In the last few years gluten has earned itself a bad reputation. It seems like more and more people are discovering that they are gluten intolerant, have a gluten allergy, or even worse, have Celiac's disease. A google search for "Is gluten healthy?" will lead you down a rabbit hole of conflicting information where everyone has an opinion and everyone is right.
I'm not even going to get near that rabbit hole in this post. Vital wheat gluten is something that is sold in the bulk section of my local grocery store, and since I'm on a quest to learn about all the ingredients there, I will now present what I have learned. If gluten is something that personally hurts you, just have a nice read and don't try cooking with it. Let's dive in...
What is gluten?
Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in wheat. It is made when wheat comes into contact with water. It's a key part of making bread so delicious. It holds the bread ingredients together and is responsible for bread having that awesomely soft, but chewy texture.
Do you relate to this guy? Then gluten is definitely your friend! If reading about chemical process is your jam, or if you'd just like to know scientifically more about how gluten works to make bread delicious, check out "Gluten: How Does it Work?"
Is Vital Wheat Gluten the same thing?
Nope, vital wheat gluten is the souped up version of the naturally occurring protein. It's made by hydrating some wheat, which is how regular gluten is naturally made. The wheat is then processed so that the only thing that remains is the gluten. Once dried, it is powdered and sold as "vital wheat gluten."
Why would I use it?
Like I said earlier, gluten is responsible for the texture of bread. So adding more gluten to a bread recipe can improve the texture and elasticity of the dough. It makes the end product softer and moister. It's especially effective when you are using whole wheat or rye flours, because they naturally have a lower gluten content.
And I've found this to be true. I've tried several whole wheat bread recipes over the years. The hands down, most delicious recipe I ever tried was a pretty standard recipe, the only difference was that included vital wheat gluten in the ingredients.
I was curious, however, to see if vital wheat gluten made a difference in recipes that called for all purpose flour. I decided to try it out on the internet's favorite Miracle No Kneed Bread. This is a recipe that floats around all over, and really is so easy and delicious. If you haven't tried it yet, I highly recommend.
I put it to the vital wheat gluten test by adding in 1 tablespoon of vital wheat gluten to the dry ingredients of one loaf of bread. (Wikihow suggests adding 1 tablespoon per 3 cups of flour). Then I made another loaf following the original recipe. Other than the additional gluten, the two loaves were made exactly the same, side by side. And the results?
The loaf that had the extra gluten came out of the oven as a more evenly shaped loaf. It also held it's shape better when I cut into it. The no gluten added loaf kind of buckled in on itself while I was slicing it. The centers had pretty much the same texture. The outside on both were very crusty, but the gluten added crust what more chewy, while the other was more crispy.
The two loaves did taste exactly the same. However, in our test group, everyone agreed that the gluten added bread had a better consistency and liked the crust better. I know that I'll definitely be including vital wheat gluten when I make this recipe in the future.
Anything else I should know?
Yes! Because vital wheat gluten is essentially just protein, it is a great thing to add to your diet if you are looking for more protein. ¼ cup of vital wheat gluten has 21 grams of protein! The most popular way this is used is by making something called "Seitan."
According to Women's Heath Magazine, "Seitan is a really solid meat alternative (and, tbh, they're not all created equal). It has a good texture and is often used to create vegan ‘meat’-like products including Tofurky. It blends well with other flavors, and is a pretty great introduction to vegan meat substitutes for the newly initiated, or tofu-averse."
This is definitely something I'll be trying, so check back soon to hear a full report on how our seitan turns out.
Vital wheat gluten has a shelf life of 18 months if kept in an airtight container. I buy mine in the bulk section so I can choose how much I want. Since most recipes don't call for a lot, I purchase only enough to fit in a mason jar, which is how I store it in my pantry. However, if you have gotten more than you think you'll use in 18 months, you can store it in the freezer, and it will last 2 years. Freezing it will not affect how it works in your baking.
So, as long as you do not have a problem with gluten or wheat, I would highly recommend being adventurous and adding some vital wheat gluten to the next loaf of homemade bread you make. Trust me, it will be breadtacular? Oh man, I just tried to make a bread pun but it was too stale. It's too bad that bread puns are always so crumby.
Ok, I need to stop. End.
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