In Praise of Gluten

What to eat. What not to eat.
Jan. 25 2012 12:24 PM

The Maximum-Gluten Diet

Wheat gluten is healthier, tastier, and more versatile than tofu. Vegetarians should be eating it all the time.

Dough.
You, too, can make your own wheat gluten, perhaps the best meat substitute for vegetarians

Photograph by iStockphoto/Thinkstock.

Vegetarians have a complicated relationship with tofu, by far the most popular meat alternative in America. It’s great that we herbivores can reliably ask for the cheap, reliable soy product in place of meat at most restaurants. But imagine if restaurants served only one kind of meat, and then imagine if that one kind of meat were a bland, soggy, and rectangular solid that faded into the background of whatever sauce it was soaked in. The carnivores would be outraged.

What’s bizarre is that there’s a much better meat substitute out there: gluten, the protein left over when you wash the starch and bran out of wheat. I know what you’re thinking, “Gluten, gluten ... isn’t that the stuff that’s killing innocent celiac-afflicted children, ruining our digestion, and single-handedly destroying America?” Wheat gluten is, admittedly, dangerous to some people and anathema to the many, many more who believe they have a gluten sensitivity. Sales of gluten-free foods continue to accelerate, forcing food industry analysts to upwardly revise even their optimistic projections.

So why should you zig while the rest of the country is zagging? Like many of the foods people tell you not to eat, gluten is delicious. Its texture is somewhere between tofu and meat—chewy but not bossy. Broiled or baked, it can serve as the center of a meal. In a sauce, it won’t hide in the background like that culinary Zelig, tofu. Honor the sacrifices of the celiacs among us by celebrating your own robust digestive health with a huge plate of seasoned gluten.

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Why does gluten remain the little known step-cousin of tofu, the national mascot of vegetarians, despite its obvious superiority? For a variety of historical and cultural reasons, none of which have to do with its flavor or supposed allergenic properties.

When hippies and their mainstream sympathizers looked to reduce or eliminate their meat consumption in the late 1960s, tofu was well positioned to grab that market. It had been a staple of Asian cooking for centuries, and came to America with Asian immigrants. Nearly every 19th-century Asian community in California, Oregon, and Washington state had its own manufacturer. America boasted 528 commercial tofu makers between 1925 and 1975, according to William Shurtleff, the Japanese vegetarian cuisine expert who became tofu’s great champion when he published his Book of Tofu in 1975. Shurtleff was profiled in a People magazine article that named Doris Day, Cheryl Tiegs, Bill Walton, and Gloria Swanson among the growing ranks of celebrity tofu-philes.

Wheat gluten doesn’t have tofu’s long history. The ingredient rarely appeared in ordinary cookbooks in Asia prior to the 1970s; until then, it was pretty much limited to the Shojin Ryori (PDF) cuisine practiced by vegan Buddhist monks. In the United States, wheat gluten was even less popular, but for a momentary fad among 19th-century Mormon settlers, who needed a cheap source of protein while drifting westward toward Utah.

The complications of production have also kept gluten down, even as the market for meat alternatives has grown (PDF). Wheat flour is about 14 percent protein. Most of the rest is starch. Unless gluten manufacturers can find a buyer for this byproduct, they have to figure out how to dispose of the potent thickening agent. According to Shurtleff, Japanese gluten manufacturers that poured their runoff down the drain have been stuck with heavy fines and fees for gumming up the municipal sewage systems. Few U.S. companies want to deal with those problems.

You can buy wheat gluten at any left-leaning grocery store, but the commercial varieties can’t seem to get the texture quite right. They’re either weak and crumbly or excessively chewy, approximating the texture of a racquetball. If you want a steaming plate of glutinous goodness, you’ll have to make it yourself. All it takes is about 12 hours, sturdy arms, and an iPod.

The good news it that there are only three ingredients: whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, and vegetable stock. Combine equal amounts of the two flours in a bowl. (I usually use four cups of each flour, which feeds about eight people.) Add enough water to make a dough, then turn it onto the counter and get ready to knead.

Here’s where the iPod comes in. Bread makers like to wax poetic about the beauty of kneading dough. For me, abusing a wad of flour isn’t a religious experience. Unfortunately, my stand mixer can’t stand up to such a stiff, heavy mass of dough, and shuts down long before the gluten is fully developed. So I do the tedious work myself—20 minutes’ worth, for starters—with podcasts for distraction.

After this first, aggressive kneading, cover your dough in water and leave it in the refrigerator overnight. In the morning, it’s back to work. Cut the dough into softball-sized pieces, fill up your sink, and knead each one underwater. The water will turn milky white as the starch is forced out. The dough will shrink to less than half its original size and get stretchy. Empty and refill the sink periodically. When you can knead the dough without turning the water white—this usually takes about 10 minutes and two sink-refills for each piece—drop the hunks of dough into a pot of boiling vegetable stock. Simmer for two hours, and watch them swell.

That’s the end of the preparation. Now you can do just about anything you’d do with meat. Gluten delights when marinated in a salty liquid. (When combined with soy sauce, as the Buddhist monks do, it becomes seitan.) It’s good on the grill, solving the classic problem of what to serve vegetarians at a barbecue. You can also chop or grind gluten for use in tacos and bolognese sauce. The best source of recipes is The Candle Cafe Cookbook. You can refrigerate your gluten in the simmering liquid for a week with very little loss in quality, or drain and freeze it. (Freezing and thawing will change the texture slightly, as with tofu, but some people prefer it that way.)

Is it worth the cost in time and toil? The question seems almost absurd at this point. There are people out there wasting entire afternoons making dry cakes topped with execrable fondant to look like the Chrysler building. Or baking marbled ryes that are just as good from a neighborhood baker. By that standard, making your own gluten is more than worth it. Your end product will be vastly superior to anything you can buy at the store, and at a fraction of the price.

Brian Palmer is Slate's chief explainer. He also writes How and Why and Ecologic for the Washington Post. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.