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Seitan, also known as wheat meat, is wheat gluten, flavored with herbs, spices and aromatics and formed into a product that has a strong approximation in looks and flavor to meat. Appetizing, right?
Making Seitan at home is actually very easy, tastes much better than store-bought, is a good protein source and it is a great way to have some of your favorite pre-vegan favorite meals.
Although the name “seitan” is of Japanese origin and was coined in 1961 by an advocate of the macrobiotic diet, wheat gluten itself has been used by Chinese since the 6th century, especially by those who followed Buddhism. It appears to have always been made and used as a meat substitute and was imported to the US in the late 60s.
The simplest way to understand wheat gluten is to look at a sketch of a wheat grain. The grain is made up of three main parts: The Bran, which are the layers surrounding the endosperm and germ. The Germ, which is the embryo of the grain and is the sprout from which a new plant can grow. The Endosperm is the largest part of the grain and consists of starch and protein. White flour is made entirely of wheat endosperm. You can see why whole grain wheat flour is better nutritionally because it contains fiber and more B vitamins, antioxidants, and healthy fats.
Wheat gluten lives inside the endosperm and has to be extracted to made into seitan.
The method for extracting gluten from flour is not complicated, but it is time consuming. So why not just buy seitan at the grocery store?
Packaged seitan products are high in sodium.
If you look at the nutritional facts of a product called Seitan Chicken Style (right), you can see that it packs an impressive 20 grams of protein per serving. But it also has 770mg of sodium, a pretty high number for a single item in a day’s eating! By preparing your own seitan, you can add salt to your personal taste and needs
Packaged Seitan is more expensive.
Using my creaky old-math skills, I compared pricing of a prepared seitan product to a basic seitan made at home with vital wheat gluten and just a basic recipe. The price of the homemade seitan was roughly half of the prepared product. I’m guessing that this may vary by an even bigger amount depending on where you can purchase locally. But that’s definitely not the most important reason to make seitan at home rather than buy it ready-made.
Packaged seitan flavors are limited.
Manufacturers want to please their customers, of course, so you’ll see a lot of chicken, roast beef, & turkey flavoring, and BBQ has been popping up more and more of late. But what if you want something a little more exotic, like a Steak Diane or Merguez sausages? Something that is defined by the specific spices and aromatics included in the meat? That’s where making your own seitan will amaze you. It is literally a chameleon in its ability to take on the flavors you choose to put into it. Change out your liquids from soy sauce to a rich wine and see the seitan transformed into a great base for a stroganoff. Add Italian seasonings like thyme, rosemary and fennel seeds, wrap up the dough into tight little packages and you have Italian sausages you can serve with pasta or top a pizza with.
Homemade Seitan tastes much, MUCH better the the mass-produced versions.
It’s not even close. Packaged seitan is what your non-vegans point to when they make fun of you. It’s rubbery, varies from flavorless to overpowered with weird ingredients. It’s just strange and not at all appealing if you were previously a meat-eater. And that’s what you need to keep in mind. If you’ve been a vegan all your life, meat doesn’t have any appeal. And you don’t know what it’s even supposed to taste like! But if you have eaten meat, you want seitan that will give you similar mouth feel and flavor. I have yet to find packaged seitan that gives you that.
My vegan daughter insisted that I buy a seitan turkey roast for Thanksgiving this year. So I did my research and went with the one most highly recommended for true turkey flavor. It was, of course, the most expensive one too. So I went to 3 different Whole Foods until I located it and I followed package instructions exactly. After a couple of bites, we looked at each other in disappointment and the rest of the roast went into the trash.
The only seitan I’ve purchased that gave me that wow feeling was a pastrami sandwich at Minneapolis’ Herbavorious Butcher, a tiny “butcher” shop that makes their wonderful products onsite. In other words, at home. No assembly line with strange ingredients poured out by machines. Just a little shop with seitan experts making small artisanal batches of really good vegan meats. Stop by and see for yourself if you’re in town. And bring me back a pastrami sandwich!
Seitan is so easy to make at home!
If you can make pancakes for Sunday brunch, or cookies for a party, you can make seitan. When I first learned about seitan, I only read about the older method of washing flour to draw out the concentrated gluten in a process that took a day or more. But there is a far simpler way that takes a fraction of the time.
Traditional Method of Extracting Gluten from Flour
First, let’s look at the traditional way of extracting gluten from flour. Since gluten is only one component of the endosperm, you have to separate it somehow to get the basic element of seitan. How do you do that with flour? Here are the steps:
- Use a stand mixer, combine flour with enough water to create a nice stiff dough.
- Place the dough in a bowl and cover the dough completely with cold water.
- Let it soak for several hours, or overnight. This will loosen the starch and let the gluten develop.
- Pour out the water and begin kneading the dough by hand over a bowl in the sink. Rinse with cold water while kneading until the water is running clear.
- What you are left with is the gluten, a small stringy mass a little more than half the size of the previous dough.
