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OMG MSG

Great chefs love the umami-rich powder, and so should you

Monosodium glutamate, more commonly known as MSG, has a shining reputation that falls somewhere between Olestra (remember that?) and genetically modified Frankencorn.

But some of the country's best chefs still love it, use it--and bring it with them wherever they go.

In fact, Grant Achatz of Chicago's Alinea and Next travels with a panda-shaped bottle of the umami-rich powder (watch the video). He renewed our interest in the flavor enhancer during a recent visit to our Test Kitchen.

Back in the day, there were reports that some people may be intolerant to MSG, and it was branded as headache- and allergy-inducing. Then it was dubbed an excitotoxin--potentially brain-damaging.

Despite the controversy, MSG is a deliciousness-enhancer. It is umami, in crystalline form. Achatz describes it as "a creamy, vanilla aspect that bridges salinity and pepper in a really good way. It's a bridge--whether it's salt or soy, sesame or hot pepper--that kind of links it all together and weaves it in to one unified taste."

Even if they don't personally cook with it, plenty of chefs are fans. "We don't use it in any of our dishes here at wd~50, but I have no problem with MSG when it is served to me. I'm a believer!" says Wylie Dufresne.

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"I don't buy into that 'It causes cancer' shit," says Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, who uses MSG to "beef up the beefy flavor" in the Jin Tup Roht Dii at his NYC restaurant, Whiskey Soda Lounge.

"If you look at the scientific data, there's nothing that says it's bad for everybody," says Achatz. "It's really no different than, say, using nitrates to cure sausage or pink salt to preserve boudin blanc."

And, as Ricker says, "the joke is, the shit's in everything." MSG is not only a common ingredient in Asian and Southeast Asian cooking--it's in a lot of everyday stuff we like and eat: snack foods like potato chips, soy sauce and Kewpie mayonnaise.

Roy Choi of L.A.'s Kogi BBQ and A-Frame fame says, "I grew up on it by the buckets. Go to any Asian home: It's there next to the sugar and salt. It's a flavor that's ingrained in my soul."

"Try the MSG--you're gonna die!" Achatz teased at the Test Kitchen. 

We didn't die. We liked the stuff. And, you will too if you give it a chance in your home cooking. You can find it online, or look for it in Asian markets. Add a little to stir frys, sprinkle some on French fries or, say, a fritto misto, or, à la Ricker, use it in a brine for steak and other meats.

"People are going to hate me," Achatz says for pushing the often-maligned, misunderstood white powder, which he named as a top pantry staple, along with kosher salt and black pepper. "Give me those three ingredients, and I can make anything taste good."

Alinea 1723 N. Halsted St. Chicago IL 60614 312-867-0110 Next 953 W. Fulton Market Chicago IL 60607 The Aviary 955 W. Fulton Market Chicago IL 60607 312-226-0868 Chego 727 N. Broadway Los Angeles CA 90032 Sunny Spot 822 W. Washington Blvd. Marina del Rey CA 90292 310-448-8884 Kogi BBQ Taco Truck 300 S. Grand Ave. Los Angeles CA 90071 323-315-0253 A-Frame 12565 Washington Blvd. Los Angeles CA 90066 310-398-7700 Pok Pok 3226 SE Division St. Portland OR 97202 503-232-1387 Whiskey Soda Lounge 115 Columbia St. Brooklyn NY 11201 718-797-4120 wd~50 50 Clinton St. New York NY 10002 212-477-2900
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