BonAp food boss Carla Lalli-Music: Not only is MSG okay, it is a core staple in the pantry

BonAp's food boss talks about her best-selling cookbook and give permission to use MSG in your kitchen.

Published March 30, 2019 5:30PM (EDT)

Manny Howard and Carla Lalli Music (Salon Talks)
Manny Howard and Carla Lalli Music (Salon Talks)

Carla Lalli Music has made all the mistakes you can make in the kitchen. She’ll tell you herself, as the Food Director of Bon Appetit she is so good at making mistakes she gets paid to make them so you don’t have to. Now Music has written her first cookbook, “Where Cooking Begins: Uncomplicated Recipes to Make You a Great Cook,” and in it she exhorts readers to forget everything we know about cooking (if we know anything) and start anew.

Music, the host of BonAp's Youtube DIY kitchen sensation “Carla Makes…,” joined me  in the Salon studio to talk about her evolution as a cook and the lessons she’s learned running both a home kitchen and a professional test kitchen. Turns out you need fewer than 10 pots and pans and a little over a dozen herbs and spices (one of which is MSG!) and just a handful of techniques and you’re good to go. Have a look, it's all in the book.

Now, about that MSG thing. It turns out it’s cool to cook with MSG. Music, who showed up for the interview wearing the best navy cover-alls ever, swears we've all been missing out on a core pantry staple. “I grew up in the '80s in the upper west side of Manhattan. MSG was the thing that you would scream ‘no MSG!’ every time you went to a Chinese restaurant,” says Music, because it had a reputation for being very unhealthy and delivering crippling headaches to all who dare eat it. That’s all nonsense says Music.

“I had this blanket like no MSG thing. And then, you do a little more research and realize that MSG is a synthetic additive, but one that replicates a naturally occurring thing in your tastebuds, which is to activate your glutamate receptors,” explains Music. “And then I read a little bit more. I read a Harold McGee article. And I read something else. And it was kinda like, if you're sensitive to it, then you're sensitive to you, but most people aren't and they think they are.”

In fact she calls for the additive as one of the 15 essential pantry items in “Where Cooking Begins.” The transcript is below, or check out the episode and watch while Music lays-out exactly how to set up a kitchen you’ll be excited to cook in and how fun it is making the magic happen at BonAp.

Watch our "Salon Talks" episode here, or read the Q&A of our conversation below.

One of the many things I love about the book, "Where Cooking Begin" is that you are a no nonsense. This is a no nonsense beginning. It's like, whatever you've done until now, we're going to do it a lot differently—We're going back to shopping, we're going back to technique, and we're going back to recipes. And your kitchen is actually going to be the first thing, in this cookbook, that you change, right?

Yeah, that's ... I mean, I think that anyone can pick up the book and start with the recipes if they wanted to, or they could start with techniques, like it should all make sense. For me though, the way that my kitchen is set up really informs how I cook, and I also made a lot mistakes and did it a lot of different ways, so that, I think, is why, when I started out, I was like, actually, I've done it all of the ways and this is the best way.

Mistakes are great.


Let's talk about some mistakes.

I am just not a big batch meal planner, mega-shopper person anymore, and I've gone through all of that. When the kids were little, we were going to Costco. There were times when I was prepping for a toddler and a kid in grade school, that I did spend all of my weekends preparing meals in big batches and doling it out through the week. But I kind of went through a lot and realized that that wasn't the time-saving way of doing things, and it also led to an enormous amount of both dread about the cooking, because it was in these voluminous batches-

Are we talking, like, two chickens at a time kind of thing, or-

Yeah, two chickens at a time, or like five pounds worth of meat to make four quarts of meatballs, or quarts and quarts of soup, or just big everything was extra, so it was like-

Right, so this is all weekend, between the shopping and the making?

