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Anatomy of an Icon: The Original Umami Burger

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As part of Eater's Burger Week, part four in a series exploring what, exactly, makes an iconic hamburger:

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Hillary Dixler Canavan is Eater's restaurant editor and the author of the publication's debut book, Eater: 100 Essential Restaurant Recipes From the Authority on Where to Eat and Why It Matters (Abrams, September 2023). Her work focuses on dining trends and the people changing the industry — and scouting the next hot restaurant you need to try on Eater's annual Best New Restaurant list.

With over 15 locations in California, and plans to expand into Miami, Vegas, New York City by 2014, Umami Burger is all about bringing the fifth flavor to the quick-service burger. Umami Burger's CEO and founder Adam Fleischman was fascinated by what he saw as an absence of umami in the American fast food landscape. Fleischman wanted to explore one of two umami-rich American favorites: burgers or pizza. Since he didn't have a pizza oven, he started delving deep into the world of umami and burgers. Fleischman said in an interview with Eater that Umami Burger was always meant to be more than just a California place. "It was supposed to be a global brand with lots of influence from different countries," he explains. "That was how I conceived it." The first Umami Burger opened in 2009, and each burger on the menu speaks to Fleischman's goal of getting the most umami he can into a burger.

The Original is on the menu at each location, and is a quintessential Umami Burger creation. It was inspired by Fleischman's relentless pursuit of umami, and represents his effort to layer umami-rich ingredients. Aside from striving for the ultimate "umami bomb," Fleischman also wanted to hit a particular "b-to-b ratio." The bun-to-burger ratio is about creating balance in the burger, and Fleischman believes this ratio is part of the reason why his burger has become such a favorite. While focusing on umami and the b-to-b ratio, Fleischman purposefully shifted focus away from the classic American burger. "We were not concerned with tradition," Fleischman says. "Who ever heard of putting a parmesan wafer on a burger?"

1. The Bun

The Portuguese-style roll is one of the most recognizable features of an Umami Burger, since it's branded with a U. The rolls are baked exclusively for Umami Burger by a secret baker, who uses a recipe Umami Burger developed. The bun enhances umami flavor because it is made with milk. Another key features that drew Fleischman to the Portuguese-style roll was its size. Neither too big nor too small for the Umami patty, the burgers created that balanced bun-to-burger ratio he had been looking for. Fleischman also likes that the rolls have a softness that is "reminiscent of a supermarket bun." The buns are griddled, resulting with a toasty crust and a soft, steamed bun-like texture.

2. The Cheese

One of Fleischman's guiding principles in creating The Original: "A burger needs cheese." Fleischman knew from the get-go that he wanted to use Parmesan because it is so naturally rich with umami flavor. Because Parmesan doesn't melt in a cheeseburger-friendly way, Fleischman decided on a Parmesan Crisp, which is a more effective delivery system. The cheese is 100% Reggiano which has been aged 18 months to two years. Fleischman went with Parmesan Reggiano because it is higher in umami than domestic or Argentine varieties which do not necessarily age as long.

3. The Patty

The other crucial component of that signature b-to-b ratio is the burger patty. The proprietary blend of local steaks is coarsely ground in house, and the six ounce patties are formed by hand using a ring mold. Fleischman settled on the size because four ounces felt "too franchisey," while eight ounces would create a "meat bomb" that throws off his ratio. The meat is seared on the plancha, the high heat delivering the evenly crisp crust that Fleischman looks for. The meat is seasoned with sea salt, pepper, and the now-patented Umami Dust. Umami Dust, which the restaurant sells, includes ingredients that are naturally high in umami like konbu and dried mushrooms.

4. The Sauces

Fleischman believes that the two sauces put to work in The Original are the only condiments the burger needs. Like other Umami Burger patties, The Original's patty is seasoned with Umami Master Sauce. The patented sauce, also available for purchase, includes umami-rich Japanese ingredients like seaweed, tamari, and miso. The Original is also served with Umami Ketchup which, as its name implies, is a ketchup that's gotten the umami treatment. The recipe is fairly standard, but umami-packed ingredients like mushroom and fish dial up the flavor. Fleischman knew early on that he wanted to make his own ketchup. Not only did he want to get another umami layer on the burger, he also wanted to avoid bringing the high fructose corn syrup of mass-produced ketchups into the mix.

5. The Toppings

The toppings on The Original are a play on traditional burger toppings with a distinctly umami purpose. Fleischman decided to play on the idea of the classic sliced tomato with oven-roasted tomatoes. Fleischman roasts the tomatoes to dehydrate them —which concentrates their umami flavor— and then glazes them with an umami-packed sauce that is like Umami Master Sauce with a stronger tomato flavor. Shiitake mushrooms, which are naturally high in umami, are sauteed in butter and added to the burger in a nod to traditional mushroom toppings. Caramelized onions are also added to the burger. The onions are sauteed for about an hour, and Fleischman finds their sweetness helps enhance the umami flavors of the burger. The onions are also seasoned with an umami-boosting spice. The spice, of course, is a secret.

· All Umami Burger Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Burger Week Coverage on Eater [-E-]