To enhance meaty, umami flavors in food, we typically turn to ingredients like soy sauce and anchovies, which are rich in the glutamates and nucleotides that create this savory taste. But when we read that British chef Heston Blumenthal uses sherry—an ingredient not known to contain these compounds—for the same purpose, it piqued our interest.
Fortified wine supposedly increases savoriness through a different mechanism—the synergistic relationship between compounds called diketopiperazines, or DKPs (which likely result from the yeastlike growth that sherry develops as it ages), and umami-boosting elements in food.
To test his theory, we added ¼ teaspoon of dry sherry to 1 cup of beef broth and ¾ teaspoon to an equal amount of tomato sauce, both of which contain high levels of umami-enhancing glutamic acid. (We added more sherry to the tomato sauce because it’s more concentrated and complex.) Tasters compared these with samples of broth and tomato sauce treated with the same amounts of ruby port and Madeira—fortified wines that don’t develop a yeastlike growth—as well as with an untreated control sample. Though we couldn’t confirm Blumenthal’s research on DKPs, he may be onto something. Tasters found that even these scant amounts of sherry boosted complexity and savoriness in both the broth and the tomato sauce, while the port and Madeira had little to no effect. In the future when our soups, stocks, and sauces need an umami boost, we’ll consider adding a splash of sherry—¼ to ¾ teaspoon per cup, depending on the complexity of the liquid.