Wheat Gluten And How It Works

Gluten is made of two proteins found in wheat flour and gives bread its structure, strength, and texture. The gluten makes the bread. Without these marvelous little proteins, bread would not be bread. It also explains why it is so hard to make bread from rice, potato, rye, or oat flour and why wheat flour has to be added to these to these other flowers to make breadâ€"only wheat has enough protein. When making rye or oat bread, you should not use more than two cups of rye or oats for every three cups of wheat flour.

Gluten is developed in the dough when the proteins absorb water and are pulled and stretched in the kneading process. When water is mixed with flour, the protein in the flour absorbs moisture. When dough is worked by mixing or kneading, these two types of protein twist together into strandsâ€"tiny ropes of gluten. As the yeast produces gases in the dough, mostly carbon dioxide, these strands trap the gas bubbles and the dough expands. When we put the bread in the oven, the gluten strands coagulate or solidify much as the protein in eggs solidifies as the egg cooks.

A high protein content is necessary for great bread and a low protein content is required for the tender crumb we love in cakes. It’s this coagulated protein that gives bread its chewiness. In a cake, we don’t want chewiness so we use a low protein content flour. Furthermore, to make a cake more tender, we use a shortening (commercial shortening, butter, margarine, or oil) to lubricate and shorten the gluten strands. (Hence the descriptive name "shortening".)

You can see how much protein is in flour by comparing ingredient labels. Bread flours will have as much as 14% protein. All-purpose flour is usually in the eight to ten percent range and cake flour is less than that.

A typical bread flour (this one happens to be a General Mills flour) has 12% protein, 75% carbohydrates, one percent fat, less than one percent ash, and 14% moisture. (If exposed to air, the moisture content will change and affect the baker’s formulation.)

The commercial wheat gluten that you buy in packages from stores or sites like ours is actually the wheat proteins extracted from the flour. It is used to boost the protein content in flours, converting a fairly week bread flour to a strong one. It is especially helpful when making oat or rye breads since the rye flour or oats do contain the necessary proteins for elasticity. We also use additional gluten with whole wheat since the bran in whole wheat flour cuts and damages the strands of gluten.

Add commercial wheat gluten with your flour. One-half tablespoon per loaf of our Hi-Country Wheat Gluten increases the protein content by about 3%. For rye or 100% whole wheat breads we recommend up to one tablespoon per loaf.

Baker's note: Should I use both gluten and dough conditioner in my bread? In some recipes, yes. The two have very different roles. While gluten adds protein and structure to the bread, the dough conditioner's primary role is to enhance the environment for yeast growth creating a larger, lighter loaf. Part of that is done by altering the pH of the dough to make it slightly acidic.

Copyright 2007, The Prepared Pantry (www.prepraredpantry.com ). Published by permission

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About The Author, Dennis Weaver -
Dennis Weaver is a baker, a recipe designer, and a writer. He has written many baking guides and How to Bake, a comprehensive baking and reference e-book--available free at The Prepared Pantry which sells baking and cooking supplies and has a free online baking library.