Lesson 9: MSG, Miso, Soy, and Umami

MSG, Miso, Soy, and Umami

MSG, Miso, Soy, and Umami

Welcome to Chef Ryan Callahan's personal website dedicated to the discussion of food, flavor, cooking techniques and the people inside of the restaurant industry! If you came here looking for whether or not Miso contains MSG then you came to the right place. After reading this you'll be fully informed about the relationships between MSG, Soy Sauce, Miso Paste, and Umami flavors!


These days there is a word that you will hear everywhere, especially if you watch the certain cooking and food focused television networks, or go to a higher end restaurant where the chef is trying to be pretentious. That word is “Umami.” It is usually followed by the words “Miso” and “Soy” and the combination of the words looks something like “A delicious Miso-Soy broth to really highlight the Umami flavors of the dish.” These words don’t mean anything to you. Heck, odds are that you're on this page right now because you did an internet search for those words. But, what they actually mean is that they have used Miso soup base and soy sauce to build the savory flavor. By using these words, they trick you into thinking and believing that this is some kind of magical Asian fusion that only master chef’s can make. But all they have done is use foods that have naturally occuring high concentrations of glutamic acid to build the savory characteristics of their food. This is kind of like how these days everyone says "chocolate ganache," let's get real, its chocolate frosting and you know it.

The secret here is that many of the people who cook professionally do not understand the relationship of the 5 flavors and how they work to build flavor. They simply repeat cooking techniques that they learned at other jobs or techniques that they learned from other chefs. Then, they simply repeat these techniques and trendy naming strategies. This lack of understanding leads to a lot of confusion and misinformation that has been disseminated over the years, whether maliciously or unintentionally. The misunderstanding we will explore in this article is very specifically about the concept of savory or as the Japanese call it, Umami.

As we have previously discussed, savory is a basic flavor sense that you experience on your tongue. It is the sense that tells you this food is full of nutrition. It is most typically associated with the presence of proteins, which is why the easiest example of a savory item is a grilled steak. When chefs use miso, soy sauce, or MSG, what they are doing is adding that savory flavor without having to add extra ingredients like beef, mushrooms, red wine, seaweed, or tomatoes. The most simplified form of the concept of savory is in a product called MSG. This MSG is one sodium ion attached to a very savory and naturally occurring amino acid called “glutamic acid.” When glutamic acid isn't being utilized by your body it exists in a form called glutamate. This is what the sodium ion binds to, hence why it is chemically called Mono-Sodium Glutamate. Interestingly, of all the free amino acids contained within your blood glutamate is the most common accounting for 40% of the amino acids in your blood, which is potentially why blood has a very savory flavor. Yes, that's right boys and girls it is inside of your own blood flowing through you every day. Potentially, that could be a very proposition if you don't understand what it is.

There is a lot of controversy surrounding MSG and whether it is good for you, bad for you, or neutral. I would like to clarify exactly what it is, how it is made, and the honest truth behind it. I would like to state that I personally use MSG and see no problems cooking with it whatsoever. From the USDA: “...MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. Glutamic acid is an amino acid, one of the building blocks of protein. It is found in virtually all food and, in abundance, in food that is high in protein, including meat, poultry, cheeses, and fish.”

What MSG does is provide a chemical called glutamate to your tongue. Glutamate is a naturally occurring organic chemical that when ingested tells your brain, “This is savory, rich, and delicious.” Glutamate occurs naturally in all foods we eat and cook with, except for ones that are not derived from plants, animals, or fungi. Examples of foods with highly concentrated deposits of glutamate are: anchovies, kelp, red wine, green tea, soy sauce, meats, poultry, miso, and mushrooms. Adding MSG to your food is akin to adding salt for a salty flavor, or cayenne for a spicy flavor. Because it has no other flavor characteristics it simply bolsters the desired savory flavor without adding any other distinct flavors.

MSG was discovered by Japanese researcher Kikunae Ikeda in 1908 by creating a crystalline extract of glutamic acid from seaweed. He discovered this while eating miso soup and wondered why a soup with absolutely no meat in it was so savory. For your reference, miso is a paste made out of fermented soybeans, and then often made into a vegetarian soup broth made with kelp, which is a type of seaweed. He then experimented with the kelp until he could extract a concentrated and dry version of that savory flavor. Today, we know this extract as MSG.

Sometime in the 1920s, Dr. D.Y. Chow, from the National Dyes Company of Hong Kong, developed the process for extracting MSG from wheat. This is how it is still produced today. (Reference: The Wok, by Gary Lee, Nitty Gritty Cookbooks) The main problem with MSG is that people use too much in their cooking, because quite frankly it makes everything instantly delicious! MSG by itself has very little flavor aside from the instant savory feeling in your mouth. But when MSG is applied with salt, it becomes a flavor explosion! The problem here as you can see, is you end up saturating your food with sodium. Sodium can be disastrous for someone with heart disease or high blood pressure. So when I cook and intend to use MSG in addition to salt, I reduce the amount of salt to allow for the extra sodium contained in the MSG.

