"Seasoning" is a rather broad concept. The word is used to describe any additive that changes or enhances the flavor of a dish without changing its basic composition—something added in a sprinkle or a dash. Often that means salt, but it can also mean spice, herbs, acid, or sugar.
There's no strict definition for liquid seasoning, either. The term could describe anything from soy sauce to Worcester sauce to vinegar, but in practice the term appears on a particular range of products that all seem to come in bottles with red and yellow labels. For this installment of Pantry Essentials, I picked three well-known varieties of liquid seasoning and set out to explore where they come from and what makes them different.
The youngest of the three brands is Bragg Liquid Aminos All Purpose Seasoning (sold in Canada as All Purpose Liquid Soy Seasoning). The label reports that Bragg has been in business since 1912, but their Liquid Aminos appear to only date back to the mid-1970s.
I first encountered Bragg's liquid seasoning at the home of a gluten-intolerant vegetarian friend. It's her go-to seasoning ingredient when she wants to add savory depth to her food, essentially as a gluten-free soy sauce alternative.
Bragg is named for Paul Bragg, an American nutritionist regarded as one of the founding fathers of the American health food movement. Bragg was an early advocate of fasting, juicing, organic food; a pioneer of health stores and a self-proclaimed "health crusader." He was a showman, salesman, and self-promoter, and so successful that two Bragg products are permanent fixtures in health stores today: Liquid Aminos and Apple Cider Vinegar.
The label on Bragg's liquid seasoning makes no particular health claims, but it boasts of being gluten-free, kosher, and non-GMO. It only lists two ingredients —soybean vegetable protein and purified water. Though it has no added MSG, the very similar molecule glutamic acid is a natural by-product of the manufacturing process. The makers claim levels are minimal. (The label also carries a Bible verse citation, 3 John 2, which reads as, "Beloved, I wish above all things that thou mayest prosper and be in health, even as thy soul prospereth.")
Bragg tastes very salty for a product with no added salt, but it's less salty than the product it most resembles, Maggi's Liquid Seasoning. Labelled as Jugo in some markets, Maggi is a familiar sight in kitchens all around the world, though its origins lie in Switzerland in the late 19th century. Maggi Liquid Seasoning was the creation of Julius Maggi, the son of a mill owner who was commissioned by a Swiss welfare group to come up with a cheap way to feed the working poor. His first attempt was a legume flour used to make broth, which became the basis for the Maggi line of soup mixes.
Maggi had more instantaneous success with his liquid seasoning, created as a way to make unappetizing food more flavorful. It was a cheap alternative to Baron Justus von Liebig's "Extract of Meat," the forerunner of the bouillon cube, which was itself a cheap alternative to actual meat. These products were two of the earliest examples of mass-produced packaged foods.
Maggi cleverly tweaks the formula to fit local palettes, varying the piquancy, the pungency, or the sourness, which might explain why cooks across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East have incorporated the seasoning into their cuisine. Wherever it's sold, it's used to add a dash of umami to soups, stews, noodles, eggs, and more— it can even be used to flavor popcorn!
Maggi is made from fermented wheat protein, so it's not gluten free. It's also high in MSG, and one tablespoon contains 60% of your recommended daily salt intake, so it's not right for everyone's diet. That being said, you're unlikely to need a tablespoon. The rich, meaty, umami flavor of Maggi is intense, and much stronger than Bragg.
Before Julius Maggi invented his liquid seasoning, Jules Tournade traveled from his native France to New Jersey to make his fortune as a confectioner, and invented a liquid seasoning of his own. Tournade was the inventor of the browning sauce that has been sold for over 130 years as Kitchen Bouquet.
You might think browning sauce serves a different purpose to seasoning sauces - its role is to improve the aesthetic of a dish, especially roast meats and gravies, giving them a deeper, more appetizing color. That's true; but it also calls itself a seasoning sauce right there on the label, and it has a distinctive flavor.
As seems appropriate for a sauce made by a confectioner, Kitchen Bouquet is made with caramel. It's darker and more viscous than Maggi and Bragg, and it's sweeter, a little fruity, with a slightly burnt aftertaste. Though it's typically used in meat dishes, it's entirely vegetarian, made from a base of carrots, cabbage, turnips, parsnips, celery and onion. It's also MSG-free because it doesn't contain hydrolyzed protein. As far back as 1949, Kitchen Bouquet was hailed in a Spokane newspaper for "making reputations for cooks for over 70 years."
These three products have close to 300 years of history between them, and if you have one of their red-and-yellow bottles in your kitchen there's a good chance it's a product you grew up with. Yet these products aren't entirely interchangeable. They're all used as flavor enhancers for soups, stews, roasts, but they have different flavors and intensities and serve different dietary needs. If you use any of them at all, it may depend on whether you're used to them!