By now, we should all be completely unafraid of monosodium glutamate, the umami-boosting molecule more commonly referred to as “MSG.” It will not give you headache, it will not make your arms numb, but it will inspire you to eat an entire head of roasted broccoli in one sitting.
If you’re still afraid of the seasoning MSG giving you headaches, you should know you’ve bought into a decades-old myth. Don’t despair! Now that you know the truth, you can go celebrate with a meal at your favourite MSG-using restaurant, or treat yourself to a cute panda-shaped bottle of the stuff.
As Beth has covered in the article linked right above this sentence, the symptoms of “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” have never been reproduced in a laboratory setting. (If that syndrome sounds pretty racist, that’s because it very much is.) This is great news, because it means we are free to enjoy the combination of sodium and glutamate with wild abandon, not just in Doritos, but in our very own recipes.
Buying MSG is not as easy as buying salt—look for a bottle of Accent in the store or a bag of Ajinomoto online—but it’s just about as easy to use. However, just as with sodium chloride, it can be easy to get carried away with MSG, particularly when you start to realise all the wonderful things you can bring this newfound source of umami to. The key is to take it slowly—1/4-1/2 a teaspoon is usually plenty for any recipe that serves four to six people. (More than that can give your meal an unpleasant, artificial flavour.) For a single serving—or a beverage, which we’ll get to in a moment—start with a pinch, taste, and add more if needed. (I recommend tasting a little bit of it plain, to get a full sense of its kinda meaty, very slightly sweet, and very savoury quality.)
What, exactly, should you add it to? Pretty much any non-dessert item that could use some umami. If you would add soy sauce to it, you can add MSG. If you would add Parmesan to it, you can add MSG. If you think “this could use some fish sauce/tomato paste/nutritional yeast,” you can (and should) add MSG. If you need ideas, I have some:
Confession, I have never not messed with Marcella Hazan’s three-ingredient sauce. It’s fine on its own, but I’ve always added garlic, or wine, or fish sauce, or something to give it just a little oomph. This Friday, I added 1/2 teaspoon of MSG, and enjoyed it immensely. (It’s also worth noting that Ofclaire, who has never liked the Hazan sauce, liked it so much he ate the cold leftovers while standing over the sink. Or maybe it’s not “worth noting,” so much as “mildly entertaining.”
Do you want to elevate your garlic bread to mid-level restaurant heights of deliciousness? Sprinkle on a little MSG, just as you would salt. If you’re dealing with a bread stick or biscuit, just brush ‘em with a little butter first so the crystals have something to cling to.
This one is obvious. Sprinkle on a few pinches; toss, taste, adjust as needed.
Boring roasted vegetables
I’m just kidding; roasted vegetables are already very good, but I absolutely inhaled the head of broccoli I dusted with MSG. For every couple of servings, toss the vegetables with 1/8th of a teaspoon of MSG, along with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil and salt.
Soups and stews
Half a teaspoon is plenty for most meaty recipes. I particularly like in it tomato soup, chilli, and anything bean-based.
Yes, you could put MSG in other ground meats, but no meat needs help in the flavour department quite as much as ground turkey. Use 1/2 a teaspoon per pound.
An absolutely filthy martini
To up the savoury quality of an olive-infused martini, add just a pinch of MSG to your ice-filled stirring glass, along with 2 1/2 ounces of gin, 1/2 an ounce of dry vermouth, and 1/4 ounce of olive brine. Stir, strain, and enjoy.
Bland, out-of-season tomatoes
Look—I know I shouldn’t be messing with tomatoes this time of year, but sometimes I’m a big dummy who can’t help myself, and I find myself with a few round, red, flavourless orbs. However, seeing that glutamate is one of the flavours that make tomatoes so good, a little sprinkling of the stuff renders out-of-season tomatoes downright edible, if not totally delicious.
The only thing I wouldn’t recommend you put MSG in or on is sweets. An apple might be ok—apples and Parmesan are very good—but that’s as far as I would push it.
This story has been updated since its previous publication.