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Umami -- I'm a believer!

CindyJ Mar 14, 2011 03:21 PM

The word "umami" seems to be creeping into everyday cooking vocabulary these days. And I watch enough of the TV cooking shows to know that there's something to it. But I'll admit, up until now, umami is just something I just didn't pay attention to. Maybe I've been aware of it on some subliminal level -- you know, you taste a dish and it's immediately satisfying, but you don't bother to analyze it to figure out what it's got that's so darned appealing... so comforting... so right.

But yesterday I decided the time had come for me to be proactive. So I Googled umami to learn a little more, and to get a sense of the foods that are major contributors of umami. Then it was time to try it -- on a small scale, of course, because I didn't want to mess up what I'd already considered one of my consistently delicious recipes -- my plain-and-simple pasta sauce. I started my sauce the way I usually do -- onions sauteed in olive oil, then add minced garlic (lots of it) and saute until it's fragrant. Then a good shake of crushed red peppers. And then I added the umami -- in the form of anchovies. I minced up about 8 little filets from a tin, and sauteed them as I mashed them until they kind of disappeared. That didn't take long. Then I added a little tomato paste and let it cook a minute or two, and then I added two cans of crushed tomatoes, a little salt, and a generous sprinkling of dried oregano. That was it. I let the sauce simmer for an hour or so.

My pasta sauce is ALWAYS delicious. This sauce was delicious. Yet, I'm willing to say that there was, this time, a certain "je ne sais quois" -- something that added to the complexity without being so prominent it could be identified. Maybe I was just really hungry. But I'm willing to give umami -- the anchovies, in this case -- the benefit of the doubt. More than that, I want to do a lot more experimenting with my cooking, but I need guidance -- lots of guidance.

So my question is: short of using MSG in my cooking, in what ways can I add the essence of umami into "everyday" dishes? Into soups, for example, or roasts, or simple stir fries? Is umami something you consciously incorporate into your cooking, or does it happen more by serendipitous circumstance? Do you recognize it when it's there? Do you miss it when it's absent?

I feel like a whole new door has been cracked open for me, and I'm eager to explore what's behind it.

  1. thew Mar 14, 2011 03:29 PM

    question- why not msg?

    but - mushrooms, anchovies, as you used them, thai fsh sauce, beef stock are all excellent sources of umami

    6 Replies
    1. re: thew
      c oliver Mar 14, 2011 07:07 PM

      Yep re msg. I bought a bag recently but keep forgetting to use it :) The disadvantage of being a Senior CH.

      1. re: thew
        CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 06:43 AM

        I've got this little voice in my head that keeps telling me that MSG is unhealthy. Back in the day, I used to use it all the time. Now I'm laughing -- thinking of all the ingredients I use regularly that are at least equally unhealthy.

        Beef stock... really? I've been thinking I need to find a way to incorporate umami into my beef stock.

        1. re: CindyJ
          thew Mar 15, 2011 07:10 AM

          yeah - i had a friend BITD that i used to indulge in all sorts of things with. then one day he had to study for a law school exam and balked at taking a no-doz tablet. given everything else that had entered the bodytemple i just laughed and laughed and laughed

        2. re: thew
          Bliss149 Mar 15, 2011 07:22 AM

          Thew, you say "Thai fish sauce"...Does it specifically have to be Thai fish sauce?

          Showing my ignorance of the differences here but thought it was all basically fish and salt. Not to hijack this very interesting thread but just curious about this.

          And CindyJ, I'm going to have to try your red sauce - it sounds really good!

          1. re: Bliss149
            CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 07:38 AM

            It really is good, if I do say so myself. And it can easily be made into a meat sauce by browning a pound or so of ground beef, or beef/pork/veal mix just prior to adding the crushed tomatoes. (I prefer Tuttorosso crushed tomatoes in the green can, by the way.)

            1. re: Bliss149
              thew Mar 15, 2011 07:48 AM

              no, i also like the vietnamese - but it has a much stronger flavor than the thai, so it is harder to use solely for the umami

          2. blue room Mar 14, 2011 03:43 PM

            An internet friend once sent me some porcini powder -- it sat for a while, but I was amazed once I tried it, in (of all things) roast beef hash! Now I use it regularly, it *does* make a difference.

            1 Reply
            1. re: blue room
              CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 06:44 AM

              I make my own porcini powder and usually have it on hand. GREAT idea!

            2. l
              link_930 Mar 14, 2011 04:24 PM

              Growing up in a traditional Korean food culture household, I do recognize umami. Until recently, it was more instinctual -- the phrase in Korean is to say that something is "goh-soh hae." A lot of traditional food cultures build umami into their dishes. For example, Koreans have seaweed, anchovies, mackerel, etc. Italians have tomatoes, shellfish, parmigiano reggiano, etc. It doesn't have to be cuisine-specific, but those are the only ones I can name off the top of my head. There is also ham, mushrooms, beans, pork, olives, dwenjang, kimchi, and a lot others. I can definitely tell the difference if having food absent of umami, especially when the dish is supposed to have it, and is starkly apparent in poorly made dishes such as chicken soup and galbi tang.

              2 Replies
              1. re: link_930
                brandnewuser Mar 14, 2011 04:30 PM

                What can be added to add umami to galbi tang? I've made it on occasion and also noticed that it's missing 'something'. Is there anything that can be added to galbi jjim? thanks!