- Form the gluten into a ball and squeeze out all the water you can.
- Get a flavorful broth on the stove and bring to a boil.
- Cut into several pieces and drop them into the broth.
- Lower the heat until it is just simmering and allow it to cook for a half hour or so.
- Store the seitan in broth in the refrigerator and use within a few days.
You can add spices to the gluten when you are mixing it in step 6, and flavor will also be added by your choice of broth.
Easy Way to Make Seitan
Now, this is how I make seitan.
- Place your dry ingredients (vital wheat gluten and all your seasonings) in a bowl & whisk to blend. This is simplified by making a dry seitan mix ahead of time. Here is a recipe from Rouxbe.com that I use all the time.
- Place your wet ingredients (depending on the recipe, this could be a mixture of soy sauce, bbq sauce, wine, maple syrup, or other liquid flavorful ingredients) in a separate bowl and mix well.
- Carefully pour 1/2 to 2/3 of the liquid in the middle of the dry ingredients and mix well with a wooden or metal spoon. Add only a little more at a time. You don’t want the dough to be loose. It should be stringy and resistant so you may not end up using all the liquid.
- Shape the dough into cutlets, or sausages, or flatten to stuff, depending on your intended result. Whether they are going to be steamed, simmered on the stovetop or crockpot, or finished in the oven, you may need to wrap the seitan tightly in foil to make it keep its shape. In my Rouxbe course, we prepared seitan using both the oven and steaming methods. Since then, I’ve experimented with making sausages by forming and then simmering them slowly in water and found it very effective.
And that’s about it. Some recipes are more complicated than others, but the basic steps are pretty much the same.
What makes recipes different is the ingredients and aromatics being incorporated into the seitan as it’s being made, resulting in a variety of textures and flavors. I once read a comment by someone in a discussion group in which he said two things in the same paragraph – that seitan was made up of wheat gluten, tamarin or soy sauce, ginger, garlic and seaweed, and that seitan itself should not be expected to be flavorful, that it was the sauces and other ingredients in the dish that were responsible for creating flavor.
I could not disagree more. First, seitan is not limited the the 5 ingredients mentioned. I’ve never put seaweed in seitan, nor even seen it in a recipe. You can combine anything in both the liquids and solids that go into a seitan preparation. Some people have even made it using tofu. Second, a good dish begins with the best ingredients and I don’t believe in putting a flavorless component in a meal. Seitan, tempeh and tofu can all be seasoned and treated to have great flavors on their own.
Seitan as a Protein Source in a Vegan Diet
I just want you to remember that it is not at all difficult to get enough protein in your diet as a vegan. Protein abounds in all kinds of plant-based foods. A cup of chickpeas provides 15 grams of protein. A cup of cooked spinach (a really low calorie food) has 5 grams. Four ounces of tofu is 10 grams of protein. Nut butters have an average of 8 grams of protein in 2 Tbsp. So seitan is not necessary in a healthy vegan diet. Just like sugar and salt are not necessary. Those things add a delicious element to foods and so does seitan. It’s a flavor and texture add-on to a healthy diet. That said, seitan does deliver a good bit of protein.
Seitan is made from gluten, which is the main protein component in wheat, and it provides about 20 grams of protein and 120 calories for every 3 ounce portion. That’s about the same as, or a little less than, a serving of lean meat. However, seitan does not contain saturated fats. Any plant-based fats added are healthy fats. Using seitan as an occasional part of a vegan diet is good because it is a healthy food and can make vegan food that much more enjoyable and varied. But eating too much of any one element, in this case gluten, could conceivably lead to intestinal disorders since your GI tract is built to process a variety of foods, not an overabundance of gluten.
Are there reasons NOT to eat seitan?
- If you want to reduce gluten in your diet, have a gluten sensitivity, or have Celiac’s disease, you should stay away from seitan products.
- If you have an undiagnosed case of gluten sensitivity, excessive consumption of seitan could trigger inflammation in your body, leading to disease. That is the number one reason that seitan should be used as a flavorful component of a healthy diet, not as a major part of every meal.
- Store-bought and restaurant seitan is typically high in sodium. But if you are making it at home, you can control the amount of salt in every dish you make. So make seitan at home to enjoy superior flavor and keep your salt intake under control.
Variations on seitan
There are tons of seitan recipes (check out my Pinterest feed), and you will find that there are many variations on ingredients. Basic seitan uses only vital wheat gluten as a solid ingredient. But variations include adding garbanzo bean flour, tofu. beans, and even grains to achieve different textures.
I prepare a basic dry Seitan mix to have in the pantry when I want to whip up a seitan-based dish. It’s like making your own pantry biscuit or pancake mix. Super easy and you’ll be glad you have it on hand. It keeps for several weeks in an airtight container stored in a cool place (my pantry). Seasonings play a huge part in the flavor of the finished seitan (obviously), but you have the option of a basic preparation for multiple uses, or very deliberately changing the flavor profile to fit a specific dish. For example, I’ve been working on spicy Italian sausages. My seasoning include red pepper flakes, fennel seeds (ground and whole), coarsely chopped garlic, dried basil, onion granules, cracked black pepper, oregano, thyme, and salt.
