Category Archives: msg

Roasted Garlic & Mustard Sourdough Soft Pretzels

thinner ropes = bigger holes, higher ratio of crust: interior, better for noshing with beer & sausage; thinner rope = no holes, better for slicing and making pretzel roll sandwiches

When Improvisation Fails, I Turn to Alton Brown

A few months ago, I tried making pretzel bites to go along with some cheese sauce I took to a Superbowl party, and they were a complete disaster. I thought I could just throw together a batch of no-knead dough, shape it into ropes, cut those into bite-sized pieces, boil them in a baking soda bath & bake them until they were brown. Voila: pretzel bites…right? Uh, no. Turns out, that’s a recipe for ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread.

Raw ugly lumps of soapy-tasting bread! Baked ugly lumps of soapy tasting bread!

Ugly Lumps of Soapy-Tasting Bread
(not likely to be a family favorite)

Thank god there was cheese sauce to dip them in, which just barely made them edible.*

I think my primary mistake was using too wet a dough. The no-knead dough depends on moisture to enable gluten formation. Making pretzels that don’t look like turds depends on dough at least stiff enough to hold the shape of a rope. Also, the wetter dough nearly threatened to dissolve in the alkali bath (which gives it the deep brown exterior, more on that below the jump) and absorbed way too much of the baking soda taste. Also also, they were overdone inside before the outside was brown. So by the afternoon of the day I baked them, they were beginning to get stale. Ugly lumps of soapy-tasting stale bread.

I decided to try again, this time using Alton Brown’s recipe for pretzels, which I adapted to use with my sourdough starter. Instead of bites, I made more traditionally-shaped pretzels because they were not designed for dipping, but for nibbling while wandering around at the 2011 World Expo of Beer in Frankenmuth. And since I was afraid plain pretzels without anything to dip them in might be a little boring, I decided to add a head of roasted garlic, some garlic powder, mustard powder, and msg to the dough. I was basically going for something like Gardetto’s mustard pretzels in soft pretzel form.

Peeling roasted garlic is kind of a pain. I kind of wish you could just buy it in a tube, like tomato or anchovy paste. Maybe you can? I would be so on board with outsourcing this step to the food industry.        Mashed the garlic up with melted butter. This shows the before & after becasue I made two separate batches to see if I could tell the difference between mustard powder and prepared Dijon. I could not.

Simple roasted garlic: wrap head of garlic in foil, place in 400-500F oven for ~45 minutes

This attempt was far more successful. The dough was stiff enough to hold the desired shape, they took on just enough of the baking soda flavor to taste like pretzels instead of bagels, and had a glossy, chewy crust and soft interior. And the garlic and mustard and msg gave them a slightly tangy, savory flavor.

they split a little while baking, but I think that makes them rustic & attractive.

If you’re the kind of food purist who refuses to eat garlic powder or msg, you can certainly omit those things and they should still be tasty. Or you can add whatever other herbs or spices or cheeses you want in your pretzels. Or leave them plain. The one thing you should NOT do is store them in a plastic bag. They were lovely the night before the Expo when I made them, but after a night in plastic, the crust got soggy and lost its glossy, chewy appeal. By the World Expo, they had transformed into dense and slightly clammy garlic & sourdough-flavored, pretzel-shaped hockey pucks. I should have known better. Alas.

*In case I never get around to posting recipes for the rest of the things I made for my defense: that cheese sauce is now my default for mac & cheese, too; I use the sharpest creamy cheddar I can find (cheddar so sharp it’s crumbly will make the sauce grainy) and two batches of sauce per pound of pasta (e.g. 1 lb pasta = 16 oz cheese and 24 oz. evaporated milk). You can just coat the pasta in the sauce and serve as is if you like your mac & cheese saucy or bake it for 30-40 minutes at 350 F if you prefer it casserole-style. Breadcrumbs optional.

On Browning and Lye

some other time, i'll do a baking soda/ baked baking soda/ lye comparison. Egg wash only, Baking soda bath only, Baking soda bath + Egg wash

Alton Brown’s recipe calls for boiling the pretzels in a baking soda bath and then brushing them with an egg wash. As both of those promote browning, I decided to try a tiny experiment to see how much each step was contributing to the crust. The egg wash-only pretzel was a great illustration of the importance of the alkali bath—it barely browned. The boiled-only pretzel browned nicely, but—although it’s hard to tell from the picture—it had a much more matte finish. So the egg wash is what provides the gloss.

Traditional Bavarian pretzels are dipped in diluted lye before baking (a mixture called Natronlauge which produces a Laugenbretzel). Supposedly, this technique was discovered by accident in 1839 at the Munich Royal Cafe when a baker by the name of Anton Nepomuk Pfanenbrenner was preparing pretzels while the kitchen was being cleaned. He meant to brush them with a sugar water solution, but accidentally used the sodium hydroxide cleaning solution instead. They came out of the oven with a glorious deep brown patina and distinctive, delicious taste.

You can buy food-grade lye online, but it’s a harsh corrosive that must be handled with gloves and lab goggles. If it comes in contact with your skin, it will make you peel and bleed. And I’m not entirely sure it’s safe to boil (lye fumes, anyone?) so the boiling and soaking may become separate steps. But despite the fuss involved (or maybe because of it?) many people swear by lye as the only way to produce “authentic” pretzels. 

When it comes to peeling, bleeding skin, I say screw authenticity. Baking soda will give you results like the ones you see above. If you’re not satisfied with that, you can make a slightly stronger alkali by baking the baking soda. I tried that when I made the pretzel bites, and thought they came out bitter and soapy tasting. Of course, that may have been due to the too-soft dough. I may try that again the next time I make pretzels, but I thought the regular baking soda worked just fine. For more on baked baking soda, see Harold McGee

Recipe: Sourdough Soft Pretzels (adapted from Alton Brown)
for 8 ballpark-sized, 16 medium-sized, or 24 fist-sized soft pretzels

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed 100% hydration sourdough starter*
  • 3/4 cups warm water (110-114 F)
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 7-8 cups bread flour (or more, as needed)
  • 2 Tablespoons sugar (or honey or malt powder or other sweetener)
  • 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
  • 1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons) active dry yeast (optional)
  • herbs, spices, etc. (optional. I used 2 heads of roasted garlic, 2 t. garlic powder, 4 t. mustard powder or 2 T. dijon mustard, and 2 t. msg)
  • oil for coating rising bowl(s) and baking sheets
  • 2/3 cup baking soda for every 10 cups of water used in boiling bath
  • 1 egg for egg wash
  • coarse salt for sprinkling

*if you don’t have a sourdough starter, add another package of active dry yeast and 2 1/4 cups more water and flour (a total of 2 packages or 4 1/2 t. yeast, 3 cups of water, and at least 9 1/4 cups of flour)

Method:

1. If using roasted garlic, mash it into the melted butter to form a smooth paste.

2. Whisk together the starter, water, yeast, and garlic-butter mixture, and then add the flour, sugar, salt, and any other seasonings you want.

3. Knead the dough until it forms a smooth ball, adding more flour if necessary to make a stiff dough that does not stick to you. For the chewiest pretzels, knead for 15 minutes until you get a baker’s windowpane.

4. Coat the mixing bowl lightly with oil, place the ball of dough in the bowl, and turn to coat. Cover and let rise for 3-24 hours, or until doubled in size. The longer you let it rise, the more sourdough flavor will develop. However, if you want to wait more than 24 hrs before baking, you may want to refrigerate it to prevent it from becoming too sour & retarding the oven spring.

5. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 F and bring 10 cups of water to boil with 2/3 cup of baking soda.

6. Divide the dough into as many balls as you want—I used 110 g./3.8 oz portions of dough to make twenty-four pretzels (each about 3 1/2 oz after baking). Shape each ball into a rope by rolling it on a clean surface. Make each rope into a large U, and then fold the long pieces down like crossed arms.

if the dough won't stick to itself, you can use a little egg wash to "glue" the strands togetherlots of theories on the origin of the shape--my favorite is that they were shaped like arms in prayer and given as a reward to children to encourage them to learn their catechism  like the "kosher" bagel, the pretzel was traditionally seen as a lenten food because it is traditionally made with no fat or egg in the dough

Or if you want to do the classic twisted shape, see this guide at The Kitchn. Or cut the ropes into 1” pieces for pretzel bites. Or make circles, like bagels. Or letters. Or whatever.

7. One or two at a time, gently place the pretzels in the boiling baking soda bath. Boil for 30 seconds to a minute, turning halfway through. Using a spatula or slotted spoon, remove to a colander to drain for a few seconds and then transfer to a baking sheet coated in oil or lined with parchment paper.

intially, the pretzels sunk to the bottom and occasionally stuck to the pot; just gently nudge them lose and they'll float to the surface the unboiled guy is hanging out up there in the left corner. I used a reddish kosher salt from somewhere in Utah

8. Whisk a raw egg with a tablespoon or two of water or milk, and brush the tops of the pretzels. Sprinkle with coarse salt.

9. Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until the crust is a deep, glossy brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Consume immediately, or store in a paper bag. Plastic/airtight containers will destroy the crust.

Alain’s Winter Squash Soup with Homemade Croutons

both garnishes totally optional; croutons obviously also good for other applications, and yeah, i know: clean those plates!  

How I discovered squash soup…twice

The first time I had butternut squash soup—at a restaurant outside of DC c. 2001—it was a minor revelation. Up until that point, I’d only had winter squash in sweet things, mostly custardy pies and spiced quick breads or snack cakes. Even after eating the whole bowl, I wasn’t entirely sure whether I liked it, but I definitely liked the idea of it.

penguin dude back there still needs a name. I'm thinking "Geoffrey"I found a recipe in Deborah Madison’s Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone that involves roasting the whole butternut squash, halved and with the seeds scooped out, along with a whole head of garlic and a couple of onions wrapped in foil, until all the vegetables are tender and slightly caramelized and then pureeing them with just enough broth to make the mixture smooth. That still sounds incredible to me—roasted garlic! caramelized onion! no squash peeling required! But honestly, I never really liked the soup it produced. It was okay, I guess, but I never really wanted to eat very much of it. I’d usually make a fresh loaf of bread to go along with it and that also sounded like the perfect combination, but once I’d consumed as much of the soup as the bread could absorb, I never really wanted to finish the bowl.

So Alain’s soup was another revelation. It was the starter course at an annual Thanksgiving-season dinner party/potluck where the hosts make so much amazing food that everything the guests bring is basically unnecessary and redundant, but it’s all so damn good that the only reasonable course of action is to eat yourself into a Coma of Delicious Regret. And I knew this—I had just watched John pan-fry these giant mashed potato dumplings filled with pulled pork until they were golden and crisp on the outside and Niki had just brought a big pot full of slow-braised red cabbage down from her apartment on the 2nd floor and they had also made all the classic holiday fare—a glistening turkey and fresh cranberry relish perfumed with orange zest and this gravy that involves simmering a whole lemon in the turkey’s juices, which gets served in a teapot because gravy boats aren’t big enough (and which actually had to be refilled before people came back for seconds because everyone just wanted to pour it over everything on their plates). And then there was everything the dozen or so guests had brought on top of that. But I couldn’t help myself—I had a second helping of the soup. 

just after stirring the milk inIt is somehow both velvety rich and ethereally light. Even though I’ve been making it all winter and Brian knows exactly what’s in it, the recent rutabaga incident has made him sort of suspicious, so last night after he tasted a spoonful, he immediately asked how much butter I’d put in it. When I said “None,” he looked more suspicious and said, “Okay, how much oil?”

None. The only fat in the soup is what’s in the milk and the stock—so you could, using a fat-free broth or bouillon and fat-free milk, make it without any fat at all. Alain says that the best milk to use is soy milk, both because the slight nuttiness is a welcome complement to the squash and it makes the soup creamy but even more ethereal. I usually use regular milk because that’s what I have on hand and it’s also delicious. If you wanted something more substantial or decadent-tasting, you could substitute cream or half and half. The only other ingredients are squash, salt and pepper.

And it’s really easy. You do have to peel the squash, but as it turns out, that’s not any more difficult than scooping the flesh out of the peel once it’s cooked—at least for butternut, peeling acorn squash is kind of a pain. To make the peeling easier, you can cut the squash in half and steam it in the microwave it for a couple of minutes with a little bit of water and then let it cool until you can just pull the tough rind away.

garlic, parmesan, and berb croutons

A Swan Song for Stale Bread

I learned to make croutons when I worked at a Baker’s Square during one of my summer breaks in college. Serving house-made croutons wasn’t restaurant policy or anything; we did stock packaged croutons provided by the company and used those some of the time. But we’d also save all the ends of the bread we used for sandwiches and whenever we had a little extra time, we’d make them into croutons. It’s still my go-to recipe for stale bread when I have it, and the croutons it makes are so much better than store-bought croutons that I occasionally pick up a discounted day-old loaf from the store just for the purpose of crouton-making. 

This hardly merits the name “recipe”—it’s more a list of general guidelines: cube the bread, add some fat and flavor, bake until crisp and lightly browned. I always use at least one kind of dried and powdered allium (garlic, onion, and/or shallot), something umami-rich (parmesan cheese, nutritional yeast, and/or msg), and some herbs (usually parsley, thyme, rosemary and/or dill). Paprika or pimentón and buttermilk powder also make nice additions. If you want “Ranch” flavored croutons, use buttermilk powder, garlic powder, minced green onion, dill, and msg. Bake in a hot oven (400-450F) for 12-20 minutes, stirring midway through and rotating the pans to promote even browning.

Recipe: Alain’s Winter Squash Soup peeled

  • 1 1/2-2 lbs winter squash (butternut, acorn, sugar pumpkin, carnival, etc.)
  • 4 cups water or broth (I usually eyeball this by filling the pot to just below the steamer)
  • 1 cup milk (soy recommended, but anything goes)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • a pinch of ground sage, nutmeg, or cinnamon (optional)
  • diced green onion to garnish (optional)

1. Heat the water or broth in a large pot while you peel and cube the squash. I put a steamer tray in the pot—that’s not necessary, but I think it makes it easier to get it out to puree it.

halved, mid-way through seed removal and diced into ~1" cubes

2. Steam or boil the squash for 15-25 minutes or until very tender—you should be able to pierce the flesh with a fork without any resistance.

