Fear not the flavor

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Credit: Photo by Savany via Getty Images

A few years ago, American cuisine hit peak umami. It had been a slow but steady ascent over the past few millennia as people across the globe discovered and embraced the savory flavors endemic to their regions—foods like ripe tomatoes, cured meats, aged cheeses, soy sauce, fish sauce, and mushrooms. In 1908 a Japanese scientist named Kikunae Ikeda took a close look at a bowl of soup he was enjoying. After a series of experiments, he detected the heavy presence of glutamic acid in the fermented seaweed dashi that made up the base. He named this flavor umami after the Japanese word umai, which means delicious.

That next year, Ikeda brought a product called Ajinomoto (a sodium salt form of glutamic acid) to the marketplace in his country, touting its ability to bring said deliciousness to otherwise bland foods. In 1947, this substance hit American grocery stores in the form of shakers of Ac'cent (tagline: The Flavor Awakener). You might know this monosodium glutamate better by its three-letter name, MSG.

Don't act like that's not delicious, because it's scientifically assured to be. If you're turning your nose up at the mention of MSG, it may be because you've been conditioned to without your knowing, for cruddy, xenophobic reasons, not the least of which includes a bunch of spurious "scientific" studies in the '60s that identified it as the cause of "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome"—pain and palpitations supposedly experienced after eating at Asian restaurants that used it as an ingredient. Those studies were wrong. Yes, there are very rare instances of people being sensitive to glutamate, but it's always been on the FDA's list of safe foods. So nyah.

Back to umami, the flavor. In 2012 at the MAD Symposium in Copenhagen—one of the biggest-deal food conferences in the world—chef David Chang gave a presentation debunking the MSG myth and publicly declared his love for the substance and the dimension it brings. Maximum umami was his stated goal, and that official benediction from a lauded chef may have been what finally burst through the shame gates for a lot of the cooking community, because all of a sudden, everyone and their sibling was dropping umami bombs on food programs, menus, and probably their moms. Generally not in the form of MSG (siiiiigh, internalized prejudices), but there was a mad hunt for finding the ingredients that pack the most umami bang per molecule. The Umami Burger chain of restaurants had been on the case since 2009 with their signature sandwich that boasts toppers of a Parmesan frico (a cheese crisp), shiitake mushroom, roasted tomato, caramelized onions, and their house Umami ketchup made with vinegar, tamari, Worcestershire sauce, and other savory components—and finally everyone knew what the hell that word that they'd been using meant.

This all goes to say that umami is madly tasty. An undersung form of it is torula yeast, which you can find online, or at health or specialty spice stores. This non-fermentative yeast won't loft your bread or bubble your beer, but it's savory as all get out when it's mixed into dressings, spreads, sauces or sprinkled on grains, vegetables, snacks, buttered toast, and sandwiches. Do you dig putting nutritional yeast on your popcorn? Torula grows on wood alcohols and is often found in a hickory-smoked version that tastes like a freaking campfire—POP! Cooked, it brings a meaty note to dishes that are technically devoid of flesh. It packs a crap-ton of iron and protein and while there are various paranoiac blog posts that pop up upon first Google trawl expressing concerns about torula yeast (it's an ingredient in various snack foods, so it must be evil, right?), no actual evidence pops to light. Just folks trying to keep umami down again. Don't let 'em; go ahead and feast on that yeast.