The only documented and medically reported side effect to MSG is occasionally it will cause headaches in certain people. Now remember, this is a super small group of people who have any kind of adverse reaction. If these people were truly allergic to glutamate, they would have headaches anytime they ingested foods that naturally have high concentrations of glutamate. IE: chicken, fish, beef, etc. I personally think that it is the additional amount of sodium causing the headaches in salt-sensitive people. Or, more than likely, it is a slight dehydration experienced from too much sodium intake. A good rule of thumb with MSG is to use no more than 2 percent of the weight of the recipe. The most groundbreaking part of MSG is that you can make entirely meatless broths that taste amazing. IE: hot and sour soup, egg drop soup, miso soup, vegetarian vegetable soup, etc. This is especially helpful for vegetarians and vegans who are having trouble making their food taste great.

MSG is typically marketed as “Essence of Umami,” “Umami Extract,” “Umami Seasoning,” or some variation on the word “Umami.” Umami is the Japanese word for savory, as the researchers who discovered the sense of savory on your tongue were Japanese. While miso, soy sauce, and MSG are savory in taste and can bolster savory flavors, please remember that savory, aka Umami, is not a food product, but a basic flavor sense found on your tongue.

MSG = a seasoning ingredient
Umami = the flavor sense on your tongue

If you would like some evidence that the MSG scare is still alive and well in peoples consciousness, simply go to your local grocery store, Asian market, or Asian restaurant. You will readily find packages and signs proudly proclaiming “NO ADDED MSG.” They have to say NO “ADDED” MSG because glutamic acid is a naturally occurring substance found in almost all food, and living organisms. I am not trying to convince you to put MSG into all of your food. I am simply suggesting it as a convenient seasoning to make your food taste great.

Now if you are still scared of MSG, you can absolutely go the long way around and add some of the other examples I’ve listed to make your food more savory. (anchovies, mushrooms, bay leaves, soy sauce, parmesan cheese, tomatoes, etc.) But, it will take longer, generally cost more, and will require more product weight to make the same flavor. I can make sauce, gravy, and other dishes incredibly savory, decadent, and delicious without the addition of a little glutamate extract. I just simply don’t want you living in fear of MSG because of ill informed and fear based health food movements that have no idea what they are talking about.

To recap:

Miso paste is a fermented paste made by aging soy beans with salt, koji and other ingredients until they have a very concentrated flavor. It contains high amounts of glutamic acid and salt, but not MSG extract.

Soy Sauce is a fermented sauce made by fermenting soybeans and salt. It too contains high amounts of glutamic acid and salt, but not MSG extract.

Monosodium Glutamate is a stable crystalline extract of glutamic extract, typically made from wheat.

Now if you are looking to buy some MSG, trust me on this one. Buy MSG from your local Asian market. It will be much cheaper than any other store. For more great reading on Mono Sodium Glutamate, I recommend reading “It’s the Umami, Stupid. Why the Truth About MSG is So Easy to Swallow” by Natasha Geiling, featured in Smithsonian Magazine’s website November 8th, 2013.

If you enjoyed this article, I hope that you will share it with your friends, and continue to read the rest of my website!

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Lesson 2: Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste and the 5 Flavors

Taste itself, is in reality only a small fraction of the sensory experience of cooking and eating. What you actually taste when you eat are 5 primal flavors which are: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet. Each one of these basic taste sensations lends itself as a piece of the whole sensory experience.

Flavor is a tricky and complicated concept. It is made up of many different aspects of senses as well as senses in their entirety. Let’s start with the basics of the tongue. The human tongue only tastes a few basic flavors. This is actually such a controversial subject that it is still hotly debated whether or not certain flavors constitute tasting or just a secondary experience. The most commonly accepted flavors that your tongue tastes are: salty, savory, sour, bitter, and sweet. I like to add spicy to this list as well, seeing as you experience spicy on your tongue just like the other flavors. I don’t consider bitter to be a flavor, but I consider it to be a survival mechanism. Therefore, I do not include it in the 5 flavors. So for simplicity—and for our sanity—we will say that the following are the flavors that you actually taste with your tongue: salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet.

Balancing The Five Flavors

When a chef cooks, what he is trying to do is bring out the fullness of flavor, or Roundness of Flavor. Take a look at the chart below for a great visual representation of what I call, Roundness of Flavor.