Exactly, and then I realized that it was this thing I was doing for my family so that they could eat meals that I made was at work during the week, but it was taking away from the time I spent with them, and it also made the cooking not fun, and the shopping was like, took hours and hours. So I kind of slowly stopped doing all of that, and now I really just believe in, I'm a big online grocery shopper.

Which was an interesting ... was an innovative thing to say in the world of public-facing cooking projects, right.

I know. A lot of people are like, "Are you sure? Is it okay?" But what I want people to do, and what I talk about in the book is like your in-person shopping trips should be for the things that you being there in person actually make a big difference, so things that are either quality ebbs and flows, or supply goes up and down. So, seasonal items, and also protein and produce that might look great one day or not another, you should decide that. A box of kosher salt, choose anyone you want. It really doesn't matter if you pick it out. You need to have that  you should have it in your house. You can't cook without it but you picking it out is not a great use of your time. So, that's where the online shopping sort of paired with this more strategic in-person shopping, that changed everything.

My shopping technique is a sort of hybrid of that, which is find the things for today and maybe tomorrow and also lug the box home as well because you ran out and it's nothing left to do.


So, I like the hybrid system.

I like the today and the tomorrow. I think anything after that ... And also speaking personally, the thing that I think I wanna eat on Wednesday is like, might not be the thing I actually feel like eating when Wednesday comes around.

I've got a giant wadge of short ribs in the fridge that have been going from the fridge to the freezer-

Oh wow. And then back to the fridge-

And then back to the freezer and back to the fridge. Because I just ... It's so much real estate and money, I can't give it up. But it's really ... I mean, that thing is in the freezer now, hopefully, because it's gonna go into the garbage frozen. And I'm just gonna have ... 'Cause I have no idea-

You're gonna have to say good-bye?

Yeah. It's been upstairs in the freezer, in the fridge for a couple of days and then I'm like, "Ah that. It's not gonna happen this week." And then it goes back in. I know it's short ribs so you can basically obliterate it.

So, you should do the slow roast. You just shower them with salt and pepper. Tonight when you got to bed, put them in a 250 degree oven. And go to sleep.

What if it's a little smelly? I'm afraid it might be a little smelly?

What kind of smelly?

Well, kind of like old meat smelly.

I mean old meat ... I do like meat smells.

I mean, if I wash it in the sink and then ... But that's a dangerous game.

We might have a food safety bacteria situation.

Yes. I think we might. I mean, I'm usually in a safer range than that. But that's where we are with it, the-

Yeah, but I've been there-


... where ... right. You think ... You have a plan and then the plan kind of goes away.

And I was three days out. I was in Pizzano's on Smith Street-

Love that place.

... And I said, "I want the sausage and the duck breast. And oh, throw in the short ribs." And the short ribs, most expensive item.

Are the ones.

And they're also the ones that I'm scared of now.

They're languishing.


And part of this practical matter of shopping is also clearing house. We're doing the decluttering, the emotional decluttering with the spice ... Now the spice-

Yes. So, this is one of the things that I realized and I devoted a chapter of the book to salt and pepper 'cause I really believe that you could get down ... How simple can you make it? Really with salt and pepper, life is pretty good. And I think that a lot of home cooks over complicate the seasoning part of it and there's a lot of recipes out there that tell you to use half a teaspoon of this or that. And people think that if they don't have that, then they're gonna make something that's boring or doesn't taste good. So, then you buy four different spices to use half a teaspoon and then no one tells you ever again how to use that spice.

And then if you read things, like Martha Stewart will say after six months to get rid of all of your spices.


So, I have some stuff in my ... That's what they say. I have some things in my spice drawer that I realized I was emotionally attached to, which is pretty hilarious. Like, the ras el hanout that my husband brought back from a trip to London with his siblings and when I actually put it together, I'm like, that was 10 years ago. You know what I mean?

Right. Seems like yesterday.

Like I didn't know what to do with ras el hanout then and I kind of barely know what to do with it now. And it's been 10 years.

I've gotten into the ras el hanout recently. It's pretty good.

