Salt and pepper shaker pairs are a familiar sight on our dining tables, so much so they have become intrinsically linked, much like…well, salt & pepper. Often recipes will advise to “season to taste.” In European and western kitchens that automatically means adding salt & pepper to the dish.
A staple in the kitchen, these two seasonings are a part of almost all savory dishes. It would be hard to find a meat recipe that does not include salt. Cookbooks and chefs disagree, often vehemently, of when to salt the meat – before, during or after – the cooking process. But the presence of salt on the ingredient lists of savory recipes, no matter when added, is ubiquitous.
Pepper provides background heat and zing to enhance flavor and elevate the taste, especially of bland dishes. Once pepper was such a rare and valuable commodity, it was referred to as “Black Gold” and reserved for the tables of the king and his nobles. Fortunately, pepper and many other herbs and spices are now easily accessible and affordable ingredients in our home kitchen cooking. The goal, of course, is to add ingredients that heighten the taste and pleasure of eating our food.
When seeking to enhance flavor, consider adding another seasoning, MSG, to your dishes. It makes food taste better by providing the taste of umami, described as the meaty, savory deliciousness that deepens flavor. Umami is heralded as the fifth core taste along with those of salt, sweet, bitter and sour. Glutamic acid, a natural amino acid found in many foods, is responsible for creating the umami taste. Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamate, easily adding the umami taste. In fact, MSG is the purest taste of umami. It is also only 12% sodium, while table salt is 39% sodium, so replacing some salt with MSG will reduce total sodium.
Once maligned and avoided by consumers, MSG is regaining its popularity. Robust scientific research has proven repeatedly that MSG is a safe food ingredient. And now stories from chefs and food writers attest to MSG’s great ability to help balance flavors and make good dishes taste even better.
But how to use it and how much to use and when to add MSG during the cooking process? Here is a quick cheat sheet.
Tips for MSG Seasoning
Where do I find MSG? It can be found commonly on your grocery store shelves under common brand names such as Ac’cent®, or Ajinomoto®. It’s also easy to order MSG online.
When do I add MSG during the cooking process? Add the MSG before or during cooking at the same time you would add other seasonings like salt and pepper.
What dishes and recipes can I add it to? Experiment with an addition of MSG to any savory dish, from meats, meat substitutes, eggs, beans, vegetables, sauces, stews and soups. Recipes already including glutamate-rich ingredients such as tomato products, mushrooms and Parmesan cheese get a flavor boost with the addition of MSG. It’s not recommended for sweet foods, however.
How much do I add? Much depends upon personal preferences. Experiment a bit and start with a pinch and work your way up from there. A rule of thumb is about ½ teaspoon of MSG is enough to season a pound of meat or a dish that serves 4 to 6 people.
What does “season to taste” mean? It’s similar to adding salt and pepper to a dish. Start with a small amount, taste and add more to satisfy your palate. For a single serving, start with a pinch of MSG, taste, and if necessary, increase pinch by pinch to achieve the desired flavor profile.
If a little is good, then more is better, right? Don’t get carried away. Too much MSG can create off flavors in the dish.
How do I adjust the salt in a recipe if using MSG to help reduce sodium content of the dish? It’s a well-known fact that we eat too much salt, and one of the benefits of MSG is that it can help reduce the amount of salt in a dish without sacrificing flavor. A replacement of 1/2 teaspoon salt with 1/2 teaspoon of MSG reduces sodium content by nearly 30%.
Can I get few recipes and ideas that include MSG? This is where the creative fun begins.
- Add a sprinkle of MSG to a tomato-based cocktail such as a Bloody Mary. Balance on the glass a fancy garnish of shrimp, cherry tomatoes and a small wedge of aged Parmesan (all umami blasts) on a skewer, and prepare to amaze and astonish your guests.
- Mix a couple of pinches of MSG with soft butter and finely minced garlic. Spread on French bread. Toast the bread. You have garlic toast but better garlic toast.
- As a dietitian, I want people to eat more vegetables. Amplify the taste of veggies such as carrots, broccoli, onions, asparagus, or whatever veggie you love to roast, by tossing them with olive oil, pepper and a sprinkle of MSG before putting in the oven.
- Japan is known for its mayonnaise, which is flavored with rice vinegar and MSG. It’s not surprising that Japan would create such a delicious condiment as MSG was discovered in Japan over a century ago. Now Dynamite Sauce, a mixture of mayonnaise and chili sauce is a staple in sushi restaurants. You can make your own dynamite sauce to slather on your sandwiches or use in seafood dishes. It will make the flavors sing.
- 1 cup of mayonnaise
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 tablespoon chili garlic sauce
- ½ teaspoon MSG
Stir everything together, and use immediately or store for up to one week in the refrigerator.