What Is Seitan?

What exactly is seitan? Nutritional facts and instructions on making a protein-rich meat substitute.

Seitan (say-TAHN) is made from gluten. Gluten is the name of the insoluble protein in wheat, probably most familiar as the stuff that makes bread dough elastic. Known as "Seitan" in Japan, as "kofu" in China, and as "wheat meat" and "gluten" here in the U.S., seitan is a low fat, high protein, firm-textured meat substitute. It has been eaten in China, Japan, Korea, Russia and the Middle East for thousands of years. Gluten is often referred to in Chinese restaurants as "Buddha food", because of the claim that it was developed by pacifist, vegetarian Buddhist monks as a meat substitute. It is a food rich in tradition as well as nutrition.

As a protein source, seitan contains about 31 grams of protein per 4 ounce serving (which means it has more plant protein per serving than tofu), provides a modest amount of B vitamins and iron and contains no saturated fat or cholesterol. A 3 1/2 ounce (100 gram) serving contains 118 calories, 18% protein and less than 1% unsaturated fat. The same amount of beef has 207 calories and 32.2% protein and is high in saturated fats. As recent studies have shown, our need for protein is much lower than previously believed and any opportunity to remove saturated fats from our diet would be an excellent improvement.

Another dietary benefit of seitan is its low sodium content, although cooking often adds considerably to this. Most of the commercially prepared seitan contains a considerable amount of sodium (up to 100 mg. per ounce). If you choose to deep-fry the gluten, the fat content will jump from virtually zero to the number of grams in whatever oil is absorbed (at 4.5 grams per teaspoon). Moreover, like grain foods in general, this protein is incomplete and needs to be complemented with other protein sources such as dairy or legumes.

Many vegetarians' first experience with eating gluten is at Chinese or Vietnamese restaurants, where it's called "mock duck", "mock chicken", etc. When it's sold in little tubs at the natural/health food store, it's called Seitan again, probably because marketing studies showed that the word "gluten" lacks consumer appeal. It stands in for meat in many recipes and works so well that some vegetarians prefer to avoid it because the texture is too "meaty." However, for many vegetarians and others who are trying to make the transition to a meatless lifestyle, "Wheat Meat" is growing in popularity.

Seitan usually starts out as whole grain wheat or high gluten flour mixed with water to obtain a bread dough consistency. The dough is kneaded vigorously for about 10 minutes, and then is left to rest so the gluten can develop. Next, it is rinsed many times under running water, which removes most of the starch and much of the bran. What is left is a firm, stringy mass of high protein gluten that is then cooked in soy sauce and water with other spices added for flavoring, often including the sea vegetable kombu. When raw gluten (wheat dough with the starch washed away) has been cooked in a broth of shoyu, ginger, and kombu, it's called "seitan".

It is now ready to be used in casseroles, stir-fry, sandwiches, and enchiladas or just about anywhere that you might previously have used meat. It can be oven-braised, baked, cooked in a pressure cooker, or deep-fried. Each version yields a different texture. Oven braising produces a texture similar to the chewy texture derived from simmering. Baking produces a light texture that works well when grinding or grating seitan. Pressure-cooking will produce a softer texture. Fried gluten turns soft and slippery when cooked with a sauce and absorbs flavor well.

Here is a recipe for homemade seitan:

6 cups whole wheat bread flour or high-gluten unbleached white flour

3 cups water

1/2 cup tamari or soy sauce

12 slices fresh ginger, each 1/8 inch thick,

1 piece of kombu, about 3 inches long.

Mix the flour and water with a wooden fork to make medium-stiff but not sticky dough.

Knead the dough by hand on a breadboard or tabletop, until it has the consistency of an earlobe (seriously), about 10 minutes. You may add a little water if needed to get the right consistency.

Allow the dough to rest in a bowl of cold water for about 10 minutes. While the dough is resting, prepare the stock. In a large pot, bring to boil 3 quarts of water. Add the tamari or soy, ginger, and kombu, and simmer for 15 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool. This stock must be cold before it is used. (The cool liquid causes the gluten to contract and prevents the seitan from acquiring a bread-like texture.) You will be using this stock to cook the seitan later.

Meanwhile, it is time to start washing the dough; use warm water to start. Warm water loosens the dough and makes the task easier. Some people knead the dough while it is immersed in water in a bowl. I prefer to rinse it under running water, with the flow stream about as thick as a pencil. I hold the dough in/over a spaghetti strainer (colander) just in case I might drop some pieces of dough.

The water will look very milky at first and then get more "ňútransparent'. In the final rinses, use cold water to tighten the gluten. After about 10 to 15 minutes, you will begin to feel the dough become firmer and more elastic. The water will no longer become cloudy as you knead it. To make sure you have kneaded and rinsed it enough, lift the dough out of the water and squeeze it. The liquid oozing out should be clear, not milky. The size of the ball will be considerably smaller than when you began.

Place the rinsed seitan in an empty bowl and let it rest until the dough relaxes. After the dough has been rinsed for the last time in cold water, the gluten will have tightened and the dough will be tense, tough, and resistant to taking on any other shape.

Seitan is cooked in two steps. In the first step, the dough is put into a large pot with about 3 quarts of plain, boiling water. Boil the seitan for about 30-45 minutes, or until it floats to the surface. Drain the seitan and cut it into usable pieces (steaks, cutlets, 1-inch chunks, or whatever) or leave whole. Return the seitan to the cold tamari stock. Bring the stock to a boil, lower the temperature, and simmer in the stock for 1 1/2 to 2 hours (45 minutes if the seitan is cut into small pieces). This second step may also be done in a pressure cooker, in which case it would take between 30-45 minutes.

To store seitan, keep it refrigerated, immersed in the stock. If it is brought to a boil in the tamari stock and simmered for 10 minutes twice a week, the seitan will keep indefinitely. Otherwise, use it within 8 or 9 days.

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