What Is Gluten?
An important baking ingredient gives us something to chew on
Having lived in New York my entire life, it's difficult to overstate the enjoyment of eating a good bagel or a slice of pizza; it's something that can't be replicated in other places. Some say it's the water here that makes the dough taste the way it does, but it's the special texture that makes or breaks these baked treats. While I can give a lot of credit to tradition and location, there's something else in the dough that's actually doing a large amount of the work to make it chewy and soft. It's a protein known as gluten.
If you've been keeping up with your food and diet trends, you've probably seen or heard recipes and diets all revolving around being gluten-free. With all the buzz about it, you're also probably wondering what gluten is and where it comes from. (Warning: There will be science ahead.)
Gluten is a protein composite found in species of grains that include wheat, rye, and barley. It's created by washing wheat flour until all the starch is removed, leaving only the gluten. Gliadin and glutelin, the proteins that combine to form gluten, are what make up around 80 percent of the protein that is found in wheat seeds. When these proteins come together, they create something similar to a network of webs, which is where gluten gets its elasticity.
What does all this mean exactly? Basically, when gluten is added in baking, it creates a stretchy web that stabilizes the shape and strength of the dough (gluten's name comes from the Latin for "glue"). The more you knead the dough, the stronger the gluten web gets, which is where bagels and pizza crusts get their chewiness. It also holds in carbon dioxide bubbles created from leavening agents like sugar or yeast, allowing the dough to rise. White, wheat, and rye breads all use gluten in their productions.
Gluten isn't relegated to baked goods only. Popular in Chinese cooking, wheat gluten has been used primarily as a substitution for meats, for vegetarians adherent to Buddhism. The gluten is fried, steamed, or baked in the same manner duck or pork would be, creating famous dishes like mock duck. In Western culture, it's eaten for its macrobiotic qualities, and sold under its Japanese name, seitan.
As I mentioned before, you're most likely familiar with gluten from the large amount of gluten-free diets you've seen. Adopting one of these diets isn't just to be healthy or trendy; people with celiac disease are sensitive to gluten and can become very ill if they consume any. It would be unfortunate to have to constrict yourself to only a few grains without gluten, such as quinoa or buckwheat; thankfully, there are plenty of recipes out there that allow you to eat common foods with a gluten-free twist. From spaghetti carbonara to banana-walnut chocolate chip muffins, there are ways to eat what you like without limiting your options.
Gluten is an important and prevelant ingredient in much of the culinary world, but thanks to clever chefs, there are gluten-free alternatives to almost anything you could want. If it's not an issue for you, gluten will give your favorite baked delights their wonderful textures, and act as one of the fundamentals of basic baking. Give it a thought, and enjoy that bagel!
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