Gluten as a Separate Ingredient

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

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Because they’re both cohesive and insoluble in water, the gluten proteins are easily separated from the rest of the flour: you simply make a dough, then knead it in water. The starch and water-soluble substances wash away, and tough, chewy gluten remains. Gluten as a unique food ingredient was discovered by Chinese noodle makers around the 6th century, and by the 11th was known as mien chin, or the “muscle of flour.” (The Japanese call it seitan.) When cooked, concentrated gluten does develop a chewy, slippery texture like that of meats from animal muscle. Mien chin became a major ingredient in the vegetarian cooking that developed in Buddhist monasteries; there are recipes dating from the 11th century for imitation venison and jerky, and for fermented gluten. Because gluten contains a high proportion of glutamic acid, fermentation breaks it down into a condiment that was an early version of savory-tasting MSG. One of the simplest ways to prepare gluten is to pinch off small bits and deep-fry them; they puff up into light chewy balls that readily absorb the flavor from a sauce. Today gluten is widely available and used to make a variety of vegetarian “meats.”