There aren't too many products that market themselves around being loathed, but that's exactly how the makers of Marmite pitched the stuff to British consumers in the '90s. Marmite has a love-it-or-hate-it reputation, and ads for the product tapped into that divide to stir up intense feelings of brand loyalty.
Marmite's divisive reputation is well-earned. It has an intense flavor: tangy, pungent, and very salty, with a hint of sweetness, too. People who hate it seem to really hate it. Yet Marmite also has passionate fans and holds a near-iconic status in the UK as a beloved pantry staple, and people who love it can't imagine life without it. Speaking as a British expat myself, I can attest that discussions on where to buy Marmite abroad are a mainstay of many expat forums.
Marmite is so quintessentially British that it was included in troop rations during WWI as a source of vitamin B, yet it's technically a German invention. Marmite is a brand of yeast extract, a product first created by German chemist Baron Justus von Liebig in the late 19th century.
Liebig has appeared in this column once before as the inventor of meat extract, which inspired both the bouillon cube and liquid seasoning. Liebig discovered that the waste yeast from beer brewing could be processed into a protein-rich goop that could be used as a dietary supplement. (Liebig's other great claim to fame was the discovery of nitrogen as a food source for plants. On the other hand, he also debunked the theory that searing meat seals in flavor.)
The Gilmour family of Burton upon Trent in England were the first to produce yeast extract as a commercial product in 1902, using yeast from local breweries. They sold the product in earthenware pots and named it for a pot-bellied French cooking pot called "la marmite." Within six years, a New Zealand company bought the rights to sell the product on the other side of the world.
Yeast extract is officially a spread, usually used sparingly on toast or in a sandwich, with a little butter to help thin it out. But there's plenty more you can do with it. Yeast extract is such an intense source of salty, savory flavor that a teaspoonful makes an ideal umami booster for soups, stews, casseroles and gravies, and it also works as a browning agent. The reason Marmite is such a great source of umami is that it contains glutamic acid, an amino acid that also provides the rich umami flavor in foods like Parmesan, soy sauce and mushrooms.
Because Marmite is vegetarian (and vegan), it's a great enriching ingredient for meatless cooks. Serious Eats' own J. Kenji López-Alt calls Marmite one of his go-to "umami bombs:" a way to add a deep, rich savory quality to recipes without changing their flavor profile. Check it out in his recipe for vegetarian chili, or this one for amped-up turkey burgers. From savory pies to coddled eggs and crunchy fritters, we've got a whole array of marmite-packed recipes on-hand here.
Yeast extract also pairs well with cheese—particularly sharp cheddars—so it's great in cheese sauces, cheesy baked goods like scones, or even cheese sandwiches. Mixed with melted butter, it creates a glaze for roast meats or a low-budget, high-flavor spaghetti sauce, like this one from Nigella Lawson. You can also mix a teaspoon of yeast extract with hot water to make a simple savory broth.
One thing to be aware of when using yeast extract as either an ingredient or a spread is that it has a very high salt content—Marmite, for example, contains 11 grams of salt per hundred grams.
Yeast extract is ubiquitous on supermarket shelves in Britain and through much of the Commonwealth under either the Marmite or Vegemite brands, while the Swiss have a variation called Cenovis. The British version of Marmite comes in a pot-bellied jar with a yellow label, and is said to have the stronger flavor; while New Zealand Marmite comes in a round jar with a red label. Most people inevitably prefer the version of yeast extract they grew up with.
In the United States, yeast extract is most likely to be found in specialist import stores or larger supermarkets. If you can't find it, liquid seasoning or liquid browning like Maggi or Gravy Master are the next best thing to cook with—but you can't spread them on toast!