MSG, or Monosodium Glutamate, is a flavor enhancer that has been around for decades— and can be substituted with salt, oils, or even cheese in the right dish.
There are dozens of options when it comes to substitutes for MSG, but the perfect ingredient for your meal will depend on the type of food, variety of MSG replacement, and desired flavor outcome for the meal.
Whether you are a new chef or experienced in the kitchen, it can always be helpful to learn the best MSG replacements to use in various types of foods. We’ve looked into the ways to use MSG alternatives in all kinds of dishes, from soups to salads to pizzas.
Recommended MSG Substitute
1. Salt (and Salt Substitutes)
Since MSG is often added to a dish to enhance or bring out the savory, umami notes, many chefs can achieve a similar effect by just using salt. Sea salt is the best kind of salt to use for this purpose, as some other salts can have other flavors that could add unintentional notes to your dishes.
Luckily, there are also heart-healthy salt alternatives for people looking to avoid MSG and sodium-heavy meals. When used carefully, salt alternatives can add that sharp flavor that MSG-free foods are often missing.
The biggest advantage to using salt as an MSG substitute is that this basic ingredient can be found in almost every kitchen. Salt also works in almost every dish when used correctly, in both hot and cold food, across almost any recipe. It’s a universally helpful seasoning in addition to an effective MSG replacement.
2. Beef Stock
For a savory addition to your meal without any added MSG, try mixing in some stock made of beef bones. The amino acids in this rich, meaty stock are filled with glutamates that give it the strong umami taste in one easy step.
One of the best things about using beef stock as a substitute for MSG is that it is usually inexpensive and can get even cheaper if you make it at home. Many supermarkets sell the ingredients for beef stock in the form of powder, bouillon cubes, or pre-made liquids.
In order to use beef stock as a substitute for MSG, the stock needs to be reduced at least a little bit in order for the glutamates to be concentrated enough for a strong umami flavor.
The more you reduce the stock, the more intense the savory flavors will come out. For this reason, the beef stock makes a good MSG replacement in meat and veggie dishes that already have savory notes.
Can’t find beef stock? See recommended beef broth substitutes.
Cheese is good on almost everything— and, as it turns out, a great MSG replacement. It doesn’t work with every type of cheese, but many of them help to add that deep umami flavor that dishes without MSG are often missing.
One of the advantages of using cheese as a monosodium glutamate substitute is that there are multiple kinds of cheeses that work well— depending on the dish you’re making and the type of cheese you have.
For example, cheddar cheese can work well as an MSG replacement, but it should be aged for at least one year to get the proper flavor. Parmesan cheese is also an easy way to add a sharpness to a dish in the same way as MSG.
In the case of cheeses, it’s best to use more cheese than the recipe calls for MSG, as the umami flavor won’t be nearly as concentrated.
To incorporate cheese into food as an MSG substitute, adding it as a topping sprinkled on the top of the dish can be very effective. Cheese works well, replacing MSG in things like salads, soups, and flatbread-based dishes.
Another great MSG substitute that works in practically every dish is flavored oil, which you can use to season, stir-fry, sautee, or spice up your dishes. Certain oils are even a fantastic (and MSG-free) addition to some salads.
The good news is that there’s a wide variety of oils to choose from when it comes to selecting an MSG replacement. You can buy sesame oil, sunflower oil, or even avocado oil— and that’s just a few of the options out there. Many oils are also flavored with notes of garlic, mushrooms, or other savory notes to add more umami— or even spicy flavors— to your food.
The downside is that because there are so many different kinds of oils (and flavors), there are no concrete rules for the proportions using oil as a substitute. How much oil you use and how you use it are determined by the type of cooking, variety of oil, and desired result.
Related Article: Substitute for Vegetable Oil in Brownies
One option that works well to add some savory flavor to a dish is the proper use of mushrooms. While mushrooms are often a bold choice and certainly don’t work in every dish, they can make for a delicious glutamate-rich addition when used carefully.
Mushrooms work to intensify the inherent flavors of your food, especially when used in soups or stews. They can also be used in a few salads for a splash of savory goodness.
When using mushrooms as MSG substitutes, the best ones to use are shiitake. While you usually have to use extra ingredients when replacing MSG, use mushrooms with caution, as the flavor can be very strong on its own. Make sure that the mushroom taste will fit in with the dish before using it.
Can’t find mushroom? See recommended mushroom alternatives.
Frequently Asked Questions
Cooking with Monosodium Glutamate substitutes can be more difficult than anticipated, and sometimes new chefs don’t even know if they need to use a replacement. Here are the answers to a few questions that can help you get started:
Some people say that yes, you can make your own form of MSG at home by fermenting food with a high glutamate concentration.
However, since MSG and its alternatives are often inexpensive at many grocery stores, and the process for making MSG involves carefully culturing decomposing things, it’s generally not recommended to try and make MSG at home.
Yes! Actually, Monosodium glutamate is naturally occurring already in many foods, like cheese and tomatoes. That is one reason why both tomatoes and many kinds of cheese make for fantastic replacements for store-bought MSG.
MSG is actually a seasoning that is used as a flavor enhancer. As opposed to many herbs and spices, MSG is typically sold as a crystalline material that looks a lot like salt or sugar. MSG is usually sold in the grocery store as an accompaniment to savory meat or veggie dishes.
Since MSG isn’t based on herbs or grown in the ground, it’s tricky to call it a “spice,” so many kitchen professionals instead refer to it as a seasoning or additive. However, it can sometimes be found in the “Spice” aisle in some grocery stores.
According to the FDA, MSG is perfectly safe to eat, just like salt— in moderate amounts, of course.
While there were reports of some people suffering from headaches and upset stomachs after eating MSG-heavy foods, the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) determined that these short-term symptoms only occurred in sensitive people who ate 3 or more grams of MSG without food.
The usual serving of food with added MSG typically contains under 0.5 grams of Monosodium glutamate.
Yes! Salt can be an excellent and versatile MSG substitute— it even made our list of top five replacements.
However, salt can be less heart-healthy than many other options on the list, so if you are replacing the MSG in a meal for dietary reasons, salt may not be the ideal substitute for that dish.
However, as we discussed above, salt alternatives can be a great way of using salt as an MSG replacement without making your food less healthy.