Yeah, it's great. I should've used it on some meats like six or seven years ago. But I think then you end up with all of these things that never get used. So, a lot of the book, to me, is about buying the right amount of things and then finishing them because when you finish a jar of spices, first of all, you have a great satisfaction because spices are not cheap. But then in addition to that, it's like I know that I like that because I used all of it. And I knew when to use it and I used it a lot and then it becomes part of your cooking as opposed to having 30 different spices that it's kind of like a crap shoot.

I run out of Chinese five spice all the time. And it wasn't on your list.

I know. But that's okay. You can have your own core-

The fennel thing-

... spices.

... I knew fennel is core to your-

Fennel seed. Not in your world?

... your food way. No, it is. No, no, it's not. I have ambitions for it and there's some in there for that reason. So, you have 15 spices?


I know you wrote the book a long time ago. Do you remember what they are? Should we look at-

I could rattle off probably 10 of them. MSG is one of them.

Well, that's what I was gonna get to, the controversy. I wanna-

Well, let's just go to the middle of the alphabet.


The MSG.



I was trying to get the audience to be sympathetic to you before you delivered the MSG bomb-

Oh, I see. So, like something normal like salt?



Or fennel.


Okay, we're here. We're-

There's pimenton, smoked paprika. Love it. Cayenne-

And the berbere pepper, right? Is that-


Aleppo pepper.

Yeah. Which I have a few different ... I have more than those spices of my own, but I had to make ... I don't know-

The 15. Good number.

Kind of force myself to make some hard choices. In that magazine editor like, what's a good number?

15 Best.

Yeah. 15. Yeah, exactly. Sounds way better than 23.

So, MSG.

MSG. So, MSG ... I grew up in the '80s in the upper west side of Manhattan. MSG was the thing that you would scream no MSG every time you went to a Chinese restaurant-

Yeah. So every time we went out to eat, like Chinese food Sunday night, we would order and then my parents would both go, "No MSG. No MSG." 'Cause it had this terrible reputation of being very toxic and bad for you, and artificial, and all this stuff. So, fine. Life goes on. I was reporting-

And I think Chinese restaurants were all like, "Yes. Definitely." And then put it in-


... anyway.

Of course. 'Cause they're just like, "These dumb-"


"These dumb white people just don't know what they're talking about." So, I went through most of my life not having MSG in the kitchen. And I was reporting a story for Bon Appétit in ... I can't remember when, but it was a hot 10 restaurant, so I was in San Antonio at a place called Hot Joy. Which is kind of like a really fun fusiony Chinese restaurant with a lot of other influence. And the chef there made these incredible fried rice dishes. And he would finish each of them with just a shower. And I was like, what?

Like plated and go?

Yeah. Plated and then MSG on top. And I was like, "What are you doing?"


Also again, as a journalist you're like, "Well that's ... We don't call for MSG in our recipes." I'm reporting this story, I'm reporting these recipes. Like, "Talk to me about the MSG." And he was like, "It makes everything delicious." And I was like, "Oh, cool."

Right. Captain Crunch. Everything.

Yeah. He was like, "Yeah, it's great on cucumber salads. It's great on fried rice. It adds texture. It also adds this last little layer of flavor. You can make it optional, but I wouldn't." And then we developed those recipes and that was a real turning point for me in ... Just 'cause I had this blanket like no MSG thing. And then, you do a little more research and realize that MSG is a synthetic additive, but that replicates a naturally occurring thing in your tasters, which is to activate your glutamate receptor.

And that's the umami thing.

And that's umami. And then I read a little bit more. I read a Harold McGee article. And I read something else. And it was kinda like, if you're sensitive to it, then you're sensitive to you, but most people aren't and they think they are. And it's in everything.

Anything in a bag.

