Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

MSG Without Fear

leave a comment »

Update: And See also “How MSG Got A Bad Rap: Flawed Science And Xenophobia.”

From a Cook’s Illustrated newsletter:

Umami is perhaps more subtle than the other four tastes (sour, sweet, bitter, and salty), but when it is present, it’s typically unmistakable. There are other molecules that can contribute umami to foods, but the most important compound is glutamic acid, a naturally occuring amino acid. Glutamic acid is concentrated in animal proteins, which is why it adds a “meaty” flavor to dishes even when no meat is present. But its power is more fundamental than that; much like salt, it can simply add depth and intensity to a dish, enhancing the presence of other flavors.

Glutamic acid isn’t found only in meat; it’s ubiquitous in nature and shows up in a wide variety of other common foodstuffs. And here at Cook’s Illustrated, we use a wide variety of ingredients—particularly those that are dried and/or fermented to concentrate their glutamate content—to boost umami in dishes. We often use them in tandem with multiple glutamate-rich or umami-enhancing ingredients since each brings its own unique character to a dish.

We use anchovies or anchovy paste as a potent glutamate source, even in dishes without other seafood in the mix (used sparingly, anchovies add meaty rather than fishy flavor). Our Best Beef Stew uses anchovies (along with tomato paste) to give its sauce an intense meatiness that beef broth alone cannot provide. In our Pasta e Ceci (Pasta with Chickpeas), anchovies (along with tomato paste, Parmesan cheese, and pancetta) lend depth to a dish that is made mostly of vegetables. Anchovies also appear in seafood dishes such as Shrimp Fra Diavolo.

Tomatoes, too, are a great source of glutamates, especially when concentrated in the form of tomato paste. We use this product (in tandem with canned tomatoes, soy sauce, and dried shiitake mushrooms) to bring meatiness to our Best Vegetarian Chili. And tomato paste forms the base of our “Meatless” Meat Sauce.

Dried mushrooms are another great source of glutamates, particularly porcini and shiitakes (they also contain significant amounts of nucleotides, another class of umami-enhancing compounds). Our Turkey Meatballs recipe (whether Italian-, Moroccan-, or Asian-Style) contains powdered dried shiitakes (as well as anchovies and Parmesan cheese).

Fish sauce is made by fermenting anchovies and salt. It of course shows up in Thai dishes such as Pad Thai and Thai Grilled-Beef Salad . But we also use it in less traditional ways , such as in the rub for our Grilled Steak with Spicy Chipotle Rub, where it amps up the flavor of the steak.

Soy sauce is another fermented food (made from soybeans) that is a major source of glutamates. It’s in loads of Asian dishes, but it makes an appearance in our Best Vegetarian Chili and adds intense meatiness to the glaze for our Glazed All-Beef Meatloaf.

We could go on and on about the umami-enhancing ingredients we turn to in the test kitchen (we haven’t yet mentioned Worcestershire sauce, miso paste, or olives, all fermented products themselves), but we’d rather you start cooking with them instead!


Cook’s Illustrated senior editor Andrew Janjigian is back, and this week he’s here to tell us about one of his go-to seasoning tools: MSG.

I love MSG (aka monosodium glutamate). I put it in everything when I am cooking at home. OK, maybe not everything everything, but in anything I want to have a more intense, savory, mouthwatering flavor. MSG is the umami-enhancing ingredient par excellence and is, in one form or another, the secret behind any savvy cook’s (and Cook’s Illustrated ’s) favorite depth- and meatiness-increasing ingredients: soy sauce, fish sauce, anchovies, aged cheeses such as Parmesan and Pecorino Romano, tomato paste, and miso paste (to name just a few). All these foods are rich in glutamate, one of the most abundant naturally occurring amino acids.

The flavor-enhancing properties of MSG were first discovered in 1908 by Japanese biochemist Kikunae Ikeda, who wanted to know why the dashi soup stock his wife made was so delicious. He attributed its excellence to the addition of kombu, a type of kelp. From kombu, he isolated a crude crystalline powder that turned out to be glutamic acid. He coined the term umami to describe the savory/meaty flavor of glutamic acid, a flavor now considered one of the five basic tastes (alongside salty, bitter, sweet, and sour). He then invented and patented a process for producing purified MSG and made himself rich by selling it as a condiment named Aji-no-moto. (It’s Japanese for “essence of flavor” and is also the name of the company that Ikeda founded.)

Asian cultures have embraced MSG as the essence of flavor ever since Ikeda’s discovery, but here in the United States we’ve traditionally had an aversion to the ingredient. But MSG is simply the sodium salt of glutamic acid, which means it’s just glutamates in a purified, powdered form. When dissolved in water, the sodium ion separates from the glutamate ion, and you have glutamic acid again. There’s nothing “chemical” about MSG, except inasmuch as all foods are made up of chemicals (water and table salt are chemicals, too). Nor is there anything “artificial” about it; its simply glutamic acid that has been extracted from any number of naturally occurring sources and then purified.

Our irrational fear of MSG started in 1968, when biomedical researcher Dr. Robert Ho Man Kwok (a Chinese immigrant to the United States) wrote a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine , describing a cluster of symptoms he’d experienced after eating at Chinese restaurants, a “numbness at the back of the neck, gradually radiating to both arms and the back, general weakness and palpitation.” While he did not link the illness to MSG directly, he suggested it as one possibility, along with the food’s high sodium content and the use of Chinese cooking wine. Others wrote in with similar stories, and not long afterward, hysteria linking MSG to so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome had taken hold in the American consciousness. This, despite little more than anecdotal evidence suggesting the connection, and the fact that MSG had been widely used as a food additive in the United States for years before the syndrome was described.

Since then, numerous double-blind studies have failed to find a link between MSG and any adverse symptoms, including headaches (or “general weakness and palpitation,” for that matter). And the use of MSG in many commercially produced foods has continued unabated, albeit under the radar of many consumers. Instead of adding powdered MSG to their products, manufacturers use other forms of glutamic acid that aren’t recognized as such by the average consumer: “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “autolyzed yeast,” “hydrolyzed yeast,” yeast extract,” “soy extracts,” or “protein isolate.” The fact is, many of the packaged foods we love contain glutamic acid and are all the more delicious because of it. (In other words, if you get a headache after eating KFC or Nacho Cheese Doritos, dont blame it on the MSG.)

So now that you, too, are ready to embrace MSG as the essence of flavor, where to begin? First, you can find Aji-no-moto at most Asian grocery stores or online or pick up a bottle of Accent Seasoning in the supermarket spice aisle. Next, taste a pinch of it straight from the container or dissolved in a little water, and you’ll see how it tastes reminiscent of the sea. Then Id recommend adding it to things like scrambled eggs, sautéed greens, or broths and soups. (Much as you would with other flavor-enhancing staples such as salt, sugar, or acid, you want to start small, no more than 1/8 teaspoon at a time, and taste as you go. A little bit of MSG goes a long way; too much won t give you a headache, but it might make your dishes taste like miso soup when they are not meant to.) Try adding MSG to tomato-based pasta sauces for meaty depth even in the absence of meat. Or dissolve a pinch or two of it in the vinegar or egg yolk to make salad dressing or mayonnaise really sing. Once you get a hang of how MSG can lend a subtle flavor boost to so many foods, you might find yourself—like I do at home—keeping a jar of the stuff right next to your salt for ready access.

Written by Leisureguy

14 June 2018 at 7:43 pm

Posted in Food, Recipes & Cooking

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: