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What is gluten?

homemade baguetteThe word “gluten” is probably so well know these days because we are all so much more aware of people with gluten intolerances and products that are gluten free. Of course, this doesn’t really describe what gluten is. Gluten is protein in wheat flour and some other cereal grains. Gluten is elastic, and when combined with water, the proteins first come together in long strings. These networks of gluten are what allow breads to rise and give just about all baked goods their shape and texture. In addition to providing a soft, chewy texture to fresh breads, gluten is also responsible for the brittle texture of stale breads; when moisture leaves a baked loaf of bread (over the course of a few days), the gluten becomes less elastic and finally will crumble under pressure, as seen in a crumbly and stale loaf.

When the protein is isolate from the starches of the flour, it is brownish-grey, tough and rubbery. This may not sound that appealing in text, but in this state it is known as seitan and is frequently used as a meat-substitute in vegetarian or vegan cooking, and the chewiness of seitan is what makes it a very convincing faux-meat.

Wheat flour, rye and barley are probably the three most common grains that sources of gluten. At stores like Whole Foods, as well as at specialty baking stores, you can buy “vital wheat gluten” on its own. Vital wheat gluten is flour-less gluten and it can be added to breads – especially breads made with low-protein whole grain flours – to increase elasticity, giving the finished loaves a much higher rise and softer texture.

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10 Comments
  • confectionate
    November 4, 2008

    I believe that glutenin and gliadin are actually the proteins and when mixed with water, they produce the gluten..

  • Nicole
    November 4, 2008

    Confectionate – You’re right, glutenin and gliadin are the two proteins that produce gluten. Since the two make up the vast majority of the protein in wheat, it’s pretty common (or commonly accepted, at least) to simply use gluten to describe the wheat protein. In other words, I was trying to be a bit general in my description – but you’re definitely dead-on.

  • Kitchen Positions
    November 5, 2008

    Hi Nicole,

    These days everybody is concerned about gluten free recipies.
    your post explained clearly in which grains it is presented.
    Thanks for posting

  • Arindam
    November 10, 2008

    Yes, thank you very much for explaining this for us. I am particularly interested in the fact that this can be used as a protein source. I am trying to increase my protein and this information is very useful to me. 🙂

    Arindam

  • Joshua
    November 13, 2008

    Yes thank you for explaining this to mee

  • JT
    April 27, 2009

    Thank you so much for providing a good explanation of chat gluten is. It is all too misunderstood.

  • Finally some one gives a great explaination of Gluten. We work with depressed teens and self harming adults and protein has shown to be a very important element to their overall health..Thank you for timely information!

  • Tom @ Water Filters
    June 22, 2009

    Thats interesting to know what the process is behind bread going stale.

  • Janet Ritch
    February 27, 2012

    What would happen if I used some (ie. 1/2) whole wheat pastry flour in a bread recipe using regular bread flour. WOULD ADDING MASHED POTATOES OR POTATO WATER ACCOUNT FOR THE MISSING GLUTEN?

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