Yeah. Including things that are, like Maggi seasoning and ... Yes, it's in fast food. So, I started using it sparingly. And I don't use it in everything, but it's great in spice rubs. It is great on cucumber salads. I think I call for it in ... I have a savory melon salad that has lime juice and a little fish sauce, and you could add a little MSG to that. Sometimes it just is another layer of like, "Why is that so good?" And then as the cook, you're just like, "I don't know-"

I am amazing.

"It's just, I'm really good."

And is it in the Bon App? Did you put it in Bon App recipes now or is it still-

Yeah, here and there. Yeah.

Maybe it's not worth the controversy for the people who don't know.

Sometimes people do still get really mad.

It just seems like a letter-

I wrote an article about MSG a few months ago on Healthish, I think. Yeah-

It's perfectly healthy.

... people flipped out. And some people ... We get the ... We were talking, joking, about starting a column called Really Bon Appétit? Because that's when someone has a complaint.

Right, is that what they say?

It's always phrased like really Bon Appétit?

It's much more polite than the Salon letters.

Oh, what are they?

We have a rowdy bunch.

Oh, okay.

You sound like you have a snarky bunch. Loved. All of them loved.


Yes, each individual.

Yes, I love all of the snarky ones. They're the best. We still get postcards. Do you get handwritten feedback?



When I worked at Gourmet, we got lots of postcards. Yeah.

The postcards are like always in that spindly handwriting.

Yeah. We got some ... We got personalized stationary ... Gourmet. We got personalize stationary from Rehoboth, Watch Hill, Black Point stuff like that.

That's amazing.

It was all really angry.

Oh, yeah. Nobody writes to say what a great job you're having.

Not as motivating.

They just keep that to themselves.


yeah, not as motivating at all.

Yeah. It was ... I think Ruth's first issue had human hands on it and we lost 20 percent of our-


... subscriptions. Now it can be told. They're a fiery bunch, food people.



Really Bon Appétit?

Really. You let me down.


So, you worked in a pro kitchen. I mean, you've done all these amazing things and one of them is to work in a pro kitchen. And you bring in some of your pro tips.


And they're all great ones. The storage one that's great is as the thing you're storing gets smaller, get smaller containers. But there's other ones too.

Downsizing is a really big thing. If I ... So, this is my own really ... With my family. Like if I pull out a jar of oats or something and there's like this much oats in this big of a jar. And then I'm like, "Really guys."

I just throw them at them, at the people, at the guilty party.

That creates space. So, it's all about creating space. And then knowing what you have, also. The other thing that I learned, 'cause I really was a line cook before I was a home cook. And there was in my early 20s when I started cooking professionally. So, I really, I cooked a little bit. I had a very small repertoire. I loved to cook, but I wasn't a very experienced cook. I was young and was in my first grownup house of my life. And so there were other things that just made a lot of sense from working restaurants like the dry goods are all in one area so you know where to find them. So, your rice and your beans, and your seasonings are all in one area.

So, we have a small galley kitchen with not a ton of storage space, so it just made sense to me really early on to zone it out. There's like the dry, dry goods. So, the things I mentioned, spices, beans, rice, noodles. Things that are dry. And then on the other main drawer storage area that we have is the wet pantry, so-

Box of broth.

Canned tomatoes and broth, and canned beans, and extra backup condiments, and the mustard and the capers. Unopened jar of capers were separate. And that's both because I'm sort of OCD about it just makes sense to me to keep things that are similar together, but also then, you know when you're out of it. Instead of having this chaos of there could be capers literally anywhere. You know what I mean? It's like-

Check under the bed.

For me, it's like this is where the capers live. If there's no capers here, that means we're out of capers instead of like, they might be over here, they might be over there. They might be in the baking drawer. Who knows, man? You should probably buy more. Because that also annoys me so much, to come home with the other can of coconut milk and be like-

Oh, I'll put it next to the one we have.

Exactly. Exactly. And that makes me crazy.

I feel comforted sometimes. I'm like, "Oh, now I have two."

Now I have two.