Feb 2010 II 083Feb 2010 II 085

3. Remove the solids to a blender or food processor and puree, adding broth as necessary to make it blend smoothly.

Feb 2010 II 086 Feb 2010 II 090

4. Return to the pot. You could strain it if you wanted to, but that’s kind of a pain and if the squash is tender enough and you blend it well enough, it should be completely silky without straining.

5. Return to a gentle simmer, cover, and let cook another 15-20 minutes. While not strictly necessary, this seems to make the flavor richer, sweeter, and somehow…deeper.

6. Stir in the milk, remove from heat, and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Recipe: Croutons sometimes the loaves are as cheap ast $.50, which makes these So Much Cheaper than store-bought croutons. the ketchup bottle was a temporary olive oil container that failed because it seemed to sort of...seep? it was really oily and gross to the touch.

  • ~6 cups stale bread, cut into 1/2”-1” cubes (that’s about how much one big loaf yields, obviously  sometimes you’ll have less—I usually just eyeball everything anyway but the following amounts offer some general guidelines)
  • 4 T. liquid fat—oil or melted lard or clarified butter
  • 2 t. salt—I don’t use kosher for this because, like with popcorn, you want finer grains that get better distributed and stick better
  • 1 t. ground pepper
  • 2 t. garlic powder or onion powder
  • 1 T. dried parsley
  • 1 t. thyme, rosemary, dill, or a combination
  • 3 T. finely grated parmesan cheese and/or 2 T. nutritional yeast flakes and/or 1 t. msg
  • 1 t. paprika or pimentón (optional)
  • 2 T. buttermilk powder (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 400F and line two baking sheets with foil. Spray foil lightly with cooking spray if seasoneddesired—that will help prevent the croutons from sticking to it.

2. Drizzle bread cubes with oil and toss to coat lightly.

3. Add the seasonings and toss to coat evenly. Spread on the prepared sheets in a single layer.

4. Bake for 15-20 minutes. After 7 or 8 minutes, remove the pans and stir the croutons and rotate the pans so the croutons get evenly toasted and browned.

5. Let cool completely before placing in an airtight container, like a zip-top bag. Will keep almost indefinitely, but best within 4-6 weeks.

 before bakingafter baking

Things That Won’t Kill You Volume 3: MSG

From Flickr user "The Other Dan" taken in Corktown, Toronto 

Unlike juice, which has sort of a mixed reputation even among contemporary nutritionists and doctors, MSG has been consistently demonized. Most people can’t tell you why, they just know that it’s bad. If pressed, they might tell you that it’s "unnatural," that food manufacturers put it in processed foods to con people into eating "junk," that it’s basically salt (which I’ll address in a future post in this series), or that it gives some people headaches. Or they might just gesture to the fact that it’s common knowledge that MSG is basically some kind of poison—after all, why would Chinese restaurants be so eager to reassure you that they don’t use it if it were completely benign?

A recent commercial for Campbell’s New Select Harvest Light (which is the sort of self-satirizing product name I’d expect to find in David Foster Wallace’s fiction) suggests that even if people don’t know what MSG stands for, they know that it’s bad—potentially bad enough to deter people from buying a particular brand. Reading from a Progresso Light can, blonde #1 gets through "monosodium" but stumbles on "glutamate"—fortunately, the rainbow coalition includes an Asian woman who can translate that jargon into something we all understand: "That’s MSG."

Although people may still associate it primarily with Chinese restaurant cooking, the Campbell’s ad hints at its broader prevalence—MSG and other forms of glutamic acid are omnipresent in processed foods. They’re especially likely to be found in foods designed to taste like things that have a lot of naturally-occurring glutamate (or similar molecules like inosinate or guanylate). Stock, broth, and bouillon often contain MSG, as does anything cheese-flavored or ranch-flavored, like Doritos, which actually contain five different forms of glutamate. I taste it the most in instant ramen and Chex Mix, but even though I know what it tastes like on its own, I can’t always tell when something contains it or not. When used sparingly, it may not even be possible to discern because whether the glutamate in a dish comes from a mushroom or a salt, once it’s dissolved in liquid or on your tongue, it’s the exact same molecule:

from Wikipedia, showing up weirdly gray here

So even people who think it’s "bad" and expect to feel bad after eating it probably eat MSG, at least from time to time, without even knowing it, and without suffering any negative effects.

