To ring in the New Year with good tidings, and of course good seasonings, we’d like to share some words of wisdom from Dr. Harold McGee, featured in an article that was just published in Lucky Peach magazine. (Lucky Peach is a quarterly journal of food and writing. Each issue focuses on a single theme, and explores that theme through essays, art, photography, and recipes. You can follow them on Twitter here.)
Dr. McGee writes about the culinary connection between monosodium glutamate and umami:
“If you love tomatoes, one of the reasons you love tomatoes is that they contain much more natural MSG than many other vegetables. If you love aged Parmesan cheese or if you love an aged steak, one reason you love those foods is that the aging process breaks the proteins down into amino acids, MSG included. Parmesan cheese and aged beef have some of the highest levels of MSG of any food we eat, and that’s part of what makes them delicious.
“The flavor of MSG is so distinctive and so important that it has its own name, one that’s become one of the most talked-about things among professional cooks in the last couple of decades. That name is umami. It’s a Japanese term without a clear, simple definition. It’s often equated with ‘deliciousness’ or ‘savoriness.’ We use a Japanese term because it was the Japanese who discovered this very basic taste. A scientist studying the flavor of Japanese broths, dashis, found that the key element was monosodium glutamate, which is present in very high quantities in a particular seaweed, konbu, that is used to make the broth.
“So MSG was discovered to be a natural ingredient in the standard soup preparation in Japan. Nothing modern, nothing biochemical, nothing industrial about it. Over the next few years, other Japanese scientists found other molecules with umami effects present in cured fish, in shellfish, and in shiitake mushrooms.
“Decades ago, the Japanese proposed that umami was a basic taste. Western scientists resisted that idea, and said that the proof would be to find a particular receptor on our taste buds specific to MSG. Well, exactly that happened about ten years ago. The taste of MSG is a basic taste, and what that means for cooks is that when you’re cooking and you’re trying to develop a dish that is fully flavored, you can’t overlook umami. You can’t overlook MSG and its fellow umami molecules.”
Harold McGee, Ph.D. is an American author who writes about the chemistry and history of food and cooking, and the science of cooking techniques.