Controlling Gluten Strength

Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About
Not all baked goods benefit from a strong, elastic gluten. It’s desirable in yeasted breads, bagels, and in puff pastry; but it gives an undesirable toughness to other forms of pastry, to raised cakes, griddle cakes, and cookies. For tender preparations, bakers intentionally limit the development of gluten.
There are a number of ingredients and techniques by which the baker controls the gluten strength and consistency of doughs and batters. They include:
  • The kind of flour used. High-protein bread flours produce a strong gluten, low-protein pastry and cake flours a weak one, durum semolina (for pasta) a strong but plastic one.
  • The presence in the flour of oxidizing substances—aging and improving agents—which can increase the end-to-end linking of glutenin molecules and thus dough strength.
  • The water content of the dough, which determines how concentrated the gluten proteins are, and how extensively they can bond to each other. Little water gives an incompletely developed gluten and a crumbly texture; a lot of water gives a less concentrated gluten and a softer, moister dough and bread.

  • Stirring and kneading the flour-water mixture, actions that stretch and organize the gluten proteins into an elastic network.
  • Salt, which greatly strengthens the gluten network. The electrically positive sodium and negative chlorine ions cluster around the few charged portions of the glutenin proteins, prevent those charged portions from repelling each other, and so allow the proteins to come closer to each other and bond more extensively.
  • Sugar, which at the concentrations typical of raised sweet breads, 10% or more of the flour weight, limits the development of gluten by diluting the flour proteins.
  • Fats and oils, which weaken gluten by bonding to the hydrophobic amino acids along the protein chains and so preventing them from bonding to each other.
  • Acidity in the dough—as from a sourdough culture—which weakens the gluten network by increasing the number of positively charged amino acids along the protein chains, and increasing the repulsive forces between chains.