The Chinese Restaurant Syndrome Myth

The first person to suspect that MSG might be unhealthy was a Chinese-American doctor named Ho Man Kwok, who complained in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine in 1968 that he experienced numbness radiating from the back of his neck down his arms, weakness, and heart palpitations after eating at Chinese restaurants. He had never experienced those symptoms after eating at restaurants in China, and hypothesized that they were due to either an excess of alcohol, sodium, or MSG in American Chinese cooking. The MSG explanation caught on, with one of the response letters estimating that as many as 30% of Americans regularly suffered bad reactions to MSG. The NEJM ran the letters with the title "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome," and by the next year, articles in Science and The New York Times were referring to the syndrome and its MSG etiology as verified facts:

"monosodium glutamate, which has been pinpointed as cause of ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’ " (NYT May 10, 1969 Page 33, Column 1)

Last year, the New York Times ran an article that attempted to set the record straight. They quoted the daughter of Chinese restaurant owners in New York City in the 1970s, who remembered the publicity around "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" as a "nightmare":

“Not because we used that much MSG — although of course we used some — but because it meant that Americans came into the restaurant with these suspicious, hostile feelings.”

From Flickr user Chinese restaurants were among the first in the U.S. to use MSG, which was mass-produced in Japan beginning in the early 20th Century after a scientist named Kikunae Ikeda isolated glutamate from seaweed-based soup stocks. In the 1940s, it had become increasingly common in a number of processed foods and cooking styles around the world, including in the U.S. American soldiers who’d tasted Japanese army rations generally agreed that they tasted better, and the difference was widely attributed to MSG. As the war industries were refitted for peacetime manufacturing, including the greatly-expanded industrial food system, there was a greater need for flavor enhancers that would make food taste good even if it was canned or wrapped in plastic and transported long distances. MSG was great at that. It was also sold for home cooks to use under the brand name Accent, which is still available in the spice aisle of many grocery stores, and as a major component of Maggi sauce, a Swiss brand, and Goya Sazon seasoning blends, popular in the U.S. primarily with Latino/a and Caribbean immigrants.

It’s not entirely clear why Chinese restaurants were singled out, aside from the random chance of Kwok having weird feelings after eating at them. MSG was then, and still is, everywhere in American food. I suspect that it has something to do with a latent or repressed xenophobia. However, the success of Chinese restauranteurs and the fact that MSG didn’t really cause any physical symptoms were probably just as important—Cuban restaurants, where pork shoulder is often rubbed with a mixture of spices including MSG, weren’t nearly as common as Chinese restaurants. And if it had been called "chicken stock, Doritos, bologna, and Stove Top stuffing syndrome," that would have been far more difficult to accept for all the people who ate those things regularly without experiencing strange numbness and heart palpitations.

Which, of course, they generally don’t.

That’s Exactly what Forty Years of Research Has Found

No study has ever been able to find statistically significant correlations between the consumption of MSG and any of the symptoms associated with what was eventually re-named "MSG symptom complex" in 1995. According to a review article published in Clinical and Experimental Allergy in April 2009:

Descriptions of MSG-induced asthma, urticaria, angio-oedema, and rhinitis have prompted some to suggest that MSG should be an aetiologic consideration in patients presenting with these conditions…. Despite concerns raised by early reports, decades of research have failed to demonstrate a clear and consistent relationship between MSG ingestion and the development of these conditions.

Even studies involving self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects failed to find a significant increase in the frequency of MSG-attributed symptoms. In one study, only 2 of 130 self-identified "MSG-sensitive" subjects responded to MSG in 4/4 treatments. Additionally, no one’s ever found any clues as to why MSG, which is just the isolated form of a naturally-occurring amino acid salt, would cause numbness or heart palpitations.

The Fat Rat Caveat

Peanut & Missy, from Flickr use "a soft world" 

A decade before Kwok’s letters on "Chinese Restaurant Syndrome" were published, some scientists began doing research on the effects of MSG on mouse brains. In 1968, a neuroscientist named John Olney, also known for his work on aspartame, attempted to replicate earlier studies where mice were fed massive amounts of MSG via feeding tube. The most dramatic result wasn’t in the brain, where he was looking, but their bodies: the mice fed MSG became "obese" (which had a different medical definition in 1968 than it does now, but still referred to unusual fatness). Given that glutamate registers as "deliciousness," one might assume that the difference was that the MSG-fed rats just liked their food a lot more and ate past satiety, but the MSG was administered by feeding tube, so taste shouldn’t have had anything to do with it. Based on his work, manufacturers voluntarily agreed to stop using MSG in baby food.

Subsequent studies have repeated the finding: mice and rats fed large amounts of MSG gain weight, and it’s not entirely clear why. As far as I can tell, the amount of food they consume is generally controlled, although if they have free access to water, perhaps they’re drinking like crazy to make up for amounts of MSG as high as 10 g per day, out of 100 g food total. However, the mice in most of the studies are fed amounts of MSG that far exceed what a human even surviving on instant ramen and Doritos alone would consume. There’s no evidence that the amounts typically consumed as a flavoring do any damage to people, no matter how young. People all over the world eat MSG all the time, both in processed foods and home-cooked foods, seemingly without suffering any negative effects. The growing consensus among people who’ve looked at the research is that

"toxicologists have concluded that MSG is a harmless ingredient for most people, even in large amounts" (Harold McGee On Food and Cooking 2004).

