You Can (and Should!) Cook With MSG at Home
It will bring umami-richness to your eggs and bloody marys
If you watched David Chang’s Netflix show Ugly Delicious, you might remember a scene in which he combats negative stereotypes about MSG. Chang and a researcher hand out chips and other American snack foods to a focus group of people who claim an insensitivity to the seasoning, and then explain to the group that the snacks they're eating contain MSG. Essentially, Chang hopes to expose the fact that an unfavorable attitude toward MSG is rooted in racism, and that the preconceived notion that Asian food (which often incorporates MSG) is unhealthy and can make you sick couldn’t be more wrong.
“[MSG] is ubiquitous in diets around the world, but the way that many have a visceral negative reaction about it is when it’s in this bottle. This is a shortsighted view because it’s really just an amino acid,” Tia Rains, Senior Director of Public Relations for Ajinomoto, told to me over the phone. “The way I describe it to my kids, parents, and friends is that it’s essentially glutamate, which is an amino acid that we eat every day.”
Rains said that MSG occurs naturally in all sorts of common foods, from breastmilk to tomatoes to parmesan cheese. “To make [glutamate] water soluble, into a powder that we’re used to like salt, you can attach a sodium ion onto it, and that makes it a seasoning,” she said.
Rains tends to use the term “MSG” synonymously with “glutamate,” because “once MSG is in any sort of medium, like if you put it in water or your mouth, it just becomes glutamate," she said. "Our cells don’t distinguish between MSG that comes in a shaker versus the glutamate that’s in cheese or breastmilk. It’s metabolized the same in your body,” she said.
“Any time food developers are trying to create that fifth flavor of umami, you’ll often find MSG included,” Rains said. “It’s not a flavor enhancer in a traditional sense. Like salt, for example, would bring out a dairy flavor that’s already present, whereas umami is another taste. MSG is really an extra taste that you’re adding to a dish to bring a more savory richness that wasn’t there before.”
Still, many people are cautious about using the seasoning at home. But don't be!
When it comes to savory breakfast, what wouldn’t umami improve? Egg dishes, roasted vegetables, and even bloody marys can benefit from a hit of that savory, brothy richness that comes with the fifth taste.
To home cooks who are interested in experimenting with MSG, Rains suggests starting out with a small amount, like ¼ teaspoon. The seasoning is on the mild side (like a chili powder over a cayenne), and even just a bit of it will bring the umami flavor, especially if the dish has other glutamate-rich foods, like mushrooms or tomatoes.