If a walk through the grocery aisle is any indicator, no substance has been more vilified in recent years. But despite the countless packages declaring its absence, gluten is not only perfectly safe for the vast majority of consumers not allergic to it, it's also downright delicious in the hands of a skilled cook.
"It can take a lot of forms and you can flavor it in a number of different ways," said Sandra Sharp, a vegan who's taught classes on making seitan, a form of wheat gluten, from scratch. "It's cruelty free and high in protein. It has all the plusses of meat without any of the downside."
No matter what you call it -- wheat meat, seitan or simply gluten are all common -- the nutritional value stacks up well. A three-ounce portion contains roughly 20 grams of protein, on par with lean ground beef. If you purchase it in preformed blocks, the cost is in line or slightly below beef, starting around $3 per pound for frozen packages.
That cost plummets if you make it at home. Flour, water and time are the only required ingredients. Sharpe's version is simmered in a flavorful broth and fortified with vital wheat gluten, an isolated and powdered form of the protein that looks very similar to flour. Essentially, the process involves forming a simple dough, kneading it long enough to develop the gluten strands then rinsing away the starchy carbohydrates from the dough.
"Washing the flour does take a couple hours, but it's relatively easy to make and it freezes well," Sharpe said.
Sharpe's family enjoys it in numerous forms from pan fried to sandwiches. With a dense, chewy texture, it holds up well to bold flavors common in Asian kitchens, which is fitting -- the first historical references to wheat gluten date to sixth century China. It also plays well in a zippy curry like the gluten vindaloo recipe included here.
10 cups water
2 cups soy sauce
8 garlic cloves, peeled
4 bay leaves
6 1-inch thick slices of ginger, peeled
4 cups unbleached flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup vital wheat gluten
2 1/2 cups water
Bring broth ingredients to a simmer. Combine flours and gluten powder in a large mixing bowl and gradually stir in water until a thick dough forms. Knead the dough a minimum of 70 times on a floured surface and let rest for 20 minutes.
Fill a sink with enough water to cover dough. Knead the dough underwater until the water turns milky. Drain and preheat until no more starch washes from dough, 10-12 times or more as needed.
Form the gluten into round loaves and wrap in cheesecloth. Simmer packages in broth for two hours and remove to cool. Freeze or refrigerate for up to three weeks.
1 2-inch piece ginger, peeled and finely minced
2 tablespoons ghee or oil
2 teaspoons cumin seeds
1 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 medium onion, finely minced
4 garlic cloves, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon cayenne powder, more or less to taste
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 pound prepared wheat gluten, homemade or purchased, sliced into quarter circles
Chopped cilantro to garnish
Heat the ghee or oil in a large wok or pan. Add cumin and mustard sets, cooking until they pop. Add onion and cook until soft, 6-8 minutes. Add garlic, ginger, salt, turmeric and cayenne, cooking an additional 4-5 minutes until fragrant and tender. Stir in vinegar, tomato paste and one cup of water to form a thick sauce. Stir in gluten and simmer until heated through, adding more water as needed for desired sauce thickness. Serve with fried potatoes, rice or strands of cooked spaghetti squash topped with chopped cilantro.