beef. Pairing different cuts of meat with the right cooking method determines the quality of one’s beef-eating experience. Unfortunately I didn’t know this early in my marriage which likely had something to do with why my meals didn’t produce as many compliments back then.

This discovery was an exciting revelation to me because I’d already mastered all the possible ways to ruin a beef dinner. Round steak doesn’t have to turn out like a dog’s beef-flavored chew toy and roast beef when sliced, doesn’t have to resemble those round, flat, rubber-grip jar openers. There are cooking methods suitable to every cut of meat. Once I altered the way I cooked different cuts, my husband started to turn down dessert after eating a hearty beef supper. When people eat protein-rich foods it satisfies because umami also contributes to satiety.

Less tender cuts have more natural umami while more tender cuts don’t but benefit from being prepared with other umami rich foods. Well-aged meats also have more natural umami but well-aged doesn’t refer to choosing the oldest cow in the herd or sorting off the lame bull to stock the freezer. We used to fill our freezer with such picks of the herd until I pointed out the ridiculousness of eating all the culls when we worked hard to produce top quality beef for consumers. We’ve since filled our freezer with beef that’s been aged properly.

As the cook, what’s great about preparing food my family and I constantly crave is that I always know what’s for dinner—meals made with the kind of meat that a knife was named after.

Column originally published September 20-26, 2009

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