It's awfully hard to get excited about a food called "nutritional yeast flakes." It sounds like something you either need a prescription to get. Or a prescription to get rid of. Even worse, it resembles yellow flaked fish food. But trust me, this is an ingredient worth looking beyond its name and appearance.
Nutritional yeast flakes have been around for years, but they are all but unheard of outside the vegan world, which uses them to simulate the flavor of cheese. There's a reason they use them that way. These flakes are jammed with glutamates, the compounds that give us the savory wonderfulness in parmesan and steak.
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But let's back up to the basics. Nutritional yeast flakes are produced by growing, harvesting and drying a variety of yeast that is different from that used in baking. The resulting powder is loaded with B vitamins, has 2 grams of protein per tablespoon, and has no fat, sugar, salt or gluten.
And yet it is a flavor powerhouse. Those glutamates (the same chemicals that give MSG its oomph) add lushly savory, decidedly cheesy flavor to whatever they touch. That's why vegans use them to create "cheese" sauces. But you don't have to be a vegan to appreciate them.
You'll usually find nutritional yeast flakes in the grocer's natural foods section, sometimes in shaker-style canisters (Bragg is a popular brand), or in the bulk section. So what should you do with them? In general, they need to be added to a recipe with at least some moisture (the popcorn idea below is the exception).
• The most popular use is as a popcorn topping. In a blender, combine a bit of kosher salt and a few tablespoons of yeast flakes. Pulse until finely ground, then toss with buttered (or oiled, if you're vegan) popcorn.
• Saute small whole button mushrooms in a bit of olive oil. When the mushrooms are browned, season with salt, pepper and yeast flakes. Saute for another minute or two, or until the flakes have dissolved.
• Add a tablespoon or two to chicken soup to punch up the savory flavor.
• Saute lean ground beef, then mix in a bit of yeast flakes, ground cumin, salt and pepper. Use as a taco filling or nacho topping. Or spoon onto buns.
• Saute cubed steak tips, chopped onion and minced garlic in a bit of olive oil. Just before the meat is done, add yeast flakes and a splash of white wine or broth to deglaze the pan and create a sauce. Season with salt and pepper.
• J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. Follow him on Twitter @JM_Hirsch.