Gluten has gotten a bad reputation lately. Lots of people are going gluten-free, whether their doctor has recommended it for medical reasons or not. So, what is gluten anyway? Is it really that bad?
What Is Gluten?
Plain and simple, gluten is a protein. This protein is found in wheat, rye, and barley. (It’s also found in triticale. Triticale is a relatively new grain – it is most similar to wheat, but can be grown more like rye. So some people just consider it part of the wheat family.) Any food that has wheat, rye, barley, or triticale in the ingredients list will contain gluten.
To get a little more complicated (but not much, don’t worry), gluten is one big protein that is a combination of two little proteins. These little proteins are called glutenin and gliadin. When flour gets wet (like with water when you’re making dough), glutenin and gliadin combine to make gluten. The gluten is activated by the water and by kneading.
When gluten is activated, it gets very stretchy. (Check out this video from America’s Test Kitchen to see just how stretchy!) This is what gives breads their structure. When you add yeast to bread dough, the yeast undergoes some chemical reactions that create gas. This gas gets trapped inside the gluten proteins. Because the proteins are so stretchy, they fill up with the gas and create bubbles (the dough ball on the right). When you knead the dough again, you pop these bubbles and the dough ball gets smaller again (the dough ball on the left).
When bread is baked, the gluten proteins harden. The gas that was trapped escapes, but the “bubbles” stay in place. These gluten “bubbles” are what gives bread its texture. See all those big holes in the ciabatta bread? That’s from the gluten!
How Much Gluten?
The more a bread is kneaded, the more the gluten will develop, and the chewier the bread will be. White bread is not kneaded very much and has a smooth, even texture. A bread like focaccia or ciabatta is kneaded for a very long time and has a chewy texture. That’s all because of the gluten!
Different types of wheat have different amounts of gluten. Varieties of wheat with a high gluten content make “strong” flours. These flours (bread flour) are used to make things like chewy breads, bagels, pasta, and pizza crusts. Other wheat varieties have lower gluten content. These varieties make “weak” flours (cake flour) that are used for things like cakes and pastries. All-purpose flour has a gluten content in the middle – it’s great for your general baking and kitchen use. Be sure to check your recipe – if something calls for cake flour, you definitely do not want to substitute bread flour!
|Type of Flour||Percent Gluten|
King Arthur shares excellent descriptions of their flours, and how you should use them in your kitchen.
Is Gluten Bad For Me?
Unless you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, gluten is not bad for you. In people with celiac disease, eating even a small amount of gluten can give them severe stomach cramps, diarrhea, headaches, fatigue, a skin rash, and even bone pain. People with gluten sensitivity can have similar symptoms, but they are usually not as severe. If you have these symptoms, consult your doctor. (I’m not a physician, and I definitely don’t play one on TV.)
If you don’t have these types of problems, you probably don’t need to worry about going gluten-free. Not all foods that are gluten-free are healthy – gluten-free cookies are still cookies!
Check out this great video from ASAPscience for more information on gluten.
What other questions do you have about gluten? I’ll be writing some more articles about gluten in the next few months, and I want to make sure that I answer your questions! Share your questions with me here in the comments or email me.