                1. re: brandnewuser
                  link_930 Mar 15, 2011 09:06 AM

                  There is plenty of umami in the beef, carrots, soy sauce, and shiitake mushrooms that go into the dish. When I was referring to missing umami in galbi tang, I meant more that poorly made ones are just thin, salty, watery broth with chewy galbi pieces and too much potato. Can you further describe the "something" that's missing?

              2. Chemicalkinetics Mar 14, 2011 04:32 PM

                Well, like you said MSG powder, anchovies, dried shrimp, cured ham, soy sauce are all good methods of incorporating umami. I think fish sauce is a very powerful way. Some people like fish sauce. Others dislike it.

                To be honest, I don't intentionally incorporate umami in my dishes.

                19 Replies
                1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                  c oliver Mar 14, 2011 07:08 PM

                  I just "discovered" fish sauce recently. Love it.

                  1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                    CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 06:48 AM

                    Fish sauce is one of those things that always throws me off a little, most likely because of the way it smells. I use it whenever a recipe calls for it, but I'd never think of adding it any other time. But now it makes sense. A little dash of fish sauce is likely to enhance any number of dishes. Thanks for the suggestion.

                    1. re: CindyJ
                      Chemicalkinetics Mar 15, 2011 06:55 AM

                      :) I know. Fish sauce is an acquired taste. Some people like it. Some don't. However, I see fish sauce as a very easy way to add umami. Anchovies, dried shrimp, cured ham, all take a bit more works. Very small works, but still, a bit more work. Either you have grind them or simmer them or something. Fish sauce -- just a few drops -- absolutely no prep.

                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                        CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 07:00 AM

                        Now I might actually get to finish that one bottle that's been sitting in my fridge for soooooooo long. :-)

                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                          Dave5440 Mar 15, 2011 07:56 PM

                          First time I bought fish sauce, I did a half shot of it, that stuff is tasty , I also do half shots of soy sauce, kinkomens low salt is the best

                          1. re: Dave5440
                            goodhealthgourmet Mar 15, 2011 08:11 PM

                            i think my hands and feet are going to start swelling just from *reading* your post :)

                            1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                              Dave5440 Mar 15, 2011 08:16 PM

                              Some people like cookies, I like strange stuff, I wouldn't notice if my feet swelled can't see'em

                              1. re: Dave5440
                                goodhealthgourmet Mar 15, 2011 08:41 PM

                                ha! well, i don't have to see them to know, i can *feel* it happening. FYI, i wasn't passing judgment on your preference - we all have our culinary quirks. i was just thinking about the concentration of sodium in those shots...i'm really salt-sensitive, and after a snack like that i wouldn't be able to get my shoes on for the rest of the day ;)

                            2. re: Dave5440
                              Chemicalkinetics Mar 15, 2011 10:10 PM

                              :) You drank that thing straight? I admit I do taste droplets of it from time to time. Just for quality control really. :D

                          2. re: CindyJ
                            Bliss149 Mar 15, 2011 07:25 AM

                            Are you saying you can use fish sauce in non-asian dishes?

                            Just bought a giant bottle and wondering how I'll ever use it all.

                            1. re: Bliss149
                              CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 07:39 AM

                              My 8-ounce bottle has been around forever!

                              1. re: CindyJ
                                Chemicalkinetics Mar 15, 2011 07:46 AM

                                Fish sauces do not go bad as in toxic bad, but the taste can degrade after about 1 year.


                              2. re: Bliss149
                                thew Mar 15, 2011 07:49 AM

                                yes. works great in italian tomato sauces, for example

                                1. re: thew
                                  joonjoon Mar 15, 2011 08:21 AM

                                  Also great in almost every stew. Just use it sparingly.

                                  1. re: thew
                                    greygarious Nov 29, 2012 04:29 PM

                                    I used a small amount of Tiparos fish sauce in my spaghetti sauce, and could taste it.
                                    Not inedible, but I wished I hadn't added it. However, by the next day the flavors had melded and the fish sauce was no longer identifiable. I don't think it made the sauce better, but I was already including lots of garlic, onion, dried mushrooms, cheese, and beef, all of which contribute umami.

                                  2. re: Bliss149
                                    esquimeaux Mar 15, 2011 08:22 AM

                                    I use it in place of salt in almost everything I cook. Anything that needs salt but would also benefit from a savory kick.

                                    1. re: esquimeaux
                                      Joebob Mar 15, 2011 07:17 PM


                                    2. re: Bliss149
                                      luckyfatima Mar 15, 2011 02:49 PM

                                      I splash a dash of fish sauce in spaghetti sauce, stews, soups, broths, as well. I also add a drop to scrambled eggs.

                                      1. re: Bliss149
                                        vday Mar 15, 2011 03:43 PM

                                        Yes, use it like salt in your recipes and find your favorites. I love it in a nice crisp coleslaw, and in Caesar Salad dressing, in hummus, and in lots of cooked soups etc.

                                  3. cowboyardee Mar 14, 2011 05:20 PM

                                    Depending on what you're cooking, the most direct (aside from msg, which you might reconsider using BTW) way to add umami is use of kombu, or kelp, like the Japanese do in making dashi broths. AFAIK, it has the highest concentration of natural glutamates found in a whole food, with a subtle flavor otherwise.

                                    Beyond that, lots of ingredients add umami flavor. Thew and Chem and Link listed several good ones. I'll add that parmigiana cheese has quite a bit (good for your pasta). Tomatoes and tomato sauces have some, with the pulp around the seeds having the highest concentration in a tomato (which is partially why I never throw away the liquid from a seeded tomato, but strain it and add it back to a sauce last minute). Worchestershire sauce has lots of it as well. Meats and cheeses in general make good sources, and aged dried meats and aged hard cheeses even more so.

