Capturing Umami Without The Freshness Of In-Dining Experience: How To Make Take-Out A Fine Dining Experience

Written by Chef Colin Burslem, Culinary Director for Joseph Richard Group and Meal Ticket Brands

With the help of our taste buds, our bodies are able to distinguish between five basic tastes: bitter, salty, sour, sweet and umami. Umami—most recently added to the list—is often described as savoury or meaty. The taste itself is accomplished by the presence of glutamic acid and can be perceived from a variety of different foods including seafood, meats, parmesan cheese, miso and mushroom.

Achieving umami in take-out dishes can be challenging since the longer the food waits to be eaten, the fewer minutes eaters have to relish in the perfection of the final dish. However, continue reading to discover my 11 tips for capturing umami in your take-out offerings.

1. Build flavour through composition

Building flavour through the composition of the dish is something that I can’t stress enough. Each step of your dish should be deliberate and thoughtful. Yes, the final product should be the best-tasting part of the journey, but in order to achieve that, to achieve umami, I strongly suggest allocating equal efforts to each step of the recipe. Just like building a house, jaw-dropping finishes mean nothing without a strong foundation to hold them together.

2. Use best quality ingredients

Using the best quality ingredients should be a no-brainer when it comes to the preparation of a dish. But by “best quality” ingredients, I don’t mean the most expensive. I’m talking about using the correct ingredients for the composition of the dish. Are you making carbonara and wondering if you can omit the pecorino romano cheese? There are no rules against it, but the umami of the dish might be compromised.

3. Prioritize balance

There are a variety of elements that your take-out dish should consist of. Ensure that the meal is balanced with flavour, texture, acid, sweetness, crunch, soft, fresh ingredients, pantry ingredients and whatever it might need. After all, I think we can all agree that fried wings in a to-go box lack dimension and are ultimately less appealing to the eye.

4. Be thoughtful with packaging

Just as you choose the correct dishware to plate your meals for a dine-in experience, take-out packaging should also be deliberate. Use the correct packaging for the dish as this is an aspect that can both elevate or diminish the customer’s first impression. Choose the former.

5. Don’t be shy with seasoning

As food travels and begins to cool, food seasoning will change as well. This means that more seasoning is required for cold dishes than hot dishes, but you’ll want to ensure you don’t cross the line of over seasoning. A meal with hints of garlic is delectable. A dish entirely overpowered by garlic? I think I speak for all of us when I say no thank you.

6. Let the main composition take center stage

If you want your take-out to be noteworthy, allow your main composition to be the star. If you’re serving a mushroom salad, let the mushrooms speak for the entire dish. Spacious packaging isn’t an atrocity. But filling a dish with what I call “distraction ingredients” might be.

7. Have courage

Have courage and take risks with your offerings when appropriate. This could mean using flavour combinations that are on trend like Korean BBQ, Hawaiian, Southern BBQ, Filipino, etc. It’s always a great idea to stand out with some fusion items that represent you as a chef. As much as chefs strive to be consistent, we also love to surprise our customers.

8. Leverage dine-in top-sellers

Given the rave reviews your top-selling dish receives from dine-in guests, it’s highly likely that they will relish it equally when savoured in the comfort of their own home. Promote the take-out version closely to how it’s presented to a diner in your restaurant. Determine the best way for this dish to travel and represent your vision. And involve your team for input and feedback. This team-wide engagement will only elevate the final product.

9. Sauce on the side

Put sauces and other items that will impact the texture, flavour or presentation of the dish on the side and allow the customer to have control over the finishing builds of the dish. This may require simple instructions, but it’s an excellent way to incorporate the customer into the final product and provide them with a sense of agency over their dish.

10. Be creative and innovative

Take-out customers have the same wishes as your dine-in guests: to enjoy the meals offered by your restaurant with the ability for two-way communication. To allow for this, be as creative and innovative with your take-out menu as you would be with a dine-in and provide contact information with a bag insert or QR code for the guest to follow up directly.

11. Have fun!

Lastly, don’t forget to enjoy the food, packaging and overall experience. Keep in mind that your take-out customers are the same familiar faces who dine in regularly. Aim to provide a dine-in level of service with your take-out, and your restaurant will be known for its consistency—just as your guests’ favourite hockey team does when they lose from the comfort of their living room.

In conclusion, capturing the essence of umami in take-out dishes can be a challenge due to the time delay between preparation and consumption. But by following these 11 tips, you can elevate your take-out experience to rival fine dining. From building flavour through composition to leveraging your dine-in top-sellers, there are many ways to make take-out a memorable and fine dining experience. So, let’s go!