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10/13/2014 09:43 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

OMG MSG

Tasting Table | Karen Palmer

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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.

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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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The infamous white powder: MSG

"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."

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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."

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