                                    Basically, there are way too many foods that have glutamates to name. The suggestions here are just especially rich sources.

                                    10 Replies
                                    1. re: cowboyardee
                                      c oliver Mar 14, 2011 07:08 PM

                                      And Worchestershire sauce has anchovies in it.

                                      1. re: c oliver
                                        cowboyardee Mar 14, 2011 07:25 PM

                                        Correct. Though, as I'm sure you know, it doesn't taste much like anchovies.

                                        1. re: cowboyardee
                                          c oliver Mar 14, 2011 07:28 PM

                                          I know and love it for that :) I'm a discriminating anchovy user/eater. Just had an app at a restaurant that was crostini spread thinly with feta and then a white anchovy filet. Just doesn't sing to me for which Bob was VERY grateful :)

                                      2. re: cowboyardee
                                        CindyJ Mar 15, 2011 06:53 AM

                                        I have never used kombu, or kelp, and I've never made dashi broth. Can you give me an idea of how I might use kombu? I've got some good Asian markets nearby that would probably carry it, but I know nothing about how it's even sold. Is it used only in Asian cooking, or are there uses for it in other cuisines as well?

                                        1. re: CindyJ
                                          wattacetti Mar 15, 2011 07:12 AM

                                          Use of kombu is easy. You want the packages with kombu pieces that are covered in white, not the ones that are uniformly dark green.

                                          If you are making dashi broth, you will need a length of dried kombu, which will be steeped in water that is kept just below boiling (about 30 minutes to an hour depending on volume and how much kombu you add). The kombu as it rehydrates will start exuding a slime, which you want. The more goo the better.

                                          Then add katsuobushi (dried bonito shavings); the quantity depends on what you can afford. Immediately turn off the heat. Once the bonito settles to the bottom, filter the contents through several layers of cheesecloth and you're done. Ichiban dashi.

                                          Another way to use kombu is to throw a small piece into the chicken broth you use for risotto or soups (you can do the same for beef stock). Or grind it in a burr grinder and sprinkle the powder as you need it.

                                          1. re: CindyJ
                                            AdamD Mar 15, 2011 07:15 AM

                                            It is sold in dry form, in "sheets."
                                            Dashi broth is very easy to make, but for some it is an acquired taste.
                                            You can also make kombu broth which is incredibly simple. There are plenty of recipes out there for both. As with Japanese cooking, you can use those broths to add flavor to just about anything.

                                            In theory, you could use the dried kombu much like you would a bay leaf, although I have never tried it

                                            The only thing you need to worry about is that kombu can turn very bitter if it is exposed to boiling water or very high heat for an extended period of time.

                                            We eat a lot of Japanese dishes in our house, so I cant really speak to cross cultural cooking, but I think it would be a nice addition to any sauce, soup or stew. Especially those dishes contain fish and shell fish. Hmm oysters poached in light kombu broth and dipped in ponzu sounds god to me!

                                            1. re: CindyJ
                                              Silverjay Mar 15, 2011 07:56 AM

                                              You can just buy packages of granularized instant dashi usually sold under the brand name "Hon Dashi". Just add to simmered water. This will save you the trial and error that can come with making homemade dashi and usually, will taste better unless you are getting very good basic ingredients.

                                              We simmer meats or vegetables in dashi and then add a flavoring element such as fresh ginger, garlic, or white miso. All Asian markets should have Hon-Dashi or another similar brand available.

                                              1. re: Silverjay
                                                joonjoon Mar 15, 2011 08:29 AM

                                                If you're talking about this stuff it's Hon Dashi: http://www.amazon.com/Ajinomoto-Dashi...

                                                Hon Dashi is mostly MSG - there are better options for instant dashi, I prefer ones that are in tea packets and just contain the normal dashi ingredients.

                                                Having said that I still keep some Hon Dashi around cuz i't so damned easy to add in small quantities. Also good to have some MSG around...why beat around the bush? Just add the real stuff. :D

                                                1. re: joonjoon
                                                  Silverjay Mar 15, 2011 08:37 AM

                                                  The instant stuff still contains extract and flavor from the fish, which is richer than just sprinkling Ajinomoto.

                                            2. re: cowboyardee
                                              goodhealthgourmet Mar 15, 2011 03:55 PM

                                              speaking of tomatoes, sun-dried pack an umami wallop, as does the soaking liquid from rehydrating them.

                                            3. rcallner Mar 15, 2011 10:09 AM

                                              Braggs essential amino acids comes in liquid form, tastes similar to soy sauce, and adds a wonderful kick of umami to all sorts of things.

                                              1. d
                                                DWB Mar 16, 2011 04:52 PM

                                                Marmite. Vegemite.

                                                1 Reply
                                                1. re: DWB
                                                  AmyH Nov 30, 2012 10:29 AM

                                                  I was just in Australia and tasted a bit of Vegemite. I didn't care for it on toast for breakfast, mainly because it was too salty for me. But I was thinking it would be an excellent addition to gravy, stew, and other things that can use an umami boost.

                                                2. fldhkybnva Nov 29, 2012 06:18 PM

                                                  I can't seem to "master the umami" with my recently acquired Maggi seasoning. I heard such great reviews about it and have been trying to sprinkle a few drops on a variety of dishes - added to Asian marinated tuna dipping sauce, sprinkled on scrambled eggs but I don't really seem to "feel it." Perhaps my tasting ability is not quite distinguishing enough or I need to use more?

