Københavns Universitet      -        Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet

Researcher: Umami is key to make plant-based Christmas dinner taste like Christmas

How do you combine plant-based foods to bring out the flavours of Christmas? A food engineer and ph.D. from the University of Copenhagen has experimented in Gastro Science Lab. Boosting of umami taste is key.
Charlotte Vinther Schmidt in the kitchen at Department of Food Science (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)
Charlotte Vinther Schmidt in the kitchen at Department of Food Science (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)

Meat will be the focal point of most families’ Christmas feasts this year. In Danish homes, duck, goose or roast pork typically share the plate with caramelized potatoes, red cabbage, pickled veg and brown sauce.

But what if you want to swap the duck or pork out with something plant-based this year? Or, perhaps there will be a vegetarian guest or two at the Christmas table? There can be many reasons to find alternatives to the Christmas classics. Can you do so without abandoning the flavours of Christmas?

Food scientist and ph.d. Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, postdoc at the University of Copenhagen at Department of Food Science serves up a suggestion. Her research focuses on exploiting the umami taste potential of sustainable foods.

Several things are crucial in developing the "flavours of Christmas” in plant-based fare. One of the most important, according to Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, is for dishes to have enough of the fifth basic taste – umami.

Umami and the creation of Christmas flavour

"Meat is known for its powerful umami taste. If you plan on doing away with meat in your Christmas dinner, you can boost the umami taste of the plant-based ingredients by umami synergy, and in doing so, bring umami taste to food items that don’t normally taste of umami," says Charlotte Vinther Schmidt, who does just that in her alternative Christmas menu suggestion.

Scientifically, the taste of umami occurs when the free amino acid glutamate is present in food. Charlotte Vinther Schmidt explains that the umami synergy principle makes it possible to enhance the umami taste of glutamate significantly, important for the overall deliciousness when you look out to decrease or leave out meat entirely:

"You can achieve the umami synergy effect by combining foods with glutamate with foods that have a high content of specific other substances called nucleotides. While nucleotides don’t give off umami taste per se, they boost the umami taste greatly when combined with glutamate in the same mouthful. A general rule of thumb is that 1-part glutamate + 1-part nucleotides gives an umami taste intensity equivalent to 8 parts glutamate."

We are familiar with this effect from famed 'pairings' like champagne and oysters, ham and cheese, and bacon and eggs.

Furthermore, Charlotte Vinther Schmidt suggests that – to keep the flavours Christmassy – one can make use of traditional yuletide ingredients that aren’t animal based, like red cabbage, cranberries and spices such as cloves, cinnamon and allspice.

"Overall, one should think about what makes a classic Christmas dinner taste so good; for example, what basic taste are present, what textures, what aromas? By dividing the meal into subcomponents like this, you can recreate it in another meal using completely different ingredients. Doing so will deliver the same food properties and stimulate the same senses and secure the overall deliciousness and satisfaction of the meal," says the researcher.

Charlotte's Christmas menu

Charlotte Vinther Schmidt has put together a plant-based Christmas dinner based on the principles above. The meal includes:

  • Sweet and umami tasting miso potatos – Baked layered yellow and sweet potatoes in light miso, yeast flakes, cloves and allspice.
  • Fried oyster mushrooms with caramelized onions and beets in red wine
  • Fresh Christmas salad of finely sliced cabbage, endive, chopped apples and fresh sunflower shoots served with a dressing with clementine juice, light miso and walnut oil, topped with roasted walnuts and cranberries.

"The first component on the plate is a reimagined, ‘umamified’ version of caramelized potatoes. The umami synergy occurs when the glutamate-rich miso interacts with the touch of glutamate in potatoes and yeast flakes, the latter which contain both glutamate and nucleotides. The spices help to evoke classic Christmas aromas," says Charlotte Vinther Schmidt.

The second component of the dish is whole shallots and sliced beets simmered in the extract from vegetables and red wine.

"The unique thing about the onions is that when cooking their extract contains a number of so-called kokumi peptides, which give mouthfeel and continuity which is enhanced by umami taste from the fried oyster mushrooms which contain both glutamate and nucleotides and are very umami in taste. together with the onions which caramelize and become sweeter – they giving rise to our two basic taste cravings, sweetness and umami," says the researcher.

The frying of the mushrooms, such as oyster mushrooms, at high dry heat will develop socalled Maillard aromas which can further improve perceived umami taste. These aromatic substances are triggered in a chemical reaction between free amino acids and sugars when food is browned, an aroma that we know from freshly baked bread or seared meat.

The final component is a fresh red cabbage, endive and apple salad dressed with clementine juice and a light miso paste, that contributes both Christmas ingredients and freshness to the dish.

The entire dinner takes between 60-90 minutes to prepare. See the recipe here.

Shopping tips

Charlotte Vinther Schmidt composed the dish based on the criterion of seasonal ingredients being used.