Balancing the 5 Flavors

Chef Ryan Callahan's Balancing The 5 Flavors Chart


Imagine the circular dish above is mounted on a thin piece of metal so that it acts as a scale. As you apply weight to any category, like salty, the dish will tip toward the salty side. As you place each flavor on the dish, it will lean from side to side, eventually balancing out. What you want to do is weigh out the proper amounts of flavor onto this imaginary dish so that the dish doesn’t topple over and become one-sided.

Cooking is about balance, harmony, and pulling the natural flavors out of your ingredients. All food items that you eat have their own natural flavors and will pre-stack the weight of the dish. As we add items to our meals, we need to be conscious of their natural flavors and how they will make the dish balance.

To be blunt, there is simply no way to teach someone to cook without physically doing it. You can learn many other disciplines simply by reading about it. But, cooking is both art and science. Just like you can never truly create great works of art simply by looking at Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings.
You will never develop the physical techniques of the intricacies inherent inside of the brush strokes to capture the delicateness of color. Such is the same with great food. Learning how to cook is exactly like this. You must try and fail and try and fail until you learn how things work and why. Just like the yoga master refers to the art of yoga as “my practice,” so must we take this same approach toward cooking. It is an art that you will continually become greater at every day, every week, and every year. You will learn and grow just like a tree until your roots run so far into the ground that you are an immovable object with years of strength and experience to pull from. So it is with this mind-set, we will continue to move forward so that we may practice and learn.

What I would like to explain about Roundness of Flavor is that I actually developed this cooking technique to specifically help my mother while she was going through cancer treatments. But, Roundness of Flavor isn’t just for cancer patients. It is also an incredibly effective and fool-proof system for progressively and accurately seasoning your food so that it turns out nearly perfect every single time.

Below is the method I follow while creating my own Roundness of Flavor. I do this with every single dish, no matter how simple or how complex. This is the creating flavor part of Roundness of Flavor.

When I season dishes, I always season them in the following order:
1 salty
2 savory
3 spicy
4 sour
5 sweet

The 5 Flavors










Meet Salty Simon!

Salty is the most basic flavor. It is also the most powerful. It amplifies all other flavors. We start with salty to bring out the naturally occurring flavors in the dish. If we did this flavor later, it could overpower the rest of the dish. Adding salt late in the cooking process could make the flavors too aggressive. Salt also acts as a natural tenderizer. It works its way into meat giving it a massive boost of flavor. Food without salt of any kind is extremely bland. If you can not have salt because of sodium, consider using a salt substitute. Salt is also one of the flavors that you cannot correct if you add too much. If you place too much salt in a dish, it is simply ruined and you have to start over.

Examples of salty items: kosher salt, sea salt, soy sauce, and hard cheeses like parmesan.










Meet Savory Sophia!

I always season savory second because it is the least pronounced of all the flavors. But, it is the most important. Th e reason it is so important is because it gives you that sense of healthiness and nutrition that comes from a home-cooked meal. Savory is the fullness of taste. It is the sense of warmth that you get when eating a protein filled item. Savory is actually activated by the presence of salty flavor. Th is is the reason why a steak without salt is extremely bland. But if you add a light pinch of salt, it makes the steak taste like a flavor explosion. Th ere are many ways to create a savory flavor, whether it is simply adding savory ingredients or using heat to brown your meats and vegetables. Browning these items makes them more savory naturally as well.

Examples of savory items: soy sauce, MSG, anchovies, green tea, mushrooms, tomatoes, and red










Meet Spicy Stella!

Spicy comes third because it is our second amplifying flavor. It is the ingredient that fills our warmth portion of the dish. I also season with spicy third because it is the easiest to counter-act by adding more vinegar to balance out the spicy. Please remember that just because you are adding a
touch of spicy to a dish does not mean that the dish will necessarily be spicy. Great cooking always encompasses a bit of an imperceptible spicy note that just adds a fuller body. So never feel guilty adding a little bit of spicy to your dishes, especially in amounts that a person cannot detect. To add ingredients that a person cannot name or quite put their fi nger on is the hallmark of a great chef.

Examples of spicy items: black pepper, cayenne pepper, red pepper flakes, chilies, and many more.










Meet Sour Sarah!

Sour comes fourth because it is the lightener. Everything we have put into our dishes so far has added breadth, fullness, and warmth. Now, we add complexity. Sour brings freshness that you cannot get through any other means. It removes the physical weight of a dish, similar to how moon boots
remove the feeling of weight from your body.

Sour is an amazing flavor that is far underutilized. It can make you feel as if you were eating the freshest, lightest fruit salad in the world. But when applied too heavily and too liberally, it can make your mouth pucker and eyes water. With a masterful hand, sour can be applied in just the right
amounts to give heavy dishes a light feeling in your mouth. It can also remove the spiciness while amplifying the flavor of chilies. And, it can cleanse the palate and bring delight to any person who wields it. In my opinion, mastery of sour is another hallmark of a great chef.

