Making and Working with Seitan

We’ve been eating a lot of seitan these past couple of months.

…Come again? Eating what??

I’ll get to what, exactly, seitan is in just a moment. But first, a little background information.

For starters, husband and I have been doing Meatless Lent for the past two years, so seitan is an excellent source of protein during that time. Secondly, it’s a heck of a lot nicer to make seitan than to wage masked battle for meat at the grocery store at this crazy pandemic time.

(Yes, I totally just had an image of jousting in a medical mask against another masked knight for a steak, and I hope you did, too.)

Secondly, for the past several years (I’ve lost count by now), I’ve worked to reduce my meat consumption, both for health and environmental reasons. What meat and meat products I do consume, I do my research as far as where it comes from, and what the practices of the farms are, and I advocate hard for others to do so. If nothing else, supporting a good local farm supports your local economy, and keeps money out of the hands of corporate meat companies with bad practices.

Am I perfect every time? Heck no, especially if someone is doing me a favor and cooking for me – I’m not going to nitpick a favor. And, to be 100% honest, I love meat, especially a good smoked pork butt. If I picked a favorite food, that’d likely be it.

Good meat from local farms with sustainable practices is also, errr, expensive. What might “normally” be a dollar or two per pound at Wal-Mart can be $5 or more per pound from a local farmer or butcher. And while the monetary costs for us outweigh the environmental impact of shitty factory farming, not to mention the health and well-being of the animals involved (or lack thereof), we only have so much money to spend on meat.

Enter seitan, and an end to my preaching. Seitan is an alternative protein, or a meat substitute, and it’s often thrown in the same category as tofu, tempeh (fermented and pressed soybean cake), and TVP (textured vegetable protein). Seitan is made from vital wheat gluten, which is the protein-rich product left over after washing wheat flour over and over until only the gluten remains.

Making vital wheat gluten is incredibly time-consuming and labor intensive, so we opt for buying it pre-made (it looks like a tan flour). Seitan is made by adding liquid to vital wheat gluten, kneading it until it forms an elastic mass, and cooking it, either by boiling, steaming, or baking, before using in recipes. Seitan, when made well, is elastic and chewy (but not bubblegum chewy), with a texture very similar to certain kinds of meat.

You can buy seitan products in the grocery store or health food stores (as many meatless items are made from it), and often shell out as much for them as you would for animal meat. They range in quality and taste, so if you’re trying seitan for the first time, try more than one product. Also, as with many manufactured goods, they often contain a crapload of extra salt to make them taste decent, so check your ingredient list.

But you don’t have to get your seitan from a company, and you don’t have to add a buttload of salt to make it taste good. You know me – I’m not here to tell you to buy a product. I’m here to tell you how and why you should make your own seitan.

First, the whys.

  1. It’s cheaper to make seitan than to buy it pre-fabricated. It’s also cheaper to make it than to buy good-quality, local meat, so it’s a good budget protein item.
  2. It’s stupid easy to make, especially if you’ve made homemade bread.
  3. It’s super customizable, both in flavor and texture. Of all the “meat substitutes,” seitan is the closest in texture to animal meat, and is sometimes even hard to tell the difference. That being said, don’t expect it to be exactly like real meat – curb your expectations and think of it as a separate sort of protein on its own, kind of like comparing chicken to steak, rather than comparing seitan to all meats.
  4. Vital wheat gluten takes up a lot less space in the pantry (and is shelf-stable!) than the same amount of meat in the fridge or freezer, which makes it an excellent item for disaster prep and food stocking.

Sometimes we go full vegetarian or vegan with our seitan, making it entirely from water or vegetable broth and oil. Other times, especially recently, we’ve been using homemade meat broth, lard, and other animal products to flavor and add texture to our seitan. You do you, and don’t feel bad about it – it’ll taste good either way.

I’ll give you the basics today, as well as different ways to prepare seitan for different textures. In future posts, I’ll give you specific recipes for seitan versions of meat products, such as sausage, pepperoni, and the like.

Let’s do this!

Baked seitan, which looks and tastes a lot like chicken or pork.

Basic Seitan

  • Servings: 2-4
  • Print

Make sure you’re using vital wheat gluten and not regular flour for making seitan - otherwise, you’ll end up with a very tough bread. You can use water for the cheapest, most basic seitan, but I like to use broth throughout the process. This recipe can easily be doubled.


you will need:

  • 1 c vital wheat gluten
  • ¾ c water or broth

Directions

  1. Mix vital wheat gluten and water or broth in a medium bowl with a spatula or wooden spoon until you get a spongy, slightly elastic, sticky mass. (If it’s too sticky, as in, sticks to the sides of the bowl, add more vital wheat gluten a tablespoon at a time. If it’s too dry, add water, a tablespoon at a time.) In specific flavored recipes, this is also where you would add spices, tomato paste, etc.
  2. Using your hands or a dough hook (I prefer hand-kneading here), knead the dough, stretching and folding and forming a ball, for at least 5 minutes. Yes, use a timer: under-kneading the dough will make the final product more like wet bread than a protein, so you don’t want to skimp on the kneading here.
  3. Allow the dough to rest in the bowl for 20-30 minutes.
  4. Bake, boil, or steam your seitan before you use it in recipes – variations below!

Boiled Seitan: This will give your final product a chewy and very moist texture, good for stir-fries, slicing and sauteeing as meat, and adding to baked casseroles and the like. Combine 3 cups of broth and 3 cups of water, or 5 cups of water and ½ cup soy sauce, in a large pot and bring to a low boil. (Frankly, you can use any flavorful liquid for boiling – just know it’ll infuse the seitan with whatever that flavor is.) Divide the seitan dough into two equal pieces, shape into logs, and add to the boiling liquid, reducing the heat to a gentle simmer. Allow to simmer for 30-45 minutes, turning the logs at least once during cooking. They will double or triple in size. Remove from the broth and use in desired recipe, or store in the refrigerator in its cooking broth until you want to use it.

Steamed Seitan: This will give your final product a chewier, less moist, and more tightly-knit texture, similar to sausage and deli meats. I like to use this method for making seitan sausage and pepperoni. Divide the dough into two equal logs, and wrap loosely in foil – you want to allow room for the seitan to expand, but to also keep its log shape. Prepare a pot and steamer basket, and place foil-wrapped seitan logs into the steamer basket. Cover and steam seitan for 30-45 minutes. Unwrap the logs carefully, and use in desired recipe (or just eating as is).

Steamed seitan Italian sausage log. It was pretty excellent, if not very pretty.

Baked Seitan: This is probably my favorite preparation, and the least hands-on cooking approach. Baking seitan produces the chewiest, meatiest texture without the moisture from boiling that can make it soggy. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a baking dish or loaf pan, form your seitan into a log shape, and place into the greased pan. Bake the seitan for 30-45 minutes until the outside is golden brown (it will triple in size and look crazy huge and risen in the oven, but will shrink considerably once you remove it). Remove from the pan, and use in desired recipe.

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