                                                  2 Replies
                                                  1. re: fldhkybnva
                                                    ipsedixit Nov 29, 2012 07:46 PM

                                                    I don't think one really "feels" umami. It's just sort of there, but if it's not you certainly do notice its absence.

                                                    In this way it's a bit like salt in chocolate chip cookies. You don't taste the salt in the cookie, but if you omit it, you certainly notice something being off -- like the entire cookie is flat. That's what umami is like for savory dishes.

                                                    I really believe it's a bit of a misnomer to say that umami is a fifth "taste" because one doesn't really taste umami.

                                                    Umami is like the culinary equivalent of the G-Spot. It's not necessarily in one any particular "spot," but we all sort of know that it's kind of around "there" ... wherever there might be. And if your G-Spot was missing, you'd certainly notice it.

                                                    1. re: ipsedixit
                                                      fldhkybnva Nov 29, 2012 08:15 PM

                                                      Right, totally get that just don't get that added indescribable flavor I guess when I've been using the Maggi seasoning. However, I do love mushrooms, tomatoes and the run of the mill Chinese takeout + MSG so I assume I have strong appeal for it like most.

                                                  2. JonParker Nov 29, 2012 08:35 PM

                                                    I think we all have those little tricks that we use to punch up our cooking. One of my favorites is the liberal use of shallots. I sub them for onions in all kinds of things.

                                                    One of my favorite ways to add umami to dishes is to roast any veggies involved before using them. Last week I made vegan soup for an aquaintance, and by preroasting the turnips, carrots, potatoes and asparagus before adding them i turned a pedestrian boiled veggie soup into a rich flavor powerhouse.

                                                    1. a
                                                      axial Nov 29, 2012 08:35 PM

                                                      I recently bought some "Taste #5 Umami Paste" by Laura Santtini; haven't yet tried it unfortunately. I bought it online but have since seen it in a couple of Seattle-area stores. Might try it first diluted with olive oil and brushed on pizza.


                                                      18 Replies
                                                      1. re: axial
                                                        chefathome Nov 30, 2012 10:26 AM

                                                        It really is very good. No doubt after you try it you will look for reasons to use it!

                                                        1. re: chefathome
                                                          axial Dec 1, 2012 12:14 PM

                                                          OK, chefathome, you got me motivated -- Taste #5 is absolutely wonderful!

                                                          I made "very fake tacos" (one of us doesn't like very much heat, so I use Frontera mild enchilada sauce instead). I waited until the dish was cooked, tasted it, then added about 1/3 tsp to about 1.5 cups of finished "taco" filling. Mixed it in the pan, waited a minute just to give it some time, then tasted it again. Wohoooo, was that good!

                                                          The difference I detected was that the sauce seemed richer, the tomato (mild though it was to start with!) toned down and more taste came to the front of the palate. The result was slightly more salty than I would normally like, although The Salt Fiend Who ALWAYS Adds Salt at the Table (we customarily use either Hickory smoked or Truffle salt at the table, both from Woodinville Salt Co.) thought it was great and he didn't add any more salt.

                                                          I could definitely taste the similarity to Worster sauce flavor, but I liked this much more, because doesn't seem to have the intrusive heat and kick punch that Worster has (and I like Worster, don't get me wrong).

                                                          I'm absolutely hooked, Taste #5 is going to be a staple in my cooking.

                                                          1. re: axial
                                                            chefathome Dec 1, 2012 01:31 PM

                                                            I would never have thought to use it with tacos - great idea! It makes sense to use it wherever umami-ness is needed. You're into salt, too? We have tons of kinds and some favourites of ours also include alder smoked and truffle.

                                                            Don't you think if more people were to try it they'd also be hooked? Amazing stuff. And it really is not that expensive. One of our Canadian store brands just came out with it, too - I am very curious. :)

                                                            1. re: chefathome
                                                              cleopatra999 Dec 1, 2012 02:49 PM

                                                              Is that the PC blend Chefathome? I was just looking at that! might have to check our Extra foods to see if they carry it. I would be curious to try and compare the ingredients.

                                                              1. re: cleopatra999
                                                                chefathome Dec 1, 2012 04:24 PM

                                                                Precisely! I'll get some this week and post back (hopefully I remember).

                                                                1. re: chefathome
                                                                  montrealeater Dec 2, 2012 09:32 PM

                                                                  Are you talking about the Black Label stuff? I bought some over the summer, then my fridge died and I threw it out without using it (it has fish in it, no? I reckoned better safe than sorry) - I want to know if I should get it again! (got it at Provigo on Mont Royal, btw, I think you're in Montreal, too).

                                                                  1. re: montrealeater
                                                                    chefathome Dec 3, 2012 06:08 AM

                                                                    Yes, the black label stuff. I think it does have anchovy in it if I recall correctly. Not in Montreal but many hours northwest of you, three hours from Edmonton (where we've had a lot of snow on the ground for six weeks already and temps of -20C - I digress).

                                                                    I think you should try it again - it really is worth it in my opinion.

                                                            2. re: axial
                                                              axial Dec 5, 2012 10:28 AM

                                                              Next experiment: added about 1/4 tsp Taste #5 paste to chunk tuna (in oil) for sandwiches, w/ mayo and dill relish. Excellent result, would add more next time.

                                                              1. re: axial
                                                                chefathome Dec 5, 2012 10:31 AM

                                                                Cool! I had not thought of that one.