But it does seem like vast amounts of MSG can cause weight gain, sluggishness, and brain lesions in the retinal and hypothalamus regions. I’d advise against getting 10% of your daily intake of food from MSG.

 A Nutritional Yeast Connection?

from Flickr user A random suspicion I haven’t been able to confirm is that MSG might be similar in many ways to nutritional yeast, the worst-named ingredient in the world. Nutritional yeast, also known as "nootch," is primarily used by vegans and some vegetarians as a flavoring agent that adds a slightly cheesy, deeply savory flavor to things ranging from popcorn to sauces to seitan. It also makes a tasty breading for tofu.

According to Wikipedia, "Modern commercial MSG is produced by [bacterial] fermentation of starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses." Nutritional yeast, on the other hand, is "produced by culturing yeast with a mixture of sugarcane and beet molasses, then harvesting, washing, drying it." Obviously whatever bacteria they use to ferment MSG results in a different product, but I wonder if they aren’t just different iterations of the same process. Ferment some sugar and molasses; in one case, extract the salt composed of sodium cations and glutamate anions and ditch the bacteria that do the fermenting; in the other, keep the yeast. Perhaps? If anyone knows more about the similarities or differences between the two, let me know.

From Flickr user "Fenchurch!"It definitely seems like MSG doesn’t have any of the nutritional benefits of nutritional yeast, which is full of vitamins and minerals and protein, but it would still be a delightful irony to discover that the maligned substance behind a million Chinese restaurant disclaimers is related or comparable in any way to a crunchy, natural food bulk bin staple.

I don’t use MSG often, largely because I prefer the yeasty flavor and nutritional benefits of nootch, but I don’t think homemade chex mix is nearly as good without a teaspoon or so of MSG, and a little bit can perk up lackluster soups and sauces. Most grocery stores still sell Accent, and increasingly carry Maggi sauce and Goya Sazon as well. You can also buy giant bags of it at Asian markets. If you use too much, it will make food excessively salty and overpower subtler flavors, so use a light hand and taste as you go.

More tips on how to use MSG and recipes in future entries.

Feeling “umami”: On taste, subjectivity, and metaphor

The Modern Four Taste Orthodoxy

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely taken to be gospel truth until 2002, when the taste receptors for glutamate were identified. Glutamate, and the "umami" flavor it imparts to foods like seaweed, bacon, parmesan cheese, and Doritos, was first identified and isolated by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But the four-taste model was so dominant that umami’s status as a distinct taste was considered "controversial" until its molecular basis was confirmed almost a century later. Here’s the description of umami in a book titled Sensory Processes published in 2002 (before the taste receptors were identified):

Umami originated from a glutamate derived from seaweed. The chemical substance is commonly known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and, by itself, has no odor and an unusual taste that is approximated, so they say, by appropriate combinations of the four primary taste qualities. Whether umami is a result of the unique combination of the four tastes or an independent classification of is own is open to debate (176).

Oh, they and the things they say.

Umami’s been gaining traction—Kikkkoman’s current advertising campaign is "discover umami"(.com)—but it hasn’t quite arrived. This past Sunday on Iron Chef America, one of the judges said he detected some "umami" in a coconut-based soup, and then he had to define it for the other judges (and perhaps the audience?). His first stab was to call it an "illusory" taste, although he did follow that up by ranking it with "sweet, salty and sour," so perhaps he actually meant something more like "ineffable." Either way it shows how dominant the classical four tastes still are.

Except "classical" isn’t quite right word, because it turns out the idea that we only experience four distinct tastes is actually a pretty recent invention—more recent than Ikeda’s "discovery" of umami, actually. Traditional Chinese medicine named five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, each one corresponding with one of the five elements or movements that are omnipresent in early Chinese thought. Aristotle claimed there were only two, which doesn’t come as that much of a surprise given his characteristic love of dualities. Just as he divided visual perception into the "fundamental colors" black and white, which contain all the elements of all the other colors we perceive, Aristotle thought the whole range of gustatory sensations derived from the "fundamental tastes" of sweetness and bitterness. He also proposed a second-order classification of seven "primary flavors" that corresponded with his rainbow of seven "primary colors": sweet (which included fatty or oily), bitter, salty, harsh, pungent, astringent, and acidic or sour. Hard to say now what exactly the difference was between harsh, pungent, and astringent—I suppose the latter might be something like the tannins in tea and red wine while "pungent" instantly evokes blue cheese although it often just acts as a modifier rather than a descriptor—a pungent smell is strong, not necessarily strongly any particular thing. It’s hard to even think of those things as taste categories on the same level as "sweet" or "sour."

But one question that raises is whether or not it’s hard to think of them that way because there’s some objective difference between sweetness and astringency or because it’s just unfamiliar to think of "astringent" as a primary taste category. Certainly tannins cause a particular reaction on people’s tongues—is that less of a distinct taste experience than the reaction caused by sugars?

