Let’s get this out of the way first: MSG isn’t dangerous or bad for you, and Chinese Food Syndrome is a myth. Here’s an article from the Mayo Clinic stating just that (“anecdotal reports” is nerd-speak for “true that people said it, but that researchers found the claims to be not true.”) Here’s the Wikipedia page that goes more in-depth.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has given MSG its generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation. A popular belief is that MSG can cause headaches and other feelings of discomfort, known as “Chinese restaurant syndrome“, but blinded studies show no such effects when MSG is combined with food in normal concentrations, and are inconclusive when MSG is added to broth in large concentrations.
MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid. We’re going to call glutamic acid glutamate because that’s what the food world calls it. Glutamic acid is found naturally in tomatoes, grapes, cheese, mushrooms, seaweed, and other foods.
When a food manufacturer is using MSG, the goal is to add glutamate to the product. With the “MSG BAD!” myth out there, the food manufacturing industry has moved to other products that do the same thing but don’t have to be labeled as the Scary MSG Boogeyman. Disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate all add glutamate but aren’t labeled as MSG. These ingredients are used in a vast variety of foods, and we don’t have a global food problem. Until the scientific information tells us differently, we’ll continue to write recipes using the real stuff when it makes sense.
Long story short, MSG is fine, especially if used correctly. We use it correctly in our recipes.
Many times (not always, but often) when recipes are asking for you to use things like beef stock, chicken stock, bullion, fish sauce, etc., what they are really trying to do is to up the savory umami flavor in a dish. There is NOTHING WRONG with using these ingredients, but let’s call a spade a spade: if we are trying to up the umami taste in a dish, there are many ways to get there.
That’s where MSG comes in to save the day. We can use it to add savory notes to a wide variety of dishes without extra ingredients. And when we use MSG, we aren’t using it in amounts that punch you in the face with umami flavor, like with that seasoning packet that comes with instant ramen. Our Simple Onion Soup, for example, uses MSG to keep that sweet onion flavor clean and makes the dish more flexible for adding other things (without a dedicated animal stock, beef, chicken, and seafood are all fair additions.) Using MSG in our Real Homemade Tomato Sauce mimics the result of using fresh, garden-grown tomatoes, which are generally higher in glutamate than canned versions. It’s what makes ranch dressing taste like ranch dressing, and that’s why we use it in our Fattoush Salad Dressing, to give it the flexibility to be used in a variety of salads, not just “middle eastern” cuisine.
If you have an ideological aversion to using MSG, then don’t. Nobody is stopping you from being you. But if you can put some logic and open-mindedness into your cooking, it is a powerful pantry staple.