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The Perfect Umami Burger for Summer Grilling

Wow your guests by introducing them to the “fifth” taste

Close up of man holding a burger
David Williams

If you like your burgers rich and beefy with an intense depth of flavor, welcome to your new stealth weapon. 

”Umami” is Japanese for “pleasant savory taste.” It is also referred to as the fifth taste (after sweet, salty, sour and bitter) because it activates a subset of taste receptors in your mouth that are not awakened by other flavors. 

Umami isn’t a specific seasoning; it’s a category of foods that can add complex layers of flavor to your burger that other ingredients can only dream of. To use a musical metaphor, it’s like adding a subwoofer to the stereo that you thought already sounded amazing.

The essence of umami is an amino acid called glutamate. If that sounds familiar, it’s because glutamate is the key compound found in monosodium glutamate (commonly known as MSG). Whereas MSG is often demonized, naturally occurring glutamates are revered by today’s top chefs. They can be found in ingredients like miso paste, soy sauce, stewed tomatoes, fish sauce, meat, mushrooms and certain aged cheeses. 

The umami factor begins with the beef itself, then ramps up exponentially with the addition of umami-rich dried mushrooms, caramelized onions, blue cheese, Worcestershire sauce, ketchup and my secret hack: Vegemite.

If you really want to go for the gusto, head to a butcher shop and ask the butcher to custom grind a three-part blend of beef for you. Dry-aged rib eye trimmings will add some umami-rich funk, short rib or brisket will contribute richness, and hanger or skirt steak will intensify the “meatiness.”

No butcher? No problem. Once you add all the fixings to any off-the-rack package of grocery store hamburger meat, the resulting patty is going to scream U-M-A-M-I with the brute force of a sumo wrestler. 

As you take your first bite of the burger and all its toppings, your taste receptors will be saturated with the pure essence of umami, and the elusive flavor profile will be forever imprinted on your palate — and all the way down your chin.

How to Grill Your Own Umami Burger

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1 teaspoon Vegemite

1½ pounds ground beef (ideally a third dry-aged rib eye, a third boneless short rib and a third hanger steak, or your favorite blend or whatever’s available) 

2 tablespoons dried mushroom powder (ground from dried mushrooms in a mortar and pestle or a coffee grinder)

1 teaspoon dry mustard

2 teaspoons salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

4 ounces blue cheese or Gruyère, or your favorite burger cheese, crumbled or grated

4 airy burger buns (ideally brioche)

2 tablespoons butter at room temperature

6 tablespoons caramelized onion (optional)

4 tablespoons ketchup (optional) 

In a small ramekin, mix Worcestershire and Vegemite. Reserve.

To a large bowl, add ground beef. Add Worcestershire/Vegemite blend, mushroom powder and mustard. Mix, but do not overmix. Form 4 beef patties. Season both sides with salt and pepper.

TO GRILL Preheat grill to direct medium-high heat. Grill burgers for about 4 minutes per side, or until they are cooked to your desired degree of doneness. Halfway through grilling the second side, top with cheese and close the lid to help the cheese melt.

TO PAN COOK Preheat a cast-iron or other heavy pan over high heat until it smokes. Add burgers, reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook for 4 minutes per side, or until they are almost at your desired degree of doneness. Top burgers with cheese and cover with a lid for 1 to 2 minutes, or until cheese is fully melted.

While patties are cooking, brush buns with butter and toast them, cut side down, in a pan or on a grill until cut side is lightly browned.

TO SERVE Spread bottom bun with caramelized onions and top bun with ketchup, if desired.

Yield 4 generous burgers 

Cooking time Under 30 minutes, plus extra time to prepare optional caramelized onions

Make ahead Patties freeze well and will last in airtight wrapping for up to six months

Liquidity Guinness beer or Gigondas (an earthy red wine from the south of France)