We humans are indisputably drawn to foods rich in umami, the taste sensation that earlier gastronomes called osmazome, and the Japanese understand as deliciousness. Our brains may find umami difficult to describe, but our taste-buds recognize it instantly, and seem to crave it regularly.
The desire for the particular savoury flavour we call umami is delivered by many foods (meat, cheese, mushrooms) and we have become adept at adding it to dishes where it is inherently absent. We may do this by adding soy or fish sauces or other condiments, but there is another, which also offers a nutritional bonus.
Yeast - and its ‘extracts’ or derivatives such as Vegemite – the iconic Australian staple bread and sandwich spread - is a rich source of Vitamin B, and can also add a nice rich taste-note of its own. I was intrigued by the following idea for adding even more flavour to yeast itself, from the New York Times of November, 10, 1942.
Hickory Smoked Yeast.
Not long ago this column discussed the difficulty of obtaining brewer’s yeast in a palatable form, only to be reminded that that superlative source of the vitamin B complex is now hickory-smoked. As a matter of fact, one company has been smoking it in this way for more than six years, marketing among a few stores scattered about the city.
The yeast – processed without heat so that none of the nutrients are destroyed – is a pale yellow powder, smelling like bacon and tasting a little like it too. A couple of teaspoons furnish about 200 international units of B-1, which is a little below the daily requirement recommended by the National Research Council. The idea is not to eat the stuff as it comes from the container, but to blend it with any foods that combine pleasantly with it.
Certain persons, according to one informant, like the yeast with butter, spread on toast or crackers, pancake or waffles, fish or meat. Others advocate its usefulness in cheese and egg dishes, baked beans, gravies. Still other sprinkle it on baked potatoes or employ it instead of sugar – at least, so they say – with dried or cooked cereal. The concern itself reports that its versatile yeast is included in the ingredients of many dehydrated soups, some of which find their way to the Army. A quarter is the price of a container holding one and a quarter ounces.
The same columnist gave a recipe in a later column which, methinks, would adapt quite nicely to the use of hickory-smoked yeast.
Sage Baked Beans.
1 ½ cups navy beans
5 cups cold water
1 ½ teaspoons salt
1 cup soft breadcrumbs
1 ½ cups milk
2 medium-sized onions, chopped
2 tablespoons drippings or other fat
1 to 1 ½ teaspoons sage
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons brewers’ yeast.
Soak beans overnight in the water, add salt, and then simmer until tender but not too soft. Soak crumbs in milk. Brown onions lightly in fat and mix all ingredients. Pour into a greased baking dish, cover and bake in a slow oven (325 degrees F.) one hour.
New York Times, December 5, 1943
srhcb, that's particularly interesting as I was going to comment that my favorite vegetarian cookbook, Laurel's Kitchen, first came out in 1976 with a bunch of recipes using smoked torula yeast, an ingredient I've been unable to find lately (Whole Foods and similar stores have plenty of "nutritional yeast," but no smoked torula). I think the newer editions of this cookbook may not use torula yeast as often or at all, but my husband and I used to love the stuff and I would like to see it again. Thanks for the link!
About the NYT article -- I wonder if smoked yeast became popular in the war years partly because liver would have been so expensive, or even unavailable? Liver, chockful of B vitamins and particularly popular at the time grilled with onions, was probably sent mostly to fighting men in 1942.
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