Well, I think it's good to have the right amount of a backup, but also realizing you don't need the flat of cans. If you shop at Costco, you just get seduced into like, 24's the right amount.

The right number.

Yeah. What everyone needs the restaurant ... That giant thing of spices that looks like a-

A cereal box.

Clearly. That's value. I'm never not gonna have chili flakes for the rest of my life.

We're opening a chili flake restaurant.

Exactly. And then you're like, right. It will take us 12 years to finish that and in the mean time, I'm storing this giant thing. So, smaller amounts of fewer variables, just made it ... Made my kitchen manageable. It made it easier to keep track of what I had and then I didn't throw stuff out as much.

And even if you had bracket creep then you can maybe recognize that you have bracket creep now.

What's bracket creep?

Oh, when you start ... When the plan you had starts to expand and you start to take on more details in the plan.


So, you also work on ... You do great breaking down of techniques. There are seven, six, don't sweat it.


One of the ... And they are all things many of us know. Pan roasting and boiling, steaming. But there's one that I think is a little magical and might need a little encouragement for people to do 'cause it works really well. And I'm thinking confit.

There's a technique for confit and not for deep frying because deep frying is a great way to cook things, but not one that I think as home cooks we're deploying all the time. Confit is just a slow cooking method where you cover the ingredient with fat. And so, traditionally it would be like cooking ducks in their own fat or goose in its goose fat. You can use olive oil. I am a weirdo who saves random jars of rendered fat, like every time I cook ... I made a pan of sausages last night and I had ... It was like hard fat. I was like don't save the sausage fat. But I wanted to. And I love that method because you can do not only proteins, but also vegetables with the confit method. It's super gentle. Nothing is happening super quickly that you need to react to in warp speed. It makes everything have the most incredible, luscious, texture. And then you also get this infused oil that you can use to cool the ingredient down and put it in the fridge. Then it's hermetically sealed. So, it-

So, then you have like a fennel-

Yeah. You've got your-

... olive oil.

... fennel covered. Or confit lemon. Or I love confited chicken thighs. Kind of just like duck thighs, but chicken thighs are so accessible.

The olive oil, right.

In olive oil. And then they-

The temperature's what for everybody?

I can't remember. 250, 275. Something like that. So, all you need to do is cover the ingredient with enough ... Put it in a snug pan. It shouldn't be in this big-

Glug, lug, lug, lug.

Exactly. So, little mouse house. Nice and contained.

Drown them.

Cover it with oil. Or if you have fat or it could be a combination of ... If you have rendered chicken fat from the last time you made this and olive oil, combine them. And then you don't have to add anything else. Sometimes if I have it, think of it, I'll throw some peppercorns in there or tuck a bay leaf, or you have a half a spring of thyme-

But whatever...

... put that in the dish. It really doesn't matter. And then you just let it go low and slow until it's incredibly tender. And that is really the only variable, is time. The temperature stays the same. The basic principle of covering it with the oil stays the same.

And that's just for uniform thermal contact, right?

Exactly. And I love it. And discovered in the making of the book because we wanted to make these grids of 12-

Which are great. Yeah.

Thank you. Again, like 12 is a good number. I was like, "Let's do a grid. 9 or 12?" Those were the ones.

And you went with 12.

I went with 12.

Every time.

Yeah. Every time. But I did sort of take chances on things I had never done. Fingerling potatoes was one of my favorites because after you confit them, they're in ... They've absorbed the oil and then you can just put them in your cast iron skillet.

Give them a hit.

Give them a little hit. And they get beautifully browned. That was one of my faves.

So, the book is a great for the home cook, but you've already cooked all day or overseen cooking all day when you return home to home cook?

That is correct.

But, it sounds to me like you have one of the best jobs in the whole world.

Thank you.

I mean-

It's pretty fun most of the time.

Amazing. The job.

Except for the job part, it's amazing. I'm lucky to work in a place that we still have a test kitchen. We're still creating, ideating, making, tasting, writing recipes all day every day. And I work with people who are just amazing.