Colors are a useful parallel, again. A linguistics professor I had at NYU told us about this experiment that my casual googling is not coming up with, but here’s the gist: if you give children a set of colored tiles and tell them sort them into as many piles as they want, by color, there are predictable, reliable differences between the number of piles they make that correspond to the number of primary colors in their primary language. So, for example, English-speaking kids generally put all hues of blue in one pile while Russian-speaking kids usually separate lighter blues from darker blues because they have two "primary color" words for those shades. It’s one of the classic examples of how language can shape how we perceive the world rather than just reflecting it. Also a reason why translation is always imperfect. 

Henning taste tetrahedronGetting back to the four taste orthodoxy, that was something a German psychologist named Hans Henning  came up with in 1916. He devised a ""taste tetrahedron" with each of the four tastes he thought were primary at the four vertexes. The idea was that flavors could be conceptually mapped onto geometric plane based on which of the primary flavors they were comprised of—a flavor relying on two of the primary tastes would be located on the edge between those two vertexes. Flavors that used three would be on the surface between the relevant three points. And the tetrahedron was hollow, according to Henning, because no substance could produce all four taste sensations. So while taste itself was three-dimensional, tastes were two-dimensional at best.

Minor digression: I suspect Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth century French gourmand who’s responsible for the cliche "you are what you eat" (well, ish, the problem of translation rears its head again; what he wrote was Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es, which is closer to, "Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are") would disagree, and name as exhibit A something involving veal stock (a sweet-sour-salty-bitter cabbage soup maybe?). Speaking of veal stock, Brillat-Savarin also sought to identify the special savory quality of "the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water," or functionally, umami. His word was osmazome. And surely Brillat-Savarin wasn’t the first to muse on the particular deliciousness of dashi, truffles, and tomatoes—especially after they’ve been cooked down into a rich sauce. So the 1908 "discovery" of umami turns out to be, like so many "discoveries" (*cough* America *cough*), basically a trumped-up (re)-christening.

Henning pruned away tastes like "astringent" and all the shades of flavor produced by the almost infinite variety of aromas we can detect because those aren’t, strictly speaking, "taste" sensations. The prickling and burning sensations caused by capcaicins (which make peppers "hot"), the puckering induced by tannins, and the palpable richness of unctuous or viscous foods are all tactile sensations. And aromas, obviously, are processed by the separate-but-related chemical sense of smell. As most people know, particularly if they’ve ever been seriously congested, smells are what turn functionally one or two-dimensional taste sensations into much more complicated (and enjoyable) perceptual experiences. Laboratory experiments in the early twentieth century that involved delicately swabbing the tongues of blindfolded, noseplugged subjects confirmed Henning’s taste quartet. In those conditions, the only things most tasters could reliably identify were sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.

More science to the rescue?

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "taste" should actually be seen as a multi-sensory experience, those experiments were also limited by the descriptive vocabularies of the participants and the kinds of compounds applied to their tongues. Did the researchers try compounds that would have tasted alkaline or metallic or umami to most people? Even if they did, maybe people wouldn’t identify something like "umami" (or "osmazone") because they didn’t have a word for it, not because they didn’t taste it. Or maybe if they did, they called it "savory," and that was conflated with "salty."

Umami is, if not illusory, still notoriously difficult to isolate when tasting food and even harder to characterize. Perhaps part of that is because the compound itself has no smell, although neither do sugar or salt, and perhaps another part is that its description always ends up sounding more evaluative than descriptive—I mean, the Japanese term literally means "delicious." On the Iron Chef America episode I mentioned earlier, another judge playing with his new vocabulary joked, "Ooh, mommy!" which was dumb and irritating, but not actually completely off-base in terms of trying to describe the particular sensation imparted by glutamate. Try eating msg plain sometime (it’s available as Accent(tm) in the spice section of most grocery stores and in bags ranging from a few ounces to multiple pounds in Asian markets. And no, it won’t kill you, which is a post I’ll get to some other time)—it tastes like the exact intersection between Doritos, instant ramen, and Heinz ketchup. How do you describe that? It’s like the taste of tastiness.

More recent research, most of it enabled by the sequencing of the human genome, suggests that four tastes is far two few. While scientists haven’t identified them all yet, they now estimate that there are probably about 40 distinct taste receptors (and 300 distinct olfactory receptors), at least half of which are devoted to detecting bitter tastes. They’ve also discovered a number of complications in terms of how chemicals react with those receptors, and how the response triggered by different chemicals is perceived and processed in the brain. Even with other senses muffled, it now seems that people can indeed identify metallic, alkaline, and umami in addition to the big four. If we have trouble differentiating between all the different kinds of "bitter" we can taste, that’s probably because we tend to be averse to those tastes and have little practice trying to distinguish or name them, not a lack of complexity at the level of the tongue.

