Gluten is the real workhorse of the world’s most delicious pastries and pasta. Think of gluten as the bond that holds together your favorite cookies, without it, they would crumble at the touch.
What is gluten?
Gluten is critical for bakers and cooks because it provides the proper texture and function resulting in our favorite dishes like pasta, bread, and pastries. Gluten is the common name for proteins present in wheat (durum, einkorn, semolina, spelt, faro, bulgur, kamut khorasan wheat) and related grains such as barley, rye, and triticale.
When using wheat flours, gluten is formed by an elastic network of proteins (glutenin and gliadin) when the flour is moistened and manipulated. For the most part, only a batter or dough can contain gluten, not the raw flour alone.
Mixing initiates gluten formation
Gluten forms when two classes of water-insoluble proteins in wheat flour (glutenin and gliadin) are hydrated with water and mixed. From this process, gluten bonds form and a firm, rubbery substance is created providing strength and structure. The bonds that form between the glutenin and gliadin are called disulfide bonds, as illustrated in the picture below:
What is gluten’s function in baking and cooking?
The amount of gluten formation
As mixing increases so does the strength of the dough. The amount of gluten formation is dependent on the application. Less gluten formation is desired in a tender cake, whereas high amounts of gluten formation are needed for chewy artisan bread. You can purchase various types of wheat-based flour with more or less protein, depending on the desired level of gluten-forming potential.
When gluten bonds are formed, the protein then can form elastic films in the dough, which provides structure and helps to trap gases, assisting in the leavening of products. When heated, the gluten proteins coagulate (solidifies), and a semi-rigid structure forms providing texture to various wheat-based products.
Protein Content of Flours
|TYPE OF FLOUR||PERCENT PROTEIN||USE|
|Cake||6 – 8%||Tender cakes|
|Pastry||7.5 – 9.5%||Biscuits, pie crusts|
|All-Purpose||10 – 13%||General baking|
|Bread||12 – 15%||Yeast breads|
|Whole-Wheat||13 – 14%||Breads|
|High-Gluten||13 – 15%||Bagels, used to increase protein content of weaker flour such as rye, whole-grain, or specialty flours|
|Vital Wheat Gluten||40 – 85%||Added to flour to increase protein content of weaker flour such as rye, whole-grain, or specialty flours|
(Source: On Baking: A Textbook of Culinary Fundamentals)
The Role of Starches
Starches are also an essential component in wheat flour (63-77%). As the product is heated, the starches absorb moisture and gelatinize (stiffen), adding to the texture of the finished product. The unique composition of nutrients in wheat flour (fat, minerals, moisture, starches, and proteins) provide the characteristic taste and texture attributes of wheat-based products.
There are many people who face the challenge of wheat allergies, celiac disease, and non-celiac gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is especially dangerous because the body is unable to properly digest gluten, resulting in an autoimmune reaction. The antibodies will flatten and damage the absorptive villi in the small intestine, causing nutrients to pass through the small intestine rather than get absorbed. This genetic digestive disease can lead to malnourishment and other complications if left untreated.
Removing gluten from your diet is the only way to prevent the symptoms of the disease. Thankfully, in recent years there are now many gluten-free flour alternatives appearing in the baking aisle of your local grocery store. If you are curious to learn about celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, the Celiac Disease Foundation, and Gluten Intolerance Group are some great sources.
|GLUTEN SENSITIVITY||WHEAT ALLERGY||CELIAC DISEASE|
|Prevalence||6% of U.S. population||Less than 1% of children; some adults after exercise||1% of U.S. population|
|Symptoms||Some stomach issues, also headaches, balance problems, many others||Hives, nasal congestion, nausea, anaphylaxis||Bloating, diarrhea, malnutrition, osteoporosis, cancer|
|Triggers||Gluten, amount unknown||Wheat proteins, but may cross-react with other grains||Even small amounts of gluten|
|Treatment||Gluten-free diet, although small amounts may be tolerable||Avoid wheat products||Strict gluten-free diet|
(Source: The Wall Street Journal, Article: Clues to Gluten Sensitivity)
There are many foods that contain gluten that isn’t as obvious, like soy sauce. Just remember, because something may be wheat-free, it still may contain gluten if spelt, rye, or barley-based ingredients are present. Oats may be processed in the same manufacturing facility as wheat, so make sure you buy only gluten-free oats. Pay close attention to reading nutritional labels!