And as a crew of what?

There are seven people in the test kitchen-

That's so great.

... and two recipe editors who also work on the food team 'cause that's a big part of-

Can you describe the day?-

Sure. Yeah.

... 'cause ... You come in and today we're working three months out? Or more probably.

It depends. Three months for print and then sometimes a year ahead for seasonal stories. So, we're starting to get into spring and summer where we might be developing something this spring that will run actually in 2020.

You're already deciding for all of us-

A lot.

... what's delicious next year.

To some extent, yeah. But right now, where are we? We are developing August print. And I'm in the middle of solidifying ideas for a big story that's gonna be about how we cook in the summer. Just sort of a summer cooking...

Can we scoop here and say fried chicken?

Fried chicken should be on there.

Or the smoked watermelon. Have you heard of the smoked watermelon controversy?

No. How do you ... No, I haven't.

I don't know how to do it but it takes a really long time and it's really expensive. Will Horowitz was here talking about it-

Oh. Okay. Smoked ...

It's really good.

Do you have to poke holes in the watermelon so the smoke can get in there?

It ends up looking like a ham.



Like a shriveled up smoke water-

Yes. So it very slowly smoked. And it gets smaller.

We might have a melon salad.


So, a little more down the middle.

Not quite so rock and roll.

But maybe I'll try that out on my Big Green Egg. So figuring out what's gonna be on that lineup for August and then food editors will actually, kind of come up with the actual nuts and bolts of how to put the dish together. Then we cook through it in the test kitchen. The story editor, the food editor, someone else from the food team all taste it. They give feedback. They talk about it. We finalize something. We take a picture. We share it with the art department so they get a idea of what something looks like. They might have notes like, "Hey, three out of four of these dishes have a lot of red 'cause they're a different garnish that ... or they're-"

We're not gonna be able to style this brown thing at all.

Exactly. Sort of having a side convo going about props and things like that. And then the recipe is cross tested by someone who hasn't made it before, so that's a big part of our testing process where you would be done with your smoked watermelon. You write it up. And then I have to make it and be like, "I made the watermelon. The time was ... It took me two days. It took you three days." Whatever. And then that recipe gets written and it goes through the recipe editors and the copy department and research. Like, a lot of people touch that. And depending if it's gonna end up online or in print. Web is great because we never have to worry about fit. You just keep doing this.

Add another thing to it.

Get to use as many words as you want. And then in print sometimes I'll have conversations with our recipe editor whose like, "Okay. So the layout is done and this recipe is 12 lines over." And then it's like ... The negotiation with the art department of like, "Hey, you guys know that words are important, right?" And then the art department's like, "But it looks so nice in that box that size."

I miss that.

Do you?

Oh yeah. I do. And the widows. Cutting the widows.

Right, widows. Yeah, exactly. I didn't know what that was until I started in print. And I was like, "Huh?"


Yeah. But then it is interesting when you're dealing with a recipe fit question of how few words and what are the words that you need to communicate this technical thing of-

Verbs and adjectives. You need lots of them, but-

And sometimes we're like, we're cutting a recipe to the point where we're worried that the reader is gonna have a bad experience. And that's when we got back to art, and we're like, "The reader's gonna have a bad experience."

Then that gets them, right? They'll go-

Then they're like, "Oh my God. Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, no, no."

Sorry, we'll make the chicken smaller.

Then they're like, "What if we just cut that whole recipe." Then we're like, "Okay fine. It can go online."

That's great. So, the book is Where Cooking Begins and the author is Carla Lalli Music. And it's a great book. And it's ... There are things ... It's not just a recipe book. It's gonna change the whole way you look at cooking for your family. Thanks for coming in.

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By Manny Howard

Manny Howard is the author of "My Empire of Dirt: How One Man Turned His Big-City Backyard into A Farm." @mannyhoward

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