The Kitchen Scientist

The Umami-Rich Science of Nutritional Yeast, Marmite & Vegemite

November 27, 2020

In The Kitchen Scientist, The Flavor Equation author Nik Sharma breaks down the science of good food, from rinsing rice to salting coffee. Today, he's introducing us to savory super-ingredients to always keep in the pantry.


Yeasts are one of the most powerful workhorses in research and the food industry. Simply put, yeast is a single-cell fungus that is round or oval in shape, sometimes looking like the cartoon character shmoo.

In grad school, I worked in a lab that used baker’s yeast to study cancer. We also tinkered with yeast genetics to produce large quantities of proteins to use in our experiments.

As cooks, many of us are familiar with baker’s yeast and brewer’s yeast, aka Saccharomyces cerevisiae (note, there are other species of yeast used to produce alcohol). While they’re both strains of yeast, they behave a bit differently and are also genetically distinct.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Unfortunately, many Nutritional Yeast brands (including Braggs, Thrive Market Brand, and Bob's Red Mill) enrich it with unnecessary synthetic vitamins, exactly like enriched flour, bread and pasta. For many people, especially those who have known gene mutations such as MTHFR, the inability to break down those synthetic vitamins (especially folic acid) can lead to accumulation of the amino acid homocysteine – which is toxic to the body. If you have an MTHFR gene mutation, you should make sure to check the ingredient list on Nutritional Yeasts. Luckily there are unenriched/non-fortified NY brands out there - I've had good luck with Simply Organic, Sari Foods Co. and Foods Alive brands, as well as Frontier Co-op, which is typically the brand in the bulk section at your more organic-friendly grocery stores.”
— Ginger B.
Comment

Baker’s yeast—be it active-dry, rapid-rise, or fresh—focuses on making plenty of carbon dioxide gas so doughs can rise well, yielding light, airy baked bread. Brewer’s yeast works hard to produce alcohol, as seen in beer-making, by converting the carbohydrates in grains like barley, oats, and wheat, or in non-grains like potatoes. It appears that brewer’s yeast developed its preference to produce alcohol during fermentation in the presence of oxygen (and tolerate high toxic levels of alcohol) as part of its evolution. Read more about the genetic differences and evolution here.

Leftover brewer’s yeast cells eventually led to the development of various savory products, such as nutritional yeast, Marmite, and Vegemite, that many of us stock in our pantries.

One of the earliest studies that discusses the potential of yeast as a source of nutrition comes from the American Journal of Pharmacy, Volume 88, published in 1916. Atherton Seidell at the Hygienic Laboratory (now known as the National Institute of Health) found that spent yeast from breweries corrected malnourishment in pigeons. Initially the pigeons were fed only polished rice, a diet devoid of all the necessary vitamins and minerals, leading to paralysis. But after being fed an extract of the spent yeast, the pigeons quickly recovered in a few hours, implying that this ingredient corrected the nutritional deficiencies. These results provided a fantastic opportunity to utilize a waste product from fermentation, at a low price to be repurposed and utilized as a source of nutrients. NPR has a fantastic article by Tove Danovich that takes a closer look at the history of yeast as a source of nutrients—I highly recommend reading.

When it comes to yeast-based food products available in our grocery stores and markets, there are two major categories based on how they’re processed: nutritional yeast and yeast extract.

Nutritional yeast is sold as a dry, yellow-colored powder or flakes of dead brewer’s yeast (the yeast are killed by the application of heat). I keep a jar of Bragg’s nutritional yeast at home and, when I want a cheesy taste in dairy-free recipes, it is often my go-to. I use it in crackers, savory cookies, and even to make dairy-free and vegan cheese dips. I add a generous tablespoon or two of nutritional yeast to nut milk, then heat the liquid with a little cornstarch to thicken—this helps recreate the texture and flavor of cheese.

