Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lazy Sunday recipe: Seitan (wheat meat)

I live in the middle of nowhere and host many guests over the year. No matter how many times I ask about dietary restrictions before our guests arrive, invariably a couple people each year let me know twenty minutes before dinner that they have allergies or intolerances that mean they are unable to eat all or some of the prepared meal. The provider in me always wants to make sure our guests leave the table with a full belly regardless of dietary restrictions so I keep this recipe filed away to accommodate vegetarian and vegan needs, though I like to eat it too and it makes a good dish for Meatless Mondays. Most of all, it freezes well for quick changes in meal planning as needed. Of course seitan is made from wheat gluten and is obviously not gluten-free but luckily I have yet to be surprised by a gluten-free, vegan that did not let me know in advance. Thank goodness!

The recipe today is an easy one but takes a little bit of time to prepare (though not all hands-on time). It is well worth the wait and creates a cheap and protein-rich meat substitute that has more structure and texture than say tofu and is easily made at home. When we make seitan (pronounced say-tan), we separate the gluten from the starch in the grain. This may sound complicated but is actually a fun process that is a little bit science and a little bit magic. Let's get started!

Step 1: Make the dough
There are shortcuts to making seitan that involve using vital wheat gluten (essentially pure gluten) but today we are going to start from scratch with plain old flour. I used some of our homegrown, whole wheat ranch flour but an all-purpose or bread flour will work just as well (whole wheat flours take a little more time for reasons discussed later). You will need 6 cups of flour mixed with 3 cups of water (plus a little more if needed). Stir this mixture together to create a sticky dough and make sure all the flour is incorporated. You can do this by hand or in a mixer. Now let the dough rest for 30 minutes (a little longer won't hurt it). The purpose of the resting step is to let the gluten develop (the purpose of gluten in breadmaking is to give bread that chewy texture by developing this network of entangled gluten "fibers")

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Step 2: Wash the gluten
The next step is the fun step. If you have kids, get them in the kitchen to help, this is just the kind of cooking science that kids love. Put a large pot in the bottom of the sink, place the dough blob in the pot and half fill with cool water. Now start kneading and stretching the dough. The water will become cloudy as the starch rinses away and the stretchy, stringy gluten is left behind.
 
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Change out the pot of water as needed or rinse the dough in a colander or just hold it in your hands under running water - whichever you prefer. The gluten does a pretty good job of holding together so don't worry about it washing away down the drain. Note that if you used whole wheat flour, in addition to rinsing the starch away you will also have to rinse away the darker colored pieces of bran. This is why using whole wheat flour takes more time than a white flour, there is more "stuff" that needs to be separated from the gluten. Continue the rinsing process until the water runs clear. This means there is no more starch in the dough, only pure gluten. You may notice that the size of the dough ball has decreased dramatically. From my original six cups of flour, I was left with a ball of gluten about the size of a large orange.


Step 3: Flavoring the seitan
If you were to eat the seitan at this stage it would be like trying to eat a big tasteless glob of chewing gum. Mmm! The purpose of step three is to impart flavor and firm the gluten up to a chewy, meat-like texture. For this we will simmer the seitan in a flavored broth. This is an excellent application for "fridge broth". You don't know of fridge broth? Sure you do! You take that rubbery carrot and that half an onion you forgot was in there, you add that dried up ginger that has been slowly desiccating on the counter the last few weeks and pair it with some herbs that are almost over the hill. Essentially what goes into the broth doesn't have to be pretty because all it is doing is providing flavor. I have also gone the lazy way and used only water and soy sauce and it turned out OK (you will have other opportunities to flavor the seitan in the final meal prep) Here's what ended up in my fridge broth:

- 2 cups chicken stock (if making vegan seitan substitute vegetable-based broth)
- 1 cup of water
- 2-3 Tablespoons soy sauce or Bragg's liquid aminos
- 2-3 carrots
- 2-3 ribs of celery
- half an onion
- a chunk of ginger about the size of my thumb
- 3 cloves of garlic
- a handful of chopped parsley

Add the seitan blob to the broth and bring to a boil. I prefer to flatten the gluten ball before adding it to the pot to make for more even flavoring and to make it easier to slice later. Once the liquid comes up to a boil, turn the temperature down and simmer covered for two hours. The seitan could also simmer in a crockpot all day for this step. It will expand some while cooking. 

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After two hours, remove the seitan from the broth and let cool on a plate or rack. Once the seitan is cool, it is ready to be sliced and used as an ingredient in final meal prep. It will keep in the fridge for about a week or can be frozen in an air-tight container. I do recommend lightly pan-frying to crisp up the outside; it gives it more of a meaty, resilient texture.

What do you do with it now? Well treat it like meat in any other dish:
- chop it up and add to a soup or curry 
- slice thin, thread on skewers and grill while basting with a favorite sauce
- slice thin, slather with BBQ sauce and serve on a hamburger bun
- chop or crumble to use in tacos, chili or sloppy joes
- cover in seasoned bread crumbs and fry to make cutlets
- use in stir fry

I ended up cutting the seitan into thin slices, pan-frying in a little olive oil with some broccoli and serving with thai peanut sauce over rice. It tastes kind of like chewy chicken and while you will probably not completely mistake it for chicken, even Chuck and Lloyd, who were a little skeptical, thought it turned out pretty good. Mission success!

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Did you make some seitan? What did you think? How did you end up preparing the final product?


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