How you cook seitan will also affect the texture.
For my sausages, I chose to use the steaming method. I wrapped each little “sausage” tightly in aluminum foil (twice) and then steamed them for 40 minutes. The texture when they were done (and lightly pan fried) was very firm, like meat sausages.
Rouxbe.com has a seitan recipe in its certification course that oven braises the seitan slowly, marinating in a sauce until it is absorbed completely. The texture of the finished seitan is very much like a brisket – chewy and firm, but not hard.
Additional Tip* To give finished seitan a meat-like exterior (especially with sausages), pan fry in a skillet for 5 minutes, turning frequently.
Seitan can also be cut into small cutlets and simmered (never boil) in a flavorful broth.
How does this vary taste and texture? What might you put in a sausage as opposed to something intended for sandwich meat?
Kneading the seitan after mixing in all the ingredients will further develop the gluten and add to the firmness of the final product. So if you want the seitan to end up with a softer consistency (like a turkey-flavored roast for example), skip the kneading and drop pieces of seitan in a lightly simmering broth, or bake in the oven with a basting liquid just until done. Vegan cooks have also had great success in cooking their seitan in a crockpot or Instapot.
Simmering securely-wrapped seitan tends to give you a firmer consistency, as does steaming when the seitan is wrapped tightly in foil or cheesecloth. This works very well for ribs and sausages.
If you are trying to get a specific meat flavor such as Italian sausages or Pastrami, find a traditional recipe (or look at the ingredient list on meat packages) to identify the spices used.
For pastrami, which is a lean meat whose flavor comes from the seasonings, choosing the right herbs and spices is key. In the seitan pastrami in the sandwich to the right, I used garlic, coriander, black pepper, paprika, cloves, allspice, and mustard seed to give the seitan an authentic flavor. Using a flavored seitan in a dish like this Reubens is a good fit because the flavor only partially comes from the “meat.” The sandwich flavors also include grilled rye bread, sauerkraut, and cheese.
Seitan should be a flavorful product all by itself but it is at its best when it’s paired with other ingredients to create a dish, especially a standard, that calls for meat in its execution.
For sausages, where the flavor is at least partly from the fat content, try adding a little oil as part of the mixing liquid.
For BBQ seitan, like the plated ribs and corn above, the seitan can be left relatively bland as it will absorb the flavor of the BBQ sauce during the oven braising process. The result is a chewy but not too dense texture.
Simmering Seitan in a simmering pot of water or broth:
When you have prepared your basic seitan recipe, cut pieces (or “cutlets”) and lower them into the pot when the broth is almost boiling (small bubbles rising but no active boiling at the surface – do not let the liquid come to a full boil). They will sink to the bottom. After a few minutes, make sure they are not sticking to the bottom of the pan. Turn the seitan pieces every 30 minutes or so, for a total of 1 1/2 hours. Turn the heat off and let the pot cool down. You can then use the seitan immediately or store in in the fridge in its broth for up to a week. If you are simmering sausages, you will want to wrap the seitan tightly in foil so that it is not actually touching the sausage (or they will absorb water and burst out of their foil containers). With sausages, the best cooking method is steaming.
Oil the pan you will be baking in and preheat the oven to 350 F.
Knead and shape your seitan into the finished product you want to make. For the ribs above, I shaped the seitan into a rectangle about 1″ thick. I let it rest for a couple of minutes, then – using a very sharp knife – I cut the rectangle in half and then cut each piece into several ribs.
Bake for about 15 minutes, then add the sauce you want to flavor your seitan with. Baste generously and turn over to baste the other side well. Bake for an additional 30 minutes.
Deep frying method:
Pour oil into a skillet (about 1″ deep) and heat it on medium high. Drop pieces of raw seitan directly into the hot oil. Fry them, watching carefully that they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan or burn. The seitan will puff up on contact with the oil. Flip them and fry the other side, then place them on a paper-towel lined plate to soak up the extra oil. Serve this with a vegan ranch dressing for a delicious – albeit not the healthiest – snack.
Having seitan pre-made and in the refrigerator means unlimited meal possibilities. My friend Jessica, over at Jessica’s Kitchen, gave me permission to share this Vegan Fajita Bowl recipe. A yummy example of taking pre-cooked seitan to a new level in 30 minutes. And she amped up the protein content even more by adding in quinoa! This is a great dish for a work-week, especially if you cook the quinoa in advance and have your veggies cut and waiting in the fridge
You can use seitan in some of your favorite family dishes just like meat, or you can find some great new uses for it that your family will love!
Below are some recipes I love. You’re sure to find a couple that you will too!
Isa Chandra Moskowitz’s Seitan Piccata