During my short time as a vegetarian, I searched a bunch of local supermarkets and Trader Joes for seitan, or “wheat meat”, and couldn’t find it. I found a ton of tofu, the incredibly inferior vegetarian meat-replacement that is carried at most supermarkets, but no seitan. Made no sense to me, so I reached out to the Oracle of Ovo-Lacto, Taylor, and asked her where she gets her seitan. Taylor replied that while she has seen it at Whole Foods, its easier to just make it yourself. Well then.
I did some internet research and read through a recipe Taylor sent me by a fellow named Mark Bittman. I assumed that Mr. Bittman found time in his hectic schedule of Phish shows and devil sticks street performances to write a best selling vegetarian cookbook, so he seemed like a trustworthy source. It all starts with Vital Gluten Flour (or VGF).
This stuff was a little tough to find. I visited a few grocery stores and eventually headed to whole foods where they also didn’t have any packages available. However, there was a container of it in the self-serve baking needs section and I was able to get a pound for around $5. Which explains the informal packaging.
From what I understand about VGF, which is mostly from anecdotal research and halfway paying attention when a cooking show focuses on vegetarian food, it is basically wheat flour with the bran and starch removed. All that is left is the protein-heavy gluten, which is what you need to make seitan. Soooooo, I won’t be making this for any of my Celiac afflicted friends anytime soon.
The recipes I had seen called for equal parts VGF and liquid to make the dough. I started off with a cup of VGF with a little garlic powder and salt.
To that I added a cup of vegetable stock with a few shakes of soy sauce added in to give it a little more flavor.
Taylor described the first time you make seitan as being “rad”, and I have to agree. You mix the liquid into the flour using your fingers and within seconds you have a rubbery ball of dough which I tipped out onto a cutting board to knead.
Per the instructions from Mr. Bittman, which were probably typed while he was attending Bates College and wearing a patchwork backless shirt, the dough should be kneaded a few times and then allowed to rest for a half hour. I did both.
While the dough rested, I got started on the boiling liquid that the dough would be cooking in. I decided on water with a few cubes of vegetable bouillon and a little more soy sauce. I felt very strongly that the more soy sauce flavor I could give the seitan, the closer it would taste to meat.
Once the dough had rested, I got started on stretching it out. The dough needs to be stretched thin and separated into 3 or 4 “loaves” since it expands a lot during cooking.
Once the dough was stretched and divided into three portions, I dropped the pieces into the simmering liquid.
At this point I was instructed to turn the heat down and let the loaves simmer for an hour, turning occasionally. When I first got up to turn the loaves twenty minutes later and took the lid off, the entire gigantic pot was filled with what looked like a dough airbag. I think I even yelled out of fear. Of the dough. Luckily, the loaves quickly deflated and returned to normal size which led me to reduce the heat a little further and offset the lid a bit.
After another forty minutes I turned the heat off and let the loaves cool in the simmering liquid. Upon removal, here’s how they looked:
I know it doesn’t look that appetizing, but even in this state the flavor was decent and it had the hearty, chewy texture that is much closer to meat than mushy tofu. It can be chopped up and used in any dish you would use meat for or even breaded and deep fried. It also stores safely for about a week in the simmering liquid.
I quickly learned that when preparing the seitan for eating, it tastes best if you let it brown a little bit in a pan with salt and pepper. Made a big difference, especially in the second seitan “cheesesteak” I attempted.
Everything was chopped smaller for this round which worked way better for sandwich purposes. The other big change was going with american cheese which I’ve always preferred on my cheesesteaks. Not sure why I tried to get all fