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MSG Is the Key to the Best Umami-Filled Salad Dressing

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When I developed this recipe for jalapeño ranch, I made two batches of the dressing—one with MSG, the other without—and passed it around the test kitchen. The vast majority of our food editors favored the version with MSG. Why? Because MSG is umami, a flavor that feels more like a sensation, bringing an inexplicable complexity to dishes. I’ve since started adding MSG to every salad dressing I make. Try it once and you will too.

First, what is MSG?

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, is made from glutamic acid, an amino acid found inside all creatures great and small. It doesn’t matter if you’re a beefsteak tomato (if you’re reading this, I love you) or a human being: If you contain protein, you have glutamic acid. Usually this acid is firmly stuck to the protein, but sometimes it breaks free (yippee!) and becomes, um, free glutamic acid or a free glutamate. Free glutamate = Big Flavor. Think of the foods you usually associate with umami: aged cheese, seaweed, soy sauce, mushrooms, miso. All of these have high amounts of free glutamates, which explains why they’re so tasty even on their own.

Way back in the 1900s (like, even before the Titanic), Japanese company Ajinomoto figured out a way to mass produce glutamates. And just like that, Big Flavor could be found in a bottle. It was pure, concentrated umami—not that different looking from salt or sugar—that you could sprinkle over everything. Today MSG is in everything from Doritos to mayonnaise to a panda-shaped jar in the grocery store. (Fun fact: The panda has a name. It’s AjiPanda.)

But wait, but isn’t it, like, bad for you?

Welcome. I was waiting for you. Yes, MSG is a processed food. No, Chinese takeout that might be cooked with MSG doesn’t give you a headache. Why do many people think it does? This ingredient has a complicated history in Western countries, which you can read more about here, but in short: If you’ve eaten a bag of almost any snack food from the store and survived, then you can handle the occasional sprinkle of MSG.

So why is MSG such a salad dressing MVP?

It provides depth and balance.

I’ve blessed every dressing I make with MSG, be it honey mustard, green goddess, or spicy Caesar. It smooths out the sharp edges of acidity, lightens the fattiness from oil or mayo, and brings a rich savory note to greens and vegetables.

In this ranch dressing, MSG transforms plain Greek yogurt into something far greater—a cheesier, nuttier version of itself—reminiscent of bottled ranch but simultaneously better. I was being a considerate recipe developer by saying the MSG is optional, but you and both I know that is a lie. It is mandatory!

It adds umami with no strings attached.

If free glutamates can be found in other foods, why not just use those instead? You can and you should (umami butter, anyone?), but most ingredients have their own distinct flavor. And sometimes you don’t want the tang of tomato paste in your salad dressing or the brininess of seaweed on your pizza (on pasta, though, yes please). This is when MSG comes in clutch. It boosts the taste of whatever you’re adding it to without muddying it with another layer of flavor.

It means you don’t need as much salt.

MSG contains sodium but at a way lower concentration than regular table salt (12% versus 39%). This is valuable for anyone who needs to be on a low-sodium diet for whatever reason. Substituting some of the salt with MSG while seasoning your food lightens the load without sacrificing the flavor. Replace up to 1 teaspoon of kosher salt with the same amount of MSG. Try it in cucumber salads, this dressing-that-can-be-a-dip, and in a big wedge salad. 

Get started: 

tomato salad in white yellow sauce on light pink plate on woven tan surface
Tomato Salad With Jalapeño Ranch

This spicy, herby ranch dressing is better than anything store-bought. You’ll want to put it on everything.

View Recipe

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