My interest in umami and MSG started in a rather unexpected way. Years ago, I was lecturing in my charcuterie class about various additives used in sausage and other meat preparations. I commented that we would not use MSG in class because it was not “good.” After class, a student from the Philippines asked me what was wrong with MSG. I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was along the lines of it being suspect, etc. She had a confused look on her face as she explained that she grew up with it in her home (like many people throughout Asia as I learned later) and that her mom used it routinely. This got me wondering if I really understood MSG. (I am sorry to say that I was simply repeating what I had heard versus really understanding it. This is never good for an educator! Needless to say, I learned just how wrong I was!) She then said, “Chef, have you ever tried it in scrambled eggs?”
I think that a bit of MSG 101 is in order before continuing. MSG (monosodium glutamate) is the chemical compound that is principally responsible for the taste of umami, and umami is one of our 5 basic tastes. This is analogous to NaCl being the sensation that we principally relate to salinity. As chefs, we think about incorporating umami in our recipes as we view umami as an important tool in our culinary tool box. We want to incorporate a balance of different textures, aromas, and tastes as possible in our creations. The result is flavor complexity, which is highly desirable.
If you want to learn to cook with umami and use MSG as a tool to do so, where do you start? Perhaps the best way is to follow my ex-student’s lead. We made scrambled eggs with MSG that day after class. I was spellbound at how the flavor deepened and the complexity increased. So for starters, add some MSG to your eggs and omelets. If you want, you can even make some scrambled eggs side by side—some with and some without the MSG to really taste the difference. (This is a great technique if you are not quite sure what the flavor of umami/MSG taste is.) In terms of how much to add, treat MSG like salt. Adding too much salt will not improve a dish. It will make it potentially unpleasant, but does not present a health risk. The same is true for MSG. Adding too much does not really improve a dish, and like salt, it also does not present a health risk. So, do some experimenting to see its effect. Add a pinch or 2 to a couple of eggs, along with some salt of course. Remember that salt and MSG are 2 distinct tastes—so working with both increases the overall flavor profile.
Cooking with Umami: Using Creativity for MSG Taste Impact
Once you have tried MSG in eggs and tasted the added depth of flavor (I like to think of it as a flavor explosion), it is time to play. I particularly like to add MSG in foods where it readily dissolves. In these foods, adding MSG creates an immediate flavor impact with its characteristic savory notes. So this is where your creativity can go wild. For starters, try some of these ideas as vehicles to test the unique MSG taste impact:
- Mashed potatoes. Chefs and home cooks alike are adding different flavors and textures to mashed potatoes as its neutral flavor profile is the perfect backdrop for flavor experimentation. Before mixing in your favorite ingredients, try adding about ½ teaspoon of MSG per 1 lb. of potatoes in your mashed potato recipe.
- Hamburger. Frankly, I find that much of the hamburger sold in stores today lacks flavor. By mixing in about ½ teaspoon of MSG into 1 lb. of ground beef (along with other ingredients per your taste), you will push up the umami noticeably.
- Soups and stews. When you go to season your soups and stews, add salt and some MSG to taste. I like to add both ingredients little by little so as to watch their respective flavors grow. You will know when you reach the correct level of salinity and a desirable umami punch.
- Beans. Several years ago when I was cooking some black beans, I added some MSG along with other seasonings toward the end of the cooking process. What a huge difference it made in the final product. I very much recommend trying this.
The point of the above suggestions is only a starting point. MSG and the umami taste it delivers are beneficial in many different preparations. Once you have tried some of these ideas, feel free to explore what higher levels of umami can do in other recipes. Remember that umami is one of our 5 basic tastes, so incorporating it results in a maximum flavor impact.
Header photo provided by: BİLGİBursa (@BiLGiBursa)