Some people consider the concept of umami to be exotic and/or pretentious. This may be because they do not realize that it is both familiar and a flavor that most cooks actively try to develop in their dishes. It is the meaty, rich flavor that makes savory foods delicious. If you want to increase the umami flavor in your dishes, the most convenient option is usually monosodium glutamate (MSG). You can find MSG in many processed foods and it is often associated with Chinese food.
While MSG has been classified as safe by the FDA for a long time, many people still try to avoid it because of its supposed negative effects on health. One of the good things about this ingredient is that whether you are unable to find it or simply don’t want to use it for health reasons, there are quite a few sources of the flavor note that it provides. Try one of the easy-to-find MSG substitutes below.
Your best bet: Beef stock
The use of stock made from bones is an established way to enhance the meaty flavors in savory vegetable and meat dishes. The meatiness that it provides is exactly the same flavor that you would get from MSG. The only real difference is that MSG is more convenient. With both, the source of the flavor is from glutamate. Of the amino acids that make up proteins, glutamate is the most abundant. The amount of glutamate is what determines the concentration of the umami flavor. Bones are a good source of glutamate, especially beef bones. The more a beef stock is reduced, the higher its glutamate concentration and the stronger its umami note will be. Stock has the benefit of being more readily available and less expensive than MSG since you can make it yourself.
Bouillon cubes and powder are made from dehydrated stock. You add water to rehydrate either form and get your bouillon back to liquid form. In many cases, manufacturers will add MSG or another ingredient that contains glutamate (like yeast extract). Even if another source of glutamate is not added, the broth used to make bouillon will be a fairly rich source of natural glutamate and thus have the meaty taste what you want from MSG. You can use stock or bouillon in most of the same applications that require MSG.
A decent second choice: Soy sauce
Soy sauce is a salty condiment that is used in various Asian cuisines and which has been widely adopted in the west. It is used both for its sodium content and for its high level of glutamate. There are two types of soy sauce: the fermented type and chemical type that is made with hydrolyzed soy protein. The fermented type will have natural glutamate, the latter type may have MSG added in. In either case, soy sauce can be a good alternative to MSG in both Asian and Western dishes.
In a pinch: Parmesan cheese
Parmesan cheese is a variety of Italian cheese that is particularly rich in glutamate. It is actually one of the richest sources of natural MSG. Just like MSG, it can provide a savory and meaty flavor. As with soy sauce, the glutamate in this cheese is a byproduct of fermentation. Note that while parmesan cheese may be a useful stand-in for MSG in Italian dishes and some dishes from other parts of Europe, it is not normally added to Asian dishes. Even so, it is a versatile source of the umami flavor and can be just as effective at delivering it as MSG.
Tomatoes are a good source of glutamate and provide an umami flavor in marinara sauce and other similar dishes. For an even greater concentration of the savory flavor profile, use tomato paste instead of fresh tomatoes or canned tomato sauce.