G is for Gluten

Posted December 19, 2014

To eat or to not eat gluten, that is the question many fad dieters are asking while deciding on their New Years Resolutions. But, my question is the same as Jimmy Kimmel, do they know what gluten is?

Gliadin + Glutenin = Gluten
Technically, gluten is produced when two smaller proteins – gliadin and glutenin – bind to each other. This happens when a baker adds water to flour and starts to knead the mixture into dough. As a result, gliadin and glutenin change their shapes and form these viscoelastic (think the same properties as honey) loops – or gluten.

These two smaller proteins are part of the wheat kernel’s endosperm, part of the stored nourishment for the plant’s embryo (which we call the germ). In turn, that endosperm is the part of the wheat kernel that millers grind into flour. Again, mixed with water, that flour forms gluten.

Gluten plays an important role in baked goods. The protein gives dough elasticity, meaning the dough can stretch and hold a shape without collapsing. For example, bread dough rises as the result of gluten holding the carbon dioxide gas produced by yeast, forming that perfect loaf, much like the rubber in a balloon traps air.

Stronger gluten, or flour with more protein, can hold more gas (more absorbent), in turn giving more structure. This is why a higher protein flour, like hard red winter wheat, makes a better dough for baked goods that need structure, such as a loaf of bread. In contrast, a lower protein flour, like soft white wheat, is better for baked goods that are tenderer, such as a cookie.

As with any component of a recipe, too much or too little gluten can cause problems with your result. Too little gluten, and a baked good will collapse. Too much gluten, and the end result is dry, crumbly or tough. But, with just the right amount of gluten, baked goods hold their intended shape while staying chewy and spongy.

Armed with this know-how on gluten, quiz family and friends not if they are eating gluten, but if they know how gluten helped those dinner rolls, cookies, breads and pies look, and taste, just as good as the year before.

For more information on gluten, check out this lesson plan from the Oklahoma Ag in the Classroom or other great resources from the Home Baking Association and Kansas Foundation for Agriculture in the Classroom. Need more? Visit the Wheat Foods Council or Grain Foods Foundation