What is Vital Wheat Gluten and How Do You Use It?
In a time when it seems as though many people are actively avoiding gluten, you may have noticed what seems like a peculiar product in the baking aisle of your grocery store: vital wheat gluten. This powdery substance is protein-packed, vegan-friendly, and ready to transform how you bake. Read on to learn more about what makes vital wheat gluten so special.
What is Vital Wheat Gluten?
Although it's not technically a flour, vital wheat gluten is a flour-like powder that contains nearly all gluten and minimal starch. It's made by hydrating wheat flour, which activates the gluten protein, and it's then processed to remove everything but the gluten. It's then dried out and ground back into a powder again.
How Do You Use Vital Wheat Gluten?
Vital wheat gluten is often listed as "optional" in baking recipes, but it's a helpful ingredient to have on hand. Since it's a concentrated wheat protein, just a tablespoon or two of vital wheat gluten in your next loaf of bread can improve its elasticity and create a better crumb and chewiness in the final product. The recommended ratio is one tablespoon of vital wheat gluten per two cups of flour. This is especially helpful for bread recipes using low-protein flour varieties, such as whole wheat, rye bread, or bread recipes with lots of mix-ins, like nuts or fruits, to provide more structure and stability.
The other main use for vital wheat gluten is seitan, also known as "wheat meat," a vegan meat alternative. Seitan is often made by mixing vital wheat gluten with spices and seasonings, then adding a liquid. Once a stiff dough forms, it's either steamed, baked, or boiled to create a chewy and savory texture similar to meat. Seitan can be used to emulate chicken, breakfast sausage, pepperoni, and more. This method of preparing gluten was first recorded in 6th century China, and it's still popular amongst the vegetarian Buddhist population in Asian countries to this day.
Vital Wheat Gluten Substitutes
No vital wheat gluten? No problem. There are a few substitutes you can use instead.
- Xanthan gum: This food thickener made from bacteria is probably your best bet for a sub. It's usually vegan (though you should check with the manufacturer to ensure it hasn't been cross-contaminated) and adds structure to gluten-free dough. Use about ½ a teaspoon of xanthan gum for every cup of flour your recipe calls for or for every tablespoon of vital wheat gluten.
- Protein Powder: If you're using vital wheat gluten as a source of protein, you can use protein powder instead. However, this won't work for baking projects, as it doesn't add much structure.
- Eggs: In a pinch, eggs can help add structure and integrity (although they're not suitable for strict vegan diets). Use one egg for every cup of flour your recipe calls for or for every tablespoon of vital wheat gluten.
How to Store Vital Wheat Gluten
Vital wheat gluten lasts for several years when packaged and stays fresh for up to six months once opened. So if you're making big batches of seitan, feel free to buy in bulk, but if you're just adding a spoonful to occasional baking recipes, it's better to get a smaller bag. Vital wheat gluten can be found in the baking aisle of some well-stocked health food stores, and it can also be purchased online.