                                                                1. re: chefathome
                                                                  cleopatra999 Dec 5, 2012 10:30 AM

                                                                  I added anchovy paste to my mashed potatoes last night with and initial grimace by my SO, but good results. I have to get my hands on the taste #5 stuff.

                                                                  1. re: cleopatra999
                                                                    chefathome Dec 5, 2012 10:33 AM

                                                                    Love that idea. Will try that, too, as I really like anchovy paste. So, your appetite has been whetted, has it? :)

                                                                    1. re: chefathome
                                                                      cleopatra999 Dec 5, 2012 12:44 PM

                                                                      totally! happy with the increase in umami, although I had a hard time explaining it to my SO.

                                                                      I have to find a way to use it on popcorn. I am thinking melt it in with the butter!

                                                                      1. re: cleopatra999
                                                                        chefathome Dec 5, 2012 12:51 PM

                                                                        Brilliant! You have just inspired me to try that. Off I go...

                                                                        1. re: chefathome
                                                                          cleopatra999 Dec 5, 2012 02:19 PM

                                                                          do report back!!

                                                                          1. re: cleopatra999
                                                                            chefathome Dec 5, 2012 02:17 PM

                                                                            I decided that before making popcorn a walk was in order. I am at this very moment going to pop some corn.

                                                                            1. re: chefathome
                                                                              chefathome Dec 5, 2012 02:33 PM

                                                                              K. Am back after my tasting. I simply melted butter and added the paste and voila. It's really great! Now it's got me thinking kettle corn with this. Thanks for the idea! Definitely will do it again.

                                                                              1. re: chefathome
                                                                                cleopatra999 Dec 5, 2012 03:50 PM

                                                                                excellent! can't wait to try myself! perhaps tonight :)

                                                                        2. re: cleopatra999
                                                                          axial Dec 6, 2012 03:09 PM

                                                                          Hard time explaining .. yuppers. I couldn't find the right description, I guess, all I got back was a quizzical look, he couldn't quite tell there was any difference although I could taste it right away..

                                                                          I used Taste #5 on a different tuna brand (Trader Joe's Yellowfin tuna in oil) , mixed with Hellman's mayo, and it was even better with a little more paste than I'd used last time, maybe close to 1/3 to 1/2 tsp for a single can.

                                                                          I think next time I get some cibatta bread I'm going to have a "Paste Taste" event, mix it with some olive oil and see if he can get the hang of it.

                                                          2. fldhkybnva Nov 29, 2012 08:43 PM

                                                            Does anyone use actual MSG? I know the OP asked for no MSG but this is an umami thread after all. I have a bag that has just been sitting around, not quite sure how to use it.

                                                            28 Replies
                                                            1. re: fldhkybnva
                                                              ipsedixit Nov 29, 2012 08:47 PM

                                                              I use it regularly.

                                                              1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                fldhkybnva Nov 29, 2012 09:19 PM

                                                                Any ideas? Just sprinkle? What dishes do you tend to use it in?

                                                                1. re: fldhkybnva
                                                                  ipsedixit Nov 29, 2012 09:32 PM

                                                                  Dumpling fillings






                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                    ...tm... Nov 29, 2012 11:29 PM

                                                                    My grandma (Irish/German) always had a bagfull of MSG in her cupboard and I never noticed if she used it, but enjoyed all of her cooking. As a scientist, I question whether anyone is able to detect the use of "MSG" in anything, as it is the equivalent of the glutamate found in high concentrations in Parmigiano-Reggiano, dried tomatoes, and seaweed extract. In fact, historically MSG was extracted directly from seaweed. Overuse, I can understand complaining about.

                                                                    1. re: ...tm...
                                                                      Chemicalkinetics Nov 30, 2012 04:53 AM

                                                                      < it is the equivalent of the glutamate found in high concentrations in Parmigiano-Reggiano, dried tomatoes, and seaweed extract. In fact, historically MSG was extracted directly from seaweed. Overuse, I can understand complaining about.>

                                                                      I am unsure of your definition of detecting. Human tongue can taste and therefore detecing MSG. It gives a different signal than pure salt like NaCl. Maybe you are questioning that some people complain about uncomfortable feeling of consuming MSG -- a negative reation like sweating and flushing...etc. Well, the argument for reacting to MSG is that Monosodium glutamate allows quick release of glutamate. While sodium is just plain sodium, and glutamate is just an animo acid, the absorption of glutamate from regular meat proteins are slow, and likely to be slow from seaweed too. This is the explanation I have read about. I don't know if it is true. You can also think of it like glycemic index. Two food items may have exactly the same amount of glucose, but the absorption of the glucose in the circulating system can be different, think white rice vs brown rice.


                                                              2. re: fldhkybnva
                                                                Chemicalkinetics Nov 30, 2012 04:43 AM

                                                                I use to have a small bottle when I was a college student, but never use it much. I felt it is like cheating. Almost like people adding excessive salt because the original dish is simply not tasty enough.

                                                                Regardless, you can use MSG in many things. This is especially common for the soup/stock/borth for Asian noodle.

                                                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                  ipsedixit Nov 30, 2012 09:42 AM

                                                                  I felt it is like cheating. Almost like people adding excessive salt because the original dish is simply not tasty enough.

                                                                  I'm curious about that statement. Why did you feel like it was cheating? And do you still feel this way?

                                                                  I'm not trying to pick a fight as to the merits of MSG -- be it from a health or psychological perspective -- I'm just trying to understand why MSG would be so tainted in your view?

