Monday, May 10, 2010

Wheat Meat

Sometimes vegetarians confuse me. I’m not talking about having a position against eating animals. I can respect that. I’m not even talking about the folks who claim to be vegetarian, but eat fish. This just in: Fish aren’t plants, fungi, eggs or dairy products. They’re animals. Look it up. No, I’m talking about something I hadn’t really thought of until our friend Steve brought it up several years ago. If you’re morally or ethically opposed to eating animal flesh, or are grossed-out by it, what’s up with all the fake meat?

Textured vegetable protein (TVP), seitan, soy dogs (and I’ve recently seen soy-rizo, an imitation chorizo sausage), soy crumbles, tofurky, and soy bacon. (I even find turkey bacon to be extremely phony. For the love of all that is good and decent, please leave the bacon to the pigs!) I’ve left tofu and tempeh off this list, because they are traditional foods that did not evolve under the pretense of being meat. TVP and seitan, was less sure about. I’m not really familiar with TVP, except as a filler in things like sandwich fillings and veggie burgers. Until recently, I knew nothing about seitan, but I learned that I could make it myself, so I decided to investigate it further.

Seitan (I’ve also seen it referred to as wheat meat) is basically kneaded and cooked wheat gluten. It has a firm and chewy texture and mostly tastes of the flavorful liquid in which it is cooked. It is also easily flavored with marinades and other seasonings, so it can taste pretty much however the cook wants it to taste. It seems to have originated in Asia as part of the Buddhist vegetarian diet, and gained popularity in the West as part of the macrobiotic diet in the second half of the twentieth century.

Strangely, at least to me, seitan always seems to have been used as a meat-like meat substitute for people who did not want to eat meat. Apparently, the fake meat trend has always been there. I don’t know why folks throughout history have not just eaten beans and grains, but have sought ways to turn them into foods that resemble meat. Perhaps the hunter-gatherer diet has become so rooted in our brains that we need to pull a fast one on ourselves to enjoy our meals.

Well, when I’m the one who does the cooking, I know pretty well that I didn’t put meat in a dish, no matter what it tastes or looks like. I wasn’t going to be faking myself out by making seitan, but I was curious about how it would go and whether it would taste good enough to make the effort worthwhile.

As it turned out, there really wasn’t that much effort involved in making seitan, or even that much mess. Some preparation methods that I have seen start with whole wheat flour, seem to take a long time, and involve washing away the bran and starch of the wheat to leave just the gluten. In How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman, however, seitan is made starting with wheat gluten. Since gluten flour (or vital gluten) is easy enough to find, I was perfectly happy to let someone else wash away the starch and bran.

I kneaded the gluten with water into a very rubbery mass, which took just a couple of minutes. I then shaped it into logs and simmered it in a mixture of vegetable broth (you could use water) and soy sauce for about an hour. The result was a sort of rubbery dumpling (say that three times fast). It is quite chewy, but more like extra-firm tofu or, well okay, meat, than like silly putty.

I have to say I liked my homemade seitan, and found the process fun, easy and affordable. I’m not sure that as a food it has any hope of converting a serious carnivore into a vegetarian, but that’s not what I’m setting out to do. Sure, I used it (in a stir fry that I hope to post next) where I might have used sliced chicken, beef or pork, but I try to think of it as an independent food with its own value as a protein source.

Who am I kidding? This stuff is fake meat. I feel a little like I’ve been defeated, but at least there was some good food at the end of the game.

Homemade Seitan
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

If you do not have a heavy-duty mixer (such as a Kitchen-Aid), you could mix and knead the seitan by hand, but it will take longer.

1 cup gluten flour (vital wheat gluten)
¾ cup water
6 cups vegetable broth (or water)
1/3 cup soy sauce

1. In the bowl of a heavy duty electric mixer, combine the gluten and ¾ cup water. Mix with the paddle attachment until completely combined. If all of the gluten flour does not incorporate, add water, just a few drops at a time until all of the gluten is mixed in.

2. Replace the paddle attachment with the dough hook, knead for about one minute or until the mixture forms a tight, very stretchy ball. Cover the dough and let it rest for 20 minutes.
3. While the dough rests, combine the vegetable broth and soy sauce in a large pot. Set aside.

4. Cut or pull the dough into two equal portions. Stretch and pull each section into a log or loaf shape. Submerge each loaf into the vegetable broth mixture. The liquid does not need to completely cover the loaves.

5. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat so that the liquid is just boiling gently or simmering. Cover and cook for about 1 hour, turning the loaves occasionally. The loaves will puff up considerably while they cook. You can cut off a sample of a loaf and taste it to see if it is done. If you wish for a less dense final product, cook it up to 30 minutes longer.

6. Cool the seitan in the cooking liquid and use right away, keep it in the refrigerator stored in the cooking liquid for several days, or freeze for several months.

Makes about 1 pound.


  1. I would have tried "Using an ingredient to simply play 'fake meat' in a recipe is just selling your soul to seitan", but that's just me ...

  2. Sudden realizationJanuary 8, 2011 at 8:05 AM

    For a long time, I've thought just like you -- why do vegetarians buy fake burgers & wieners & sandwich meats? just hit me while reading your blog that none of these meat products look much like meat either. Meat burgers, sausages, wieners, deli meats look nothing like the original animal, or even like a butcher-cut slice of it -- we've just machined it into a convenient shape for slapping on a bun & holding in our hands.

    Why should it be any different with soy or gluten?

    On Tofurkey though I'm with you. a newbie vegetarian I recently hit on seitan as a great protein source, and that's mainly why I like it. There's nothing else out there for vegetarians that is 85% protein. You have to eat a LOT of beans & rice to get the equivalent protein amount.

  3. I just read a great comment on Tofurkey by David Tanis in his book "The Heart of the Artichoke" :

    "Today the final insult is tofurkey-it is demeaning to the tofu, and it's demeaning to the turkey."


    By Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D.
    By Jill Nussinow, M.S., R.D.

    "According to Barbara and Leonard Jacobs in their excellent book Cooking with Seitan, The Complete Vegetarian 'Wheat-Meat' Cookbook, 'seitan has been a staple food among vegetarian monks of China, Russian wheat farmers, peasants of Southeast Asia, and Mormons. People who had traditionally eaten wheat had also discovered a method to extract the gluten and create a seitan-like product.'"
    Wikipedia also talks about cultures that have eaten a seitan like dish using wheat protein since ancient times. Maybe, it would be more accurate to add that some people eat seitan for the protein. I myself like the taste, find it economical, and a healthy, surprisingly low carb food.