Yeast extract includes commercial products like the yeast pastes Marmite (the British version) and Vegemite (the Australian version). It is a thick, dark liquid, sometimes dehydrated to form a thick paste or powder. To prepare yeast extract, yeast cells are either salted, which forces the cells to shrink, or steamed, which causes the cells to break. The cell extract that is collected is rich in vitamins like the members of the B-complex and iron. During the first World War, the supply of Marmite to Australia took a big hit, leading to the production of Australia’s very own version, Vegemite. Vegemite also contains spices and vegetables like celery and onion. Learn more about their history here.

Both nutritional yeast and yeast extracts are rich in umami substances, such as glutamates and ribonucleotides, which together create a rich savory profile through a process called umami synergism: When both are present, the umami taste is greater than the sum of its parts. There’s also a tad note of bitterness and, depending on how sensitive you are to bitter tastes, you might find the taste of these products pleasant or intense. Yeast pastes are usually smeared on toast or folded into pasta, savory pastry fillings, stirred into soups, added to meat marinades, etc.—anywhere where you want to bump up the savory profile of a dish.

Do you use any of these ingredients in your cooking? And how? Tell us below in the comments.

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Nik Sharma is a molecular biologist turned cookbook author and food photographer who writes a monthly column for Serious Eats and the San Francisco Chronicle and is a contributor to the New York Times. His first cookbook, Season: Big Flavors, Beautiful Food, was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation award and an International Association of Culinary Professionals award. Nik resides in Los Angeles, California and writes the award-winning blog, A Brown Table. Nik's new book, The Flavor Equation will be released in October 2020.

27 Comments

Liz S. January 10, 2021
Holy Cow!! I had no idea that Marmite and Vegemite were yeast derivatives. I LOVE Nutritional Yeast ... typically Braggs is what I buy. I use it in crackers and any soup I make, various sauces. I just ordered some Marmite (it was the easiest to buy 1 jar) ... would love to try the Swiss Cenovis than another commenter mentioned ... will wait to see what I think of Marmite.
 
Ginger B. January 7, 2021
I love the unique umami flavors of Vegemite and Nutritional Yeast. Unfortunately, many Nutritional Yeast brands (including Braggs, Thrive Market Brand, and Bob's Red Mill) enrich it with unnecessary synthetic vitamins, exactly like enriched flour, bread and pasta. For many people, especially those who have known gene mutations such as MTHFR, the inability to break down those synthetic vitamins (especially folic acid) can lead to accumulation of the amino acid homocysteine – which is toxic to the body. If you have an MTHFR gene mutation, you should make sure to check the ingredient list on Nutritional Yeasts. Luckily there are unenriched/non-fortified NY brands out there - I've had good luck with Simply Organic, Sari Foods Co. and Foods Alive brands, as well as Frontier Co-op, which is typically the brand in the bulk section at your more organic-friendly grocery stores.
 
kathleen T. December 6, 2020
It definitely does not work for me. I am sensitive to nutritional yeast in the same way as MSG -- it is another glutamate. So, people who can't handle MSG probably should take a pass.
 
Mary A. December 7, 2020
Good to know.
 
Kiyom December 6, 2020
I love nutritional yeast! I make "mock chicken tofu" that gets coated with a generous amount of nutritional yeast. I also use it in a salad dressing for a brown rice, tofu and veggie bowl, and baked herb tofu. Delicious!
 
Amy December 6, 2020
Can you please share the salad dressing and baked herb tofu recipes? They sound delicious!
 
Kiyom December 7, 2020
Aloha Amy! Yes indeed. Here are the links to my recipes. The Glory Bowl is a comforting meal. The baked tofu requires just a bit of planning as you will need to freeze the sliced tofu the defrost before proceeding with the recipe. But it is worth it!
http://www.mylilikoikitchen.com/2015/07/18/glory-bowl-salad/
http://www.mylilikoikitchen.com/2012/08/19/savory-baked-herb-tofu/
 
Kiyom December 7, 2020
Amy I had a typo! I meant to say the baked tofu requires just a bit of planning as you will need to freeze the sliced tofu then defrost...
 