                                                                  Did you have the same reservations with using things like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Miso, Mushrooms, conpoy, etc.?

                                                                  Again, not trying to pick a fight. Just curious where the bias against MSG comes from, and if it's unique to MSG.

                                                                  1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                    fldhkybnva Nov 30, 2012 09:46 AM

                                                                    Yea, not trying to be argumentative either but I also didn't get why it was considered "cheating"

                                                                    1. re: fldhkybnva
                                                                      cleopatra999 Nov 30, 2012 10:16 AM

                                                                      I kind of understand what chemicalkinetics means by cheating. This whole thread has been very interesting and eye opening. Especially the MSG part. I have grown up with MSG being bad for you, I have never noticed it in a grocery store, never see it in a recipe and don't hear chefs talking about it. Is it a secret topic, taboo almost? IF you use it don't speak of it?? To me it seems unnatural, fake, processed. But I will fully admit I don't know a lot about it.

                                                                      1. re: cleopatra999
                                                                        ipsedixit Nov 30, 2012 10:28 AM

                                                                        MSG is neither fake nor unnatural.

                                                                        MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids. Most of the glutamate we consume, whether naturally occurring in food or as seasoning, does not enter the bloodstream - it is used by the cells lining the digestive tract for energy. Our bodies also make glutamate as part of normal metabolism, and our major organs store glutamate. There is about 10-12g of free glutamate in our bodies, of which 5-6g is stored in our muscles.

                                                                        1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                          Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 01:45 PM

                                                                          <MSG, is the sodium salt of glutamic acid, one of the most abundant naturally occurring non-essential amino acids.>

                                                                          Are you cutting and pasting wikipedia and whatcookingamerica.net? These are words for words from these websites. I think you should cite where you get your information -- just to keep everything proper.

                                                                          Sodium is not fake. Glutamic acid is not fake. However, MSG is unnatural. I don't know any natural form of MSG, granted that I am not in the research of food science. If you do, let us know. There is no natural MSG I know of.

                                                                          <MSG is neither fake nor unnatural.>

                                                                          Since you read wikipedia, I will quote from the MSG section from wikipedia:

                                                                          "Professor Ikeda named this product monosodium glutamate and submitted a patent to produce MSG"
                                                                          "Suzuki brothers started the commercial production of MSG in 1909 as Aji-no-moto, meaning "essence of taste" in Japanese, the first time that monosodium glutamate was produced in the world"

                                                                          Read between the lines, and you can tell it is a man-made product -- thus unnatural, thus some call it fake.

                                                                          1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                            ipsedixit Dec 1, 2012 07:33 PM

                                                                            MSG is simply a form of a natural compound. A glutamate. That's why it's neither fake nor unnatural.

                                                                            1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                              Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 07:58 PM

                                                                              <MSG is simply a form of a natural compound.>

                                                                              A "unnatural form" of a natural compound -- is simply unnatural.

                                                                              Would sticking radiative uranium with glutamate makes it natural? No. What about exchanging all the hydrogen atoms of a glutamic acid with deuterium atoms?

                                                                              Please tell me that you don't really think a fully deuterated glutamic acid is a natural substance -- despite that it is a form of a natural compound.

                                                                              <That's why it's neither fake nor unnatural.>

                                                                              No, the above reasons accurately describe why it is unnatural.

                                                                              1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                                ipsedixit Dec 1, 2012 08:05 PM

                                                                                Please tell me that you don't really think a fully deuterated glutamic acid is natural substance -- despite that it is a form of a natural compound.

                                                                                Yes, in fact, I do.

                                                                                1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                                  Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 08:13 PM

                                                                                  <Yes, in fact, I do.>

                                                                                  Well, I suppose this explains a lot, and you surely can have your own definition. However, I can ensure you that this is not the scientific definition of a natural compound vs a synthetic compound, and is not shared by the general public.

                                                                      2. re: fldhkybnva
                                                                        Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 02:00 PM

                                                                        <why it was considered "cheating">

                                                                        Too easy. Too synthetic. Like someone buy a box of premade cookie dough, and baked it:


                                                                        It is like "I cannot really make this dish to taste good with the traditional normal ingredients. I just cannot do it -- either I am just too lazy or too dumb (lack of effort or lack of knowledge). Oh I know. I will just add the flavor enhancer MSG and call it the day"

                                                                      3. re: ipsedixit
                                                                        Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 01:34 PM

                                                                        < Why did you feel like it was cheating?>

                                                                        I gave my explanation already: Almost like people adding excessive salt because the original dish is simply not tasty enough. Though I think it is even a bit worse than adding excessive salt.

                                                                        <And do you still feel this way?>

                                                                        Yes, I do.

                                                                        1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                          ipsedixit Dec 1, 2012 07:34 PM

                                                                          Adding extra salt to a insipid dish would be an error, not cheating.

                                                                          1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                            Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 07:58 PM

                                                                            <would be an error, not cheating.>

                                                                            It is an error because it is cheating.

                                                                            Add MSG to a home dish is a solid case of cheating in cooking. It is precisely the analogy of adding pure research grade ethanol to a bottle of Scotch to increase its alcohol content.

                                                                            1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                              ipsedixit Dec 1, 2012 08:03 PM

                                                                              Ok, if you say so.

                                                                              1. re: ipsedixit
                                                                                Chemicalkinetics Dec 1, 2012 08:15 PM

                                                                                <Ok, if you say so.>

                                                                                It is one of those cases which you either know what is cheating or not. Like I said, I consider adding pure ethanol to a bottle of wine as cheating to wine making, just like adding MSG to dishes as cheating to home cooking. Exactly same analogy -- one try to add pure ethanol, and the other try to add a synthetic form of an amino acid. Frankly, to me, pouring research grade ethanol into grape juice ..... is just not real wine making.

