This umami-packed ingredient is a home cook's shortcut to flavor heaven.
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Umami-Mayo Roast Chicken
Credit: Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Carrie Purcell / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox

A while back, I was testing a recipe for grissini, or Italian breadsticks, that called for both baker's and brewer's yeast. Found in focaccia recipes, too, brewer's yeast is a holdover from the early 19th century, when bakers skimmed lees (spent yeasts) from beer tanks to make their dough.

In 1846, commercial baker's yeast appeared, and brewer's yeast retreated to the beerworks—except in Italy, where chefs like Riccardo Camanini grew up with fresh cakes of it in the fridge. Camanini is a nostalgic guy. At Lido 84 on Lake Garda, he makes a signature dish of spaghetti with butter—"the most common pasta we eat while we are babies."

At first, he flavored the sauce with lemon. After citrus season, he tried other ingredients, including the brewer's yeast meant for the restaurant's grissini. "I jumped on it because I remembered our mama sometimes gave us a small piece of yeast for the stomach," says Camanini.

With that, he created a sensation: a pasta of such simple, luscious, and—thanks to brewer's yeast—funky, umami appeal that legendary French chef Alain Ducasse declared it the best dish ever.

And here's where Camanini's story and mine meet. I, too, was seeking uses for brewer's yeast beyond grissini. Though Camanini starts with fresh yeast and dehydrates it, I skipped the trip to my local brewery and the hours of oven-drying, grabbing instead a big jar of Twinlab Genuine Brewer's Yeast from my food co-op.

The grissini recipe called for 1/4 teaspoon. What to do with the rest? As I do with every leftover condiment, I mixed it with mayonnaise. The result, which I call "umami mayo," is awesome slathered on a whole chicken or side of salmon, lending meaty depth to dinner roasts.

I use brewer's yeast, too, in a riff on seasoned salt from Dave Beran at Pasjoli in Santa Monica, California. It boosts the oomph of proteins, and on vegetables, brewer's yeast one-ups milder nutritional yeast (a vegan substitute for Parmesan) with its layers of meaty, cheesy, even fruity flavors. Textures and tastes differ across brands, so try a few. When you find one you like, buy a big jar. You'll use it up.

Spicy Yeast Salt

Spicy Yeast Salt
Credit: Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Carrie Purcell / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox
Get the Recipe: Spicy Yeast Salt

Spaghettoni with Butter and Brewer's Yeast

Spaghettoni with Butter and Brewer's Yeast
Credit: Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Carrie Purcell / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox
Get the Recipe: Spaghettoni with Butter and Brewer's Yeast

Umami-Mayo Roast Chicken

Umami-Mayo Roast Chicken
Credit: Photo by Eva Kolenko / Food Styling by Carrie Purcell / Prop Styling by Jillian Knox
Get the Recipe: Umami-Mayo Roast Chicken