“If you are focused on eating as sustainably as possible, the rule of thumb is to eat what’s in season in whichever country you find yourself. But It’s not just about local products. Because, even though you can buy Danish tomatoes in winter, they are grown in energy intensive greenhouses that need to be heated,” Charlotte Vinther Schmidt points out.

The most 'exotic' element of Christmas dishes is the soya bean paste miso, originally from Japan. Miso can be found in many large supermarkets and Asian grocers, but Charlotte Vinther Schmidt emphasizes that Danish producers have also come on the market that miso is produced using local ingredients.


Find Charlotte Vinther Schmidt's Green Christmas Recipes here.

Charlotte Vinther Schmidt is a food engineer and PhD in food science who focuses on umami and sustainable protein sources. She works as a scientific researcher at the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Food Science and communicates the science behind umami and palatability, among other things on umamipairing.com and @umamipairing on Instagram.



  • Umami is one of the five basic tastes, alongside sweet, sour, salty, bitter. Umami taste comes from the free amino acid glutamate and certain free nucleotides. Foods like cheese, mushrooms, meat and sun-ripened tomatoes are high in umami.

  • In Japanese, kokumi means "palatability" or "rich taste". Kokumi is the term for small pieces of protein called di- and tri-peptides, which are found in onions, fish sauce and soy sauce. Kokumi can increase umami taste and vice versa, providing mouthfeel and a long-lasting taste effect.

  • Maillard is the term given to a series of chemical reactions between amino acids and sugars that develop aromas and flavors when food is browned. The frying of meat and baking of bread are examples of where kokumi occurs. French chemist and physician Louis-Camille Maillard first described the reactions in 1912.




Charlotte Vinther Schmidt in the kitchen at Department of Food Science (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)
Charlotte Vinther Schmidt in the kitchen at Department of Food Science (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)
Charlotte Vinther Schmidts Christmas dinner meal (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)
Charlotte Vinther Schmidts Christmas dinner meal (credit: Bettina Illemann Larsen)



About Københavns Universitet - Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet

Københavns Universitet      -        Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet
Københavns Universitet - Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet
Bülowsvej 17
1870 Frederiksberg C

35 33 28 28https://science.ku.dk/

Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet på Københavns Universitet – SCIENCE – er landets største naturvidenskabelige forsknings- og uddannelsesinstitution.

Fakultetets væsentligste opgave er at bidrage til løsning af de store udfordringer, som vi står overfor i en verden under hastig forandring med øget pres på bl.a. naturressourcer og markante klimaforandringer - både nationalt og globalt.

Subscribe to releases from Københavns Universitet - Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet

Subscribe to all the latest releases from Københavns Universitet - Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet by registering your e-mail address below. You can unsubscribe at any time.

Latest releases from Københavns Universitet - Det Natur- og Biovidenskabelige Fakultet

Superradiant atoms could push the boundaries of how precisely time can be measured22.4.2024 14:22:28 CEST | Pressemeddelelse

Superradiant atoms can help us measure time more precisely than ever. In a new study, researchers from the University of Copenhagen present a new method for measuring the time interval, the second, mitigating some of the limitations that today’s most advanced atomic clocks encounter. The result could have broad implications in areas such as space travel, volcanic eruptions and GPS systems.

Super-lysende atomer kan skubbe grænsen for hvor præcist vi kan måle tiden22.4.2024 14:07:32 CEST | Pressemeddelelse

Superstrålende atomer kan hjælpe os med at måle tiden mere præcist, end vi kan i dag. I et nyt studie fremlægger forskere fra Københavns Universitet nemlig en ny metode til at måle sekundet, som kommer uden om det problem, som selv de mest avancerede atomure i dag døjer med. Resultatet kan få betydning for så forskellige ting som rumfart, vulkanudbrud og vores GPS-systemer.

Internet can achieve quantum speed with light saved as sound15.4.2024 11:16:35 CEST | Press release

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen’s Niels Bohr Institute have developed a new way to create quantum memory: A small drum can store data sent with light in its sonic vibrations, and then forward the data with new light sources when needed again. The results demonstrate that mechanical memory for quantum data could be the strategy that paves the way for an ultra-secure internet with incredible speeds.

Internettet kan få kvantefart med lys gemt som lyd15.4.2024 10:47:07 CEST | Pressemeddelelse

Forskere ved Niels Bohr Institutet på Københavns Universitet har udviklet en ny måde at skabe såkaldt kvantehukommelse: En lille tromme kan gemme data sendt med lys i dens lydvibrationer, for siden at sende data videre med nye lyskilder, når det igen skal bruges. Resultaterne understreger at en mekanisk hukommelse for kvantedata kan være strategien, der baner vej for et ultra sikkert internet med utrolige hastigheder

In our pressroom you can read all our latest releases, find our press contacts, images, documents and other relevant information about us.

Visit our pressroom
HiddenA line styled icon from Orion Icon Library.Eye