                                                                                1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                                  montrealeater Dec 2, 2012 09:26 PM

                                                                                  OK. I am under the impression that MSG is a man-made form of something that occurs naturally in a lot of foods. Is this false? What I'm trying to get at is is it the same thing or not, just one is manufactured and one 'occurs'?

                                                                                  A few years ago I did a lot of reading on MSG (mostly on its rep as a 'bad' thing, allergen etc.) and found that there was little, if any, research to actually back any of it up. Based on this I bought some MSG at the frocery store and did a bunch of tests adding it to various foods. Still have it in my cupboard. I understand why to some it may be 'cheating' - some puritan part of my soul sees flavour-tossed-in-in-powder-form as somehow inferior to flavour-developed-over-lots-of-careful-cooking-time, but imo this is an illogical thought and I recognize it as such and ignore it.

                                                                                  Btw, MSG is a really fun ingredient to taste-test people with. Give them some canned soup, some with MSG and some without, or use tomato juice etc (almost anything will work) - very, vey rarely has anyone not been able to tell the difference. When you ask what the difference is they just say the one with MSG 'tastes better'.

                                                                                  In short, I heart MSG.

                                                                                  1. re: montrealeater
                                                                                    Chemicalkinetics Dec 2, 2012 10:25 PM

                                                                                    <I am under the impression that MSG is a man-made form of something that occurs naturally in a lot of foods.>

                                                                                    MSG is the salt form of glutamic acid, an amino acid. They are not exactly the same thing. Not quiet. MSG looks like this:


                                                                                    Glutamic acid looks like this:


                                                                                    They are similar enough, but not the same thing -- if they are really the same thing, then they would have the same chemical name, but obviously they do not have the same names -- exactly because they are not the same chemicals. On top of that, natural glutamic acids in proteins are almost exclusively in the L-form. In other words, not all glutamic acids are natural.

                                                                                    <some puritan part of my soul sees flavour-tossed-in-in-powder-form as somehow inferior to flavour-developed-over-lots-of-careful-cooking-time>

                                                                                    It isn't the inferior part which means it cheating. The natural vs synthetic is a separate and different topic than the "cheating" part. The two do not have to be related to one and other. Separate topics.

                                                                                    It isn't about the end. It is the path. As I have mentioned, I can pour pure research grade ethanol into a bottle of grape juice and have the same level of alcohol as wine. The research grade ethanol isn't any inferior by any mean, but the act of doing so, to me, is not true wine making.

                                                                                    1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                                      chefathome Dec 3, 2012 06:14 AM

                                                                                      <It isn't about the end. It is the path. As I have mentioned, I can pour pure research grade ethanol into a bottle of grape juice and have the same level of alcohol as wine. The research grade ethanol isn't any inferior by any mean, but the act of doing so, to me, is not true wine making.>

                                                                                      You know far more about this scientifically than I but I agree with this and would also place it in the cheating category.

                                                                                      1. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                                        helenhelen Dec 3, 2012 11:38 PM

                                                                                        i personally am also just not into eating synthetic "food". i am the type who reads ingredient labels and when i see chemical names, i tend to avoid.

                                                                                        also, isn't MSG very high in sodium?

                                                                                        1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                          Chemicalkinetics Dec 4, 2012 08:52 PM

                                                                                          <isn't MSG very high in sodium?>

                                                                                          True. MSG is one part sodium and one part glutamate. Table salt (NaCl) is one part sodium and one part chloride. On the other hand, it is believe that MSG is more tasteful than table salt. So we may able to use a smaller amount of MSG to substitute a larger amount of table salt. Thus, it may able to lower the sodium intake. Tough to say really.

                                                                                        2. re: Chemicalkinetics
                                                                                          montrealeater Dec 4, 2012 01:09 PM

                                                                                          Thanks for the info, I really did think the naturally occuring substance and the man-made one were, literally, exactly the same.

                                                                                          As for it being about the path and not the end result, I think that's a personal call. For me, if it tastes fkng great, and there isn't any actual rat poison in it, I don't mind how it got to taste that way. Wouldnt ethanol + grape juice taste horrible? If it tasted the same as wine, I'd probably happily drink it!

                                                                                          1. re: montrealeater
                                                                                            Chemicalkinetics Dec 4, 2012 08:57 PM

                                                                                            <As for it being about the path and not the end result, I think that's a personal call.>

                                                                                            Absolutely agree. It is a personal call.

                                                                                            <Wouldnt ethanol + grape juice taste horrible?>

                                                                                            Probably. It certainly will taste a bit sweet.

                                                                      4. p
                                                                        Puffin3 Nov 30, 2012 04:27 AM

                                                                        As I've posted before when it comes to cooking virtually any savory dish I always add a little squeeze of anchovy paste or a TBL of bottled clam juice. Done it for a couple of years. Roasts/chilies/scrambled eggs(not too much)/steaks, you name it. THAT is the secret to cooking savory dishes that 'pop' flavor wise. Good on you for trying it. Get a tube of anchovy paste. You can control the amount of anchovy more accurately.

                                                                        1. h
                                                                          helenhelen Dec 1, 2012 04:22 PM

                                                                          there is this mushroom powder you can buy from asian stores.. it's sometimes used instead of chemical MSG these day to lend umami flavour to food.