Nancy F. December 6, 2020
Just ordered a bunch of yummy looking stuff from San Juan...Christmas present to myself!
Food52 maybe you should take a look these might be a good fit for you too!
 
Happy B. December 6, 2020
You forgot to mention Cenovis, from Switzerland, which is more delicious than Vegemite or Marmite!
 
Andrea M. December 7, 2020
Where can I buy some in the states??
 
Happy B. December 7, 2020
Since we cannot travel, I order from Swiss Direct. I order at least 4 at a time because shipping charges are horrendous!

https://swissmade.direct/shop/swiss-food-and-drink/spread/cenovis-spread-pot-200g/
 
Mary A. December 6, 2020
My family loves Marmite on grilled cheese. We also use it in any beef gravy or stock.
 
Andrea M. December 7, 2020
I just had that for lunch!
 
carswell January 13, 2021
I enjoy it on toast with a sliced boiled egg on top. Yum.

I also add a bit to the stock when I make French onion soup, it deepens the flavour the same way it does in gravy.
 
Johanna Z. December 6, 2020
I really love them all. There is even one I ate in Germany called Vitam-R. I haven't had Vegemite since I lived in Tasmania, Australia in 1987 on a foreign exchange, but I rich I want to try it again. I love them in all.
 
Carla F. December 3, 2020
My favorite way to use it is with firm or extra-firm tofu: slice the tofu into thin planks, pat dry, coat with tamari on both sides, then sprinkle with yeast on the top side. Put yeast-side down in a pan with some hot oil (anywhere from a spray to a few tablespoons, depending on how deep-fried you want it. Sprinkle yeast on the other side, and flip when the bottom is browned. Cooking time depends on how dry you like your tofu. I like mine crunchy, so i slice thin and cook to a dark brown.
 
witloof November 30, 2020
I use nutritional yeast quite a bit in my cooking. Dinner is often a bunch of tuscan kale spread on a cookie sheet, sprinkled with nutritional yeast and olive oil, and baked for 15 minutes. I use it in matzo balls and as a soup base. It's good in pesto as a substitute for Parmesan. In the winter, I often combine nutritional yeast and Bragg's aminos in hot water as a quick soup with some onion powder and granulated garlic.
 
Baker November 28, 2020
I keep nutritional yeast on hand for popcorn - it shakes on satisfyingly and is better than butter or cheese.
 
Funaussie69 November 28, 2020
One teaspoon of vegemite added to warm meat stock makes a fantastic gravy, just add corn starch or flour to thicken.
 
Mary A. December 6, 2020
I have tried this as a less expensive alternative to Marmite.
 
French75 November 27, 2020
I love nutritional yeast and the fact that it has an abundance of B vitamins is a bonus. San Juan Sea Salt has a popcorn seasoning that has nutritional yeast in it and it is fantastic on salads, pasta, sautéed vegetables and yes of course, popcorn.
 
French75 November 28, 2020
I also love San Juan Sea Salt’s popcorn seasoning on a spoon, but I know I may be an outlier in that sentiment!
 
Brinda A. November 30, 2020
Deeeeefinitely not an outlier—we eat Popcorn Blend by the fistful in our house (just caved and bought the 12 oz. restaurant-supply size because we go through it so fast).

P.S.: If you haven't yet, try the sour salt or kimchi salt mixed with a bit of popcorn blend on your popcorn or to season homemade fries. Obsessed!!!!
 
French75 December 1, 2020
So funny Brinda! It does become an obsession! I have the kimchi but not the sour salt. Do you mix them together for the fries and popcorn? I love the dill pickle as well and followed their a recommendation to put that on salmon. It was really good.
 
Brinda A. December 4, 2020
I mix popcorn and sour salt together! It tastes kinda like a cornichon dipped in fondue.

And I'm definitely biased—Brady, the founder, is my partner's dearest childhood friend—but all their recommendations are spot-on and I'l do anything they tell me to. Ha!
 
Lazyretirementgirl December 6, 2020
Ladies, you inspired me to haul off and order some popcorn mix, in the interest of my health, of course.