MSG is a crystal powder that acts as a flavor enhancer when used in cooking. Also known as monosodium glutamate, it is a controversial ingredient that is found in a wide range of processed foods. Some chefs use it to boost the flavor of their restaurant menu items, but you can also add it to food at home; it is especially popular for use in Chinese cooking.
Although MSG is FDA approved, many prefer to cut it out of their diet for various health reasons; others may have difficulty finding this product in their local store. Whether you can’t or won’t use it, you’ll need an MSG substitute that’ll also heighten the flavors in your meals. This article will provide plenty of alternatives, most of which are everyday items in the kitchen. Let’s dive in.
8 best monosodium glutamate alternatives
1. Beef stock
To get the best possible flavor make your own beef stock, or broth, by slow cooking beef bones and aromatics in a stockpot. Homemade stock does an excellent job of increasing the umami in food. In fact, the meaty flavor closely mimics that of MSG. That’s because they both contain high levels of glutamate, an amino acid found in the meat’s protein. The more the stock gets reduced, the higher its concentration of glutamate-laden, umami deliciousness.
Got no time to make homemade stock? Beef stock cubes, or bouillon cubes, can be added to water for a quick and easy option. Remember to check the product label as it may have MSG included, which defeats the purpose.
Tip: At a pinch, vegetable bouillon can be used as a replacement. It also contains the right mix of ingredients that mimic what MSG achieves in cooking. For more depth of flavor consider making a beef consommé.
2. Soy sauce
Soy sauce is also a good MSG substitute. It is an umami-rich sauce that can be added to stirfrys, casseroles, and soups. Soy sauce brings salty savory flavor to dishes and is commonly found in practically any supermarket. As with stock cubes, always check the ingredients list to make sure there is no MSG added.
Other flavor-packed condiments you could use are oyster sauce or fish sauce. Use them in moderation as they can easily over salt any dish. Worcestershire sauce is another alternative that will confidently enhance the flavor of burger patties, meatballs, or stew.
Related reading: Check out our article that compares hoisin and oyster sauce. Do you know the difference?
3. Parmesan cheese
Parmesan is an Italian cheese that is a rich source of natural MSG, thanks to fermentation. This process results in the release of amino acids as the proteins break down. It brings savory flavor to pasta, pizza, risotto, and many Italian dishes. However, parmesan isn’t commonly tossed into Asian dishes and would be out of place in a stir fry.
If you are lucky enough to have a parmesan wheel in the refrigerator then always keep the rind, rather than discarding it. The umami flavor is concentrated in the outer protective coating and is delicious, added to casserole and soup.
Dulse is a variety of seaweed that has a mildly salty, savory flavor with a subtle taste of the ocean. It can be picked from rocks in some parts of the world. A more convenient way to get your hands on dulse is from Asian grocers. It is sold as a dried product which can then be rehydrated into most common Asian dishes where MSG is added. To make a flavorsome broth like dashi, the addition of dulse will help accent the savory, meaty flavors.
5. Shiitake Mushrooms
Shiitake mushrooms have one of the highest concentrations of glutamate in vegetables. Incorporated into savory dishes it will not only add intense mushroom flavor but also help to heighten the other ingredients. Caramelize the ‘rooms in a pan before oven roasting to intensify their flavor, then add to your favorite noodle dishes. Mushroom seasoning is an easier alternative if you want to skip cooking the mushrooms, and simply shake the flavoring in.
6. Yeast extract
Yeast extract is commonly used to make beer and bread, to elevate the savory flavor. This ingredient can be purchased in powder form from specialty stores such as home brewing suppliers. Well stocked supermarkets will also carry the powder. If you can’t find any then a jar or marmite or vegemite will work well in its place. They contain glutamic acid so a scoop of this tar-like substance will lift savory dishes. Just remember to use in moderation.
Anchovies are one of the highest glutamate-containing fish and they’re excellent in many cooked dishes. Added to sauces, pasta or other saucy Italian dishes one fillet is an effective ingredient for giving food a salty umami hit. If fishy flavors aren’t to your liking don’t fear, the fish taste isn’t detectable once cooked.
Salt doesn’t sound like a very creative backup option for MSG, but it is a highly effective flavor enhancer. The type of salt used plays a big part in the success of your dish. Use kosher or sea salt for best results. Lower-priced table salt is okay added early in a dish, but we don't recommend using it at serving time.
High free-glutamate foods
We’ve compiled some everyday ingredients that contain free glutamates. Although all the below items add umami flavor to food, consider how their flavor will impact the recipe you’re cooking. Marmite and parmesan cheese won’t work well in many Asian dishes, but they’ll help enhance the flavor in slow-cooked meals very well.
Read more about glutamate here.
- MSG has been used in Japanese cooking since the 1920s to enhance convenience bento boxes, ramen, dashi, and many processed foods.
- When checking the packaging for MSG look for the ingredient code E621.
- MSG contains one third the amount of sodium as salt does.
- People tend to consume 10-20g of glutamate from everyday ingredients consumed in a healthy diet.
MSG is a synthetic flavor enhancer that can intensify savory dishes. It is especially popular in Chinese cuisine, but it can be added to other foods also. Not everyone likes the idea of using this man-made ingredient for a range of reasons. If you need to replace MSG in your cooking, use beef stock, soy sauce, parmesan, or dulse as your main alternatives. Of course, you could simply leave the MSG out and not replace it with anything. Salt does a good job of adding flavor without adding any awkward taste that doesn’t fit the recipe.
Do you have a secret ingredient that you use to enhance your meals? Please let us know in the comments below.