What is Wheat Gluten?

Niki Foster
Niki Foster

Wheat gluten is a meat-like, vegetarian food product, sometimes called seitan, mock duck, gluten meat, or wheat meat. It is made from the gluten, or protein portion, of wheat, and used as a meat substitute, often to imitate the flavor and texture of duck, but also as a substitute for other poultry, pork, beef, and even seafood. Wheat gluten is produced by rinsing wheat flour dough in water until the starch separates from the gluten and washes away.

Wheat ears along with a small pile of wheat kernels (also known as wheat berries).
Wheat ears along with a small pile of wheat kernels (also known as wheat berries).

Wheat gluten has a long history in China, where it has been eaten since ancient times. It may have originated as a meat substitute for vegetarian Buddhists. There are three main varieties of seitan available in China: oily, steamed, and baked spongy gluten. The oily or oil fried variety is deep fried into small balls, and sometimes larger balls stuffed with tofu or meat. The small balls are sometimes sold as imitation abalone, and are commonly served with mushrooms or boiled in soup or stew.

Wheat bran.
Wheat bran.

Steamed gluten is usually in the form of a sausage shape, though larger blocks of it may be sold as mock ham. The sausage-like product is dense and may be sliced or torn into strips before using in recipes. Baked spongy gluten is made by leavening and baking or steaming raw gluten. It may be sold fresh, frozen, or in cans or bottles, and sometimes marinated with peanuts or mushrooms. Baked spongy gluten is the most absorbent variety and has a soft, juicy texture.

A field of wheat.
A field of wheat.

In Japanese markets, wheat gluten is usually sold either raw or dry baked. The raw variety is blended with sticky rice flour and millet and shaped into blocks, often cut into novelty shapes and colored. It is also used in a confection called fu-manju, in which the wheat gluten is sweetened, filled with a sweet filling, wrapped in leaves, and steamed. The dry baked variety of wheat gluten is leavened with baking powder and sold in hard, crouton-like pieces that are typically added to soup to lend texture.

Bread made with wheat.
Bread made with wheat.

Wheat gluten is a staple of the macrobiotic diet, which stresses avoiding refined foods and eating a balanced diet of locally grown foods according to the season of the year and the gender, age, and health status of the individual. In the Western world, wheat gluten is usually associated with either macrobiotic or vegetarian diets. It is usually available at Asian markets and health food stores, though increasingly can be found in supermarkets. It is often sold as a ready to eat snack or in shapes resembling meat products, like ribs and patties.

Beer usually contains gluten.
Beer usually contains gluten.
Niki Foster
Niki Foster

In addition to her role as a wiseGEEK editor, Niki enjoys educating herself about interesting and unusual topics in order to get ideas for her own articles. She is a graduate of UCLA, where she majored in Linguistics and Anthropology.

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Discussion Comments

musicshaman

@streamfinder -- I think that its just another word for wheat gluten flour. According to one vendor, it can make your bread rise higher and taste better, but again, that's advertising, so I don't know how accurate it is.

Apparently its also what you use to make seitan, but I think that you can do that with pretty much any wheat gluten, I don't think it has to be vital wheat gluten.

StreamFinder

I had heard of a product called "Vital Wheat Gluten". What exactly is that? Is it just a brand name of wheat gluten, or is it some kind of organic wheat gluten, or is it actually something else altogether?

googlefanz

Cool article -- I never knew that wheat gluten was used for anything on its own, I just always heard of people avoiding eating it.

I guess people with Celiac disease have to skip out on the wheat gluten seitan though...

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