Budget Kitchen Fundamentals: Hail Seitan!Posted: December 30, 2008
One of the big ticket items that pushed us over budget this week was a five dollar bag of vital wheat gluten, which we use to make seitan (a.k.a. wheat meat, but that sounds kind of gross). Despite the series of decidedly sketchy pictures on seitan’s Wikipedia page, it is a delicious and versitile vegetarian protein source. At our coop, you can buy a pint container of pre-made seitan (about 3 servings) for about two bucks. Not terribly expensive. But it’s the extra step of making the stuff at home that makes seitan a frugal kitchen fundamental for us.
There are two basic methods for making seitan: from scratch (i.e. from whole wheat flour) or from vital wheat gluten (this is the recipe we use). A little background info on wheat itself will highlight the difference between the two. SCIENCE!
If you click on that thumbnail, you’ll see a big diagram of a wheat grain, including parts like the germ and the bran that you often read about on cereal boxes or muffin labels or whatever. You’ll also notice that while we may think of wheat as a common source of starch carbohydrates, all the major parts of the grain also have protein. The process of separating out the starch so that you are just left with gluten (the protein part) is what you skip if you buy vital wheat gluten in the store. If you start with flour, the process of making seitan involves several rounds of kneading and washing a ball of wheat dough until the starch dissolves, leaving your with a ball of gluten.
Now, it’s true that we advocate for from-scratch processes as a rule, but in this case I’m not sure that the economics of flour vs. gluten show either option to be substantially cheaper (you pay for the gluten and the starch when you buy flour, and then you wash all the starch down the drain when you make the seitan, yielding a relatively small amount of seitan) and starting with gluten saves you a considerable amount of labor and water. It’s worth noting, however, that there are probably some industrial processes involved in the production of store-bought wheat gluten that you avoid by starting with flour, so the latter may in fact be the most environmentally sustainable option.
Making seitan from vital wheat gluten still takes some time, but relatively little labor. Basically, you’re making a dough from the gluten and then boiling that dough in broth for a while. The type of broth that you use is going to determine the base flavor of the seitan, which will of course have to coexist with whatever recipes you eventually make. This recipe from Epicurious provides a good starting point, but we encourage tinkering to determine your own version.
We usually find that two cups of vital gluten will yield approximately one basketball (or two human brains) of seitan. Ultimately you’ll use half of a $5 bag of gluten, plus maybe $1 worth of broth-related ingredients, and you’ll wind up with upwards of fifteen servings of delicious mock meat. We use it in place of beef or chicken in stir fries, or just fry some up in a skillet to have as a steak with brussel sprouts or potatos. Or, for bonus points, we have seitan steak and eggs for weekend brunch. Put the extra in tupperware filled with broth and freeze it. Easy, efficient, tasty.