[This post references a client and a previous event I attended courtesy of partial sponsorship support. All opinions expressed are my opinion. I was not asked or compensated to write this post.]
Invoke your 5th sense and enjoy an umami bomb in this sweet, savory upgraded grilled cheese with a strawberry balsamic filling.
I hope you clicked into this post today with high hopes of learning something new. 'Cause let's be honest... asking the question "Why is grilled cheese so good" is sorta like saying "Why is the Earth round?"
It just is. And does it really matter why?
Well it DOES if you're an RD food nerd like me who gets super excited at talking TASTE. And it's especially important to talk about in April because it is, after all, Grilled Cheese Month. (I know these things because as you remember Cabot Creamery is one of my longtime clients. And I can assure you Grilled Cheese Month does not pass them by without celebration.)
The humble grilled cheese is one of those foods that we cherish as a child, but never really think about "why" it has so much control over our taste buds. I recently learned that the pull of that savory pile of cheese and toasted bread may have more to do with science than you ever imagined. It's because of the 5th flavor, umami, and specifically an amino acid (glutamate) which tickles our taste buds into experiencing the unique flavor. In fact, we're born with specific receptors on our tongue for umami with glutamate being the main trigger for the receptors.
It's hard to put into words what umami tastes like, but if you think about the flavor of a warm aged cheese (like that of a good grilled cheese), you'll quickly salivate your way to understanding umami.
But as you may expect, grilled cheese doesn't have the market cornered on umami. In fact, many foods that are aged, ripened or fermented are also great sources -- think Parmesan cheese, vine-ripened tomato, sauteed mushrooms, soy sauce and one that may surprise you, MSG.
Yep. You heard me right -- MSG. That stuff that scares you away from Chinese take-out is actually nothing more than a form of the amino acid you naturally crave in a good ole grilled cheese.
How do I know this? I recently attended a food conference sponsored in part by Ajinomoto, a manufacturer of MSG. Through their presence at the event, I learned a lot about the actual science behind MSG. What it is. And what it is not.
What it is - Monosodium Glutamate is the salt form of the amino acid glutamate, even though we tend to treat it as an obscure scary chemical in food. What it is not - the obscure scary chemical in food that I always thought it was.
Now before you abandon this post, please hear me -- I'm not saying that you haven't had a reaction to MSG in the past. You know you better than I know you. But I am telling you that the scientific literature is pretty robust around the safety of MSG and at the basic level of simple food chemistry, it's nothing more than an amino acid in salt form, albeit a powerfully tasteful one.
Equally as tasty is of course, today's recipe. And I think we can all agree grilled cheese isn't in need of any help from MSG or any other flavor enhancer. But I share this news with you about MSG to 1) maybe alleviate your fears if you occasionally see it in a favorite food (hello ranch dressing for my kids' veggies) and it makes you uneasy or 2) have ever thought about ways to pump up the flavor in your recipes -- especially veggie dishes that you'd like your family to eat more of -- without adding a ton of salt. Ironically, although MSG is a "salt" of glutamate, it's actually lower in sodium than table salt. So if used appropriately and in the right proportions to table salt (the chef I spoke with who uses it recommends a 2/3 salt to 1/3 MSG) you can acheive as much as a 25% overall reduction in your recipe.
But again, MSG is certainly not the only way to pump up flavor in your recipes. Take today's recipe -- I've added balsamic vinegar to the sauteed onion mixture and opted for an aged cheese. My go to stand-by for maximizing taste with many veggies is roasting them to bring out the natural sugars. And lastly, I like to liven up fresh dishes with citrus and fresh herbs.
Sometimes the scary is because it's not familiar. Sometimes the familiar is more mystery than you realize. Life is quirky and complex that way. The good news is that in either case grilled cheese is always a good choice. Happy Grilled Cheese Month, friends. Enjoy!
You won't believe the flavor in this #UltimateUmami Strawberry Balsamic Grilled Cheese by @ReganJonesRD Tweet this
Strawberry Balsamic Grilled Cheese
- 1 tablespoon canola oil
- 2 pounds sweet spring onions, trimmed and sliced
- 2 cups strawberries, trimmed and halved
- 1/4 cup water
- 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 16 slices whole grain bread
- 8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, sliced
- Heat canola oil in a large Dutch oven or skillet over medium-high heat; add onion and saute 10 minutes or until lightly browned and tender. Add strawberries, water and vinegar; bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer, covered, 10 minutes. Uncover and simmer an additional 10 minutes or until thickened. Let cool slightly.
- To assemble sandwiches, smooth butter evenly over one side of each bread slice; top other side of 8 bread slices evenly with about 1/4 cup of jam. Layer evenly with cheeses and remaining bread slices, buttered side up.
- Heat nonstick griddle over medium-high heat. When hot, turn down heat to medium and grill sandwiches 5 minutes on each side or until golden brown.