                                                                          also, you can try what vietnamese do: use fish sauce (no need for salt if you do this).. or other southeast asian countries will use some sort of fermented seafood product, like shrimp paste, for example.

                                                                          since i am vegetarian, i started to experiment with using fermented bean paste to try and get that umami that fish sauce gives to food.

                                                                          also: cheese, mushrooms, tomatoes, anything fermented. if you go to any asian supermarket, the shelves are lined with a ton of fermented products...

                                                                          15 Replies
                                                                          1. re: helenhelen
                                                                            chefathome Dec 1, 2012 04:27 PM

                                                                            Do you know what else it contains? I pulverize dried mushrooms and have not tried commercial mushroom powder. Just curious! :)

                                                                            1. re: chefathome
                                                                              helenhelen Dec 2, 2012 05:45 PM

                                                                              the ingredients on the pack my mom gave me the other day says:
                                                                              mushroom powder, salt, mushroom extract, vitamin B, calcium

                                                                              what do you use to pulverize dried mushrooms with? a coffee grinder, or..? and what kind of mushrooms?

                                                                              more umami ingredients: i almost always use onions (usually sauteed first) in my cooking, and often use garlic too. it's just what i grew up with, so i use it a lot. i read that garlic and onions lend umami taste too.

                                                                              also, when i add wine to tomato sauce, risotto, etc., i notice that it lends a richness to the food. i am assuming that must be umami, so wine seems to do it too...

                                                                              1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                cleopatra999 Dec 2, 2012 05:55 PM

                                                                                made a salad today of quinoa, mixed veggies, green onions, basil and cilantro. Dressed it with lemon and olive oil and a bit of salt. Tasted it and felt like it needed something. Remembering this thread I thought I would try some anchovy paste. What a difference! I am a believer too. Perhaps that tube of anchovy paste will actually get used up now, other than just in ceaser salad dressing. Thanks for enlightening me!

                                                                                1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                  chefathome Dec 2, 2012 07:42 PM

                                                                                  Interesting. I use my spice (coffee) grinder to pulverize a few kinds of dried mushrooms but especially porcini as they work so well like that. The I use that as part of a rub blend.

                                                                                  Wine is a good one; in fact, I use a lot of alcohols in cooking such as Port for reconstituting dried mushrooms or dried chiles. Sherry is lovely with mushrooms and as you do, both white and red wines in risottos and so on.

                                                                                  1. re: chefathome
                                                                                    helenhelen Dec 3, 2012 11:43 PM

                                                                                    i made chestnut and sage soup today from a recipe.. but i made some modifications, partly because i didn't have all of the ingredients on hand. the soup was very tasty and i realized i upped the umami in it by quite a bit:

                                                                                    sauteed more onion (doubled what the recipe called for)
                                                                                    used the aforementioned packaged mushroom powder + water in place of stock
                                                                                    de-glazed the pan with white wine (this was a key step which really added to the flavour!)

                                                                                    it definitely has that extra umami "oomph".

                                                                                    1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                      chefathome Dec 4, 2012 12:38 PM

                                                                                      That sounds really great! Your modifications sound delicious. I love deviating from recipes, too; I often use them for inspiration and/or a guideline.

                                                                                      1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                        goodhealthgourmet Dec 4, 2012 12:49 PM

                                                                                        i'm a big fan of mushroom powder - i make my own from porcini & shiitake. sun-dried tomato powder is also a great vegetarian umami ingredient.

                                                                                        1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                                          chefathome Dec 4, 2012 01:02 PM

                                                                                          That is what I do as well with dried mushrooms. They are the epitome of umami! :)

                                                                                          1. re: chefathome
                                                                                            montrealeater Dec 4, 2012 01:08 PM

                                                                                            Can anyone offer thoughts on a good variety of mushroom (powder)? People are mentioning porcini - is this the most flavourful?

                                                                                            1. re: montrealeater
                                                                                              chefathome Dec 4, 2012 01:13 PM

                                                                                              Porcini is my personal favourite. It dries so well and the flavour remains intact. It also seems to be an all purpose choice.

                                                                                              1. re: chefathome
                                                                                                CindyJ Dec 4, 2012 03:06 PM

                                                                                                So now I wonder... when Alice ate the bits of mushroom, did her size really change, or was it the umami that just left her FEELING so big?

                                                                                                1. re: CindyJ
                                                                                                  chefathome Dec 4, 2012 03:29 PM

                                                                                                  Good one! :)

                                                                                          2. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                                            helenhelen Dec 4, 2012 09:24 PM

                                                                                            i never thought of making my own before.. so i might try this next time so it has fewer additives than store bought stuff. how fine do you grind it?

                                                                                            1. re: helenhelen
                                                                                              goodhealthgourmet Dec 4, 2012 09:50 PM

                                                                                              i pulverize it to a fine powder - easy to do in a coffee grinder.

                                                                                              1. re: goodhealthgourmet
                                                                                                1sweetpea Dec 5, 2012 10:42 AM

                                                                                                As per a recipe in a major magazine a couple of summers ago, I made a blend of dried porcini mushrooms, kombu seaweed and katsuobushi (dried bonito tuna flakes). I pulverized them to a powder in my spice grinder and sprinkled atop 8-ounce burgers made in the oven (30% fat in the beef). Each burger was topped with crumbles of English Stilton then sprinkled with the umami powder and drizzled with a ruby port reduction. It was insanely decadent, so much so that I haven't made it since. My body is thanking me, but my taste buds are not!

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