What is Gluten? and Why it’s so Important

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.

loaf of bread sliced into several pieces

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 - infographic showing how its formation

What is gluten’s function in baking and cooking?

  • Volume
  • Texture
  • Appearance

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 is 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 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 to wheat based products.

close up photo of the inside of a loaf of bread

Celiac Disease

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

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 aren’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!

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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10 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Christine Ng says

    Hi Jessica, very interesting read. Just wanted to know if I could have your permission to use your figure to explain gluten formation in an upcoming essay.
    Thanks.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Gluten can help better trap carbon dioxide in the batter or dough so that it rises better. I have a high altitude baking article you can check out if you are interested.

  2. Maggie Ossa says

    Great explanation, basic yet with the perfect amount of detail. That was a very informative post. Thank you!!

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