Additionally, tastes interact, even without the "interference" of smell or feeling. Sour flavors dampen bitter flavors (the role of the lime in a gin and tonic) and if you have a lot of something sour, it may make other foods or even relatively "neutral" substances like water taste sweet. There are also substances in specific foods that can mess with your taste receptors, which is why artichokes give anything else you eat for a while after an additional subtle sweetness (part of why it’s a great appetizer ingredient). The most dramatic example is the "miracle fruit" people got all excited about last year that contains a protein that temporarily binds to "sweet" taste receptors and reacts with acidic compounds, meaning you can eat plain raw lemons and they taste like the sweetest candy. (Note: it is kind of cool to be able to scarf down lime wedges like potato chips, but eating that much acid turned out to be sort of a regrettable decision for a lot of the people at our miracle fruit party. The remainder of the tablets we bought have languished in a drawer for over a year.)

To complicate matters even further, not all people taste the same things the same way. "Supertasters" are highly sensitive to bitter and spicy compounds, and some people really do have a "sweet tooth" that makes them inclined like sweeter foods more than most people, which could reflect a different perception of sugars anywhere between their tongue and their brain. Related: some fifteen percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

And, as most people know from personal experience, the way people respond to the same foods may change over time—I drank about a hundred mochas when I was fifteen and had an irrepressible crush on a Starbucks employee, which stopped me from ordering the hot chocolate I actually wanted because I didn’t want to seem like a little girl. Gradually, aided no doubt by the fact that mochas are as close to hot chocolate as a coffee drink can possibly be, I came to like the coffee flavor. Within another year or so, I honestly preferred my coffee black (and personally delivered by a particular waiter at my local Denny’s).

But all that said, I can’t quite get behind the idea that we’re all special snowflakes and taste is an entirely, or even primarily subjective, individual experience. I just don’t buy that in five years or so, I will be able to "tell [a restaurant] my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and [have them] design a meal just for my DNA," the way this Gourmet magazine article suggests.

Fill in the blank: My, you’re ____________! A) sour B) salty C) bitter D) sweet E) umami

Surely it’s not a purely arbitrary coincidence that the four tastes Henning settled on were part of basically every attempt to classify the primary tastes from ancient China to ancient Greece to Restoration England. Would anyone, ever, propose a four-taste system that included only harsh, pungent, astringent, and sour? Or metallic, umami, spicy, and oily?

It seems odd, and potentially significant that the four tastes Henning canonized are also the tastes with the most widespread metaphorical use. They’re not just taste sensations, they’re part of our basic descriptive currency for emotional states, facial expressions, personalities, reactions, gestures, and the things that prompt those things. Sourpuss. Salty humor. A bitter pill. A sweet smile. And they’re used similarly in other languages—the French refer to someone being overly polite or affable as "Etre tout sucre tout miel," or "being all sugar all honey," and the phrase "sweet as sugar/honey" in Arabic (ahla-mina s’sukkar/l’asal) means the same thing it does in English. I’m sure there are a million more examples, but foreign languages aren’t my strong suit.

Other flavors can be, and often are, used metaphorically, especially "spicy" (which, remember, was a common candidate for the fifth spot in many pre-20th C. classification schemes), but few of them have permeated to the point of idiom and cliche the way the big four have. You might describe a person as astringent or a prospect as savory, but both involve a taking a little poetic license. Others are even further afield—I guess I can imagine a metallic facial expression or alkaline feeling, but I think you’d need other context to help you out there and I’m really not sure what it would mean to describe something other than food as "umami."

At least one thing the metaphorical use of taste seems to suggest is a minimum amount of shared taste perception. When Shakespeare used the phrase "honey tongue," no one in his audience needed to have heard the phrase before to understand what he was getting at. With all due respect to individual genetic and cultural differences, it seems to make more sense that  people would largely share the same taste experiences than that they would differ, at least in extreme ways. It seems only natural that we should all be repulsed by the bitter poisons that would kill us, and that our understanding of what sorts of feelings are involved in and communicated by a "bitter glance" is part of that common taste experience.

So, by way of explaining the title of the blog, I didn’t leave out tastes like umami and metallic and alkaline (and however many more have yet to be named) because I wanted to reify the outdated idea that we only have four basic tastes. Instead, I wanted to invoke the dimensions of taste that seem most central to our experiences with food and also impart clear metaphorical connotations. The twinned subjects of this blog—the food I make and eat and my experiences and concerns as a cook and an eater—will both be sour sometimes, salty often, bitter occasionally, and hopefully sweet at least from time to time. I would try to be and feel and say umami things too, but I’m not sure I know how.

References not linked above:

Aristotle and William Alexander Hammond. 1902. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Digitized 2006 by Google.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. 1825. The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. Fayette Robinson. Digitized 2004 by ebooks@Adelaide and Project Gutenberg

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.