Examples of sour items: red vinegar, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar, balsamic vinegar, rice
wine vinegar, orange juice, lime juice, lemon juice, and pickle brine.










Meet Sweet Sherman!

Sweet comes last because it is the great balancer. Sweet activates the pleasure centers of your brain and gets you really excited about eating whatever it is you are eating. Sweet can cover many mistakes when cooking and should be used last because it creates our final piece of complex flavoring. Chinese cooks have a saying that sugar always follows vinegar. Th is is because sour needs a balancer just like the idea of yin and yang. When yin gets out of control, it needs yang to balance. Th e philosophy is all about finding the balance between the two. Th e same is true for fire and water. Fire keeps water in check by boiling it. And water keeps fire in check by keeping it from getting too hot and consuming everything around it. If you have too much fire, everything gets burned. If you have too much water, the passion and the drive is drowned out. Th e same is true for sour and sweet. You must keep the two in balance at all times. Sweet also allows you to remove or cover the acidity of a dish. Hence, why most people will add a healthy pour of sugar to their marinara sauce.

Sweet is a place where I get a lot of irrational feedback. I am not telling you to pour a pound of sugar into your meals or eat nothing but refined sugars. What I am explaining to you here is that sweetness balances out the dish. It is one of your 5 fundamental flavors. And, it must be mastered and utilized to truly cook like a great chef. A lot of people are afraid of sugar because somebody offhandedly said to them once that people need to eat less sugar.

What those people were trying to actually express was that most people ingest too much candy, sweets, junk food, soft drinks, etc. When you take control of your food and cook every meal at home, you are not going to end up eating too much sugar simply because the nature of cooking at
home does not make it easy to overload yourself on sugars. What overloads you on sugar is eating a pint of ice cream, followed by drinking 2 liters of soda, and eating a handful of hard candies to finish off the meal. Remember all things in moderation.

Sugar is actually the basic energy that your body uses to fuel itself. The reason your body is hot is because your body is regularly combusting sugars inside of your cells to regulate your body temperature. When there is too much sugar, your body converts it for long term storage into fat cells
which is how your metabolic process works. This is why if you eat too much sugar, you gain weight. If you eat too little sugar, you loose weight. The energy inside of food is measured in calories, which is why all of our food labels are labeled with the amount of calories that are contained within the
food. This is so that you can empower yourself to make decisions on how many calories you need to fuel your body. It’s not scary. It’s science.

Sweet can be sourced from the following: raw granulated sugar, brown sugar, fruit juices, honey,
and an innumerable amount of places.

I follow the salty, savory, spicy, sour, sweet method because my experience has taught me that this is how you should season. It takes into account many different theories, styles, and cultures perspectives on cooking. As I stated previously, I have found that cooking is both art and science. It is a beautiful alchemy that encompasses so much of the human spirit, life experience, culture, memories, and the soul; that it is like an art. The simple whiff of your favorite dish can transport you to places and times that you didn’t even remember existed. It can pull emotions so deep that you didn’t even know you had. This is the art of cooking.

To bring it all around, the reason I season in this method is two fold. Years of experience show me scientifically that this is the right way to season. And, years of artistic endeavor also support this method.

Palate Cleansing

Palate Cleansing is a simple but effective technique that you need to know when you are cooking. I talk in great detail about Palate Cleansing in my first cookbook, Cooking for Chemo ...and After! Palate Cleansing is extremely important to bring balance to dishes that may feel too heavy in your
mouth. It is especially useful in taking heavy dishes, like pot roast, and making them more palatable by lightening the perceived weight of the dish in your mouth.

3 Ways To Use Palate Cleansing

Vinegar and Sugar Method
By adding 1-2 tablespoons of red wine vinegar and 1-2 tablespoons of granulated sugar during the seasoning part of your recipe when cooking. The vinegar lightens the perceived weight of the dish and the sugar masks the flavor of the vinegar.

Fresh Herb Method
By topping the finished dish with fresh herbs that naturally Palate Cleanse. These herbs are cilantro, parsley, basil, and mint.

Citric Acid Method
By using fresh citrus juices in your cooking or squeezing them over the top of your finished food. This includes: oranges, lemons, and limes.

Palate Cleansing uses sour flavor to combat the weight of a dish. If you follow the proper seasoning order (salty, savory, spicy, sour, and sweet), you will naturally use palate cleansers in the effort to obtain Roundness of Flavor.

One last thing, when you are trying to correct a dish, always add seasonings in small increments. You don’t want to over-correct the dish and have to start over. Visit our printable downloads page HERE to get a FREE Flavor Correction Chart.

Learn HOW to cook in a new, fun, and exciting way! Click here for Chef Ryan's How to Cook Cookbook