Gluten is primarily made up of two types of proteins – ‘gliadin’, which gives makes the bread rise during baking, and ‘glutenin’, which is responsible for dough’s elasticity and glue-like consistency and giving the bread a classic chewy, spongy texture.
Interestingly, the word ‘gluten’ is derived from the Latin word ‘glutinum’ which means glue.
Gluten is found naturally in wheat and some other grains like barley, spelt, bulgar and rye. Wheat is the most commonly consumed grain that has gluten in it. Whole wheat flour is made up of the whole-wheat grain milled into fine flour. Everything from the grain is present in flour – the bran, the wheat germ, minerals, enzymes, wheat starch and, of course, the gluten. The amount of gluten depends on the type of grain. Some types contain a lot of gluten and some almost none.
Gluten is sometimes referred to as ‘seitan’ or ‘wheat meat’ which is used in recipes. It is gluten that makes bread chewy, pizza dough stretchy and pasta noodles elastic. Therefore, getting such a texture in gluten-free baked goods can be difficult.
Knowing the gluten content of the flours can help make the right choice for specific baking needs. Wheat flour is available in many varieties. ‘Soft’ or ‘weak’ carries less gluten content compared to ‘strong’ or ‘hard’ varieties of wheat. Hard flour (or bread flour) is high in gluten with 12% to 14% gluten content. Its dough is elastic and tough enough to hold its shape well, once baked.
Soft flour is comparatively lower in gluten content and thus results in a bake with a finer, crumbly texture. Thus, wheat grains’ hardness, gluten and protein content are the main parameters considered for blending various types of flours used in baking.
Use of gluten in baking: Gluten is the main structure builder in the bread. It holds the air and gives the bread a chewy and elastic texture. When one kneads the flour into a dough using water, the wet gluten particles interlink with each other and form a web/network. The longer the dough is kneaded, more links get formed and tighter the dough will get. These links are also formed automatically during fermentation or when the wet dough is left standing for a while. The dough gets stronger during this process. The carbon dioxide gas produced by yeast is trapped within this web of gluten, similar to air trapped inside balloons. This is what makes your dough rise.
Other than kneading and standing time, gluten particles are also developed and influenced by water quantity and quality, water temperature, and the addition of other ingredients like salt, milk, enzymes, conditioners, etc. in a recipe.
Common Indian flours: Wheat flour (whole grain flour) is a mixture of germ, endosperm, and bran. Atta flour is a mixture of endosperm and bran. Maida (white flour) is bleached endosperm. Rava (Sooji) is coarselypground endosperm,
Why Indian bakers add extra gluten to bake breads: The quality of wheat produced in India and its gluten content varies from its US or European counterpart. The wheat varieties produced in India are among the best in the world for making chapatis or flatbread but they do not quite meet the quality requirements for most baked bread and biscuits.
Natural Gluten vs Commercial Gluten: Gluten is found naturally in wheat, rye, barley and some other grains. In addition to the gluten found in grains, it can also be added as a separate ingredient manufactured commercially from washing the starch out of a flour and water mixture. This process needs a lot of care to maintain the baking quality of gluten. Commercial gluten is sold in markets as gluten, gluten flour, glutinated flour, or flour blends with no specifications. It is available either as a dried powder or in a wet form.
Alternatives to gluten: There are several grains that are naturally gluten-free. This includes rice (all varieties), corn and popcorn, quinoa, flax seed, amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, soy, sesame, potatoes, vegetables, fruit, nuts, cocoa, milk, eggs, meat, fish, seafood, poultry, legumes, fats, oils, etc. Oats may also be gluten-free as long as they haven’t been contaminated with wheat during processing.
Gluten-free flours are arrowroot flour, tapioca flour, corn flour, banana flour, coconut flour, chickpea flour, soy flour, amaranth flour, hemp flour, pea flour, almond flour, quinoa flour, chestnut flour, lupine flour, and guar gum. Gluten-free thickeners are corn starch, guar gum, xanthan gum, carob bean gum.
Is gluten bad? For those with celiac disease, consuming food that includes gluten can lead to severe illness. Thus a gluten-free diet is critical for them. However, market research indicates an increasing number of adults are trying to reduce or eliminate gluten completely from their diet.
For the road: There’s a sudden rise in the popularity of gluten-free diet. But it’s probably more to do with health fad, marketing gimmicks and several media endorsements by famous personalities. Before one considers trying a gluten-free diet, it is advisable to learn more about gluten. Understand how it can impact the body and health in the long run. For people with certain health conditions, removing gluten from the diet can make a huge difference. They just need to make sure to plan a balanced diet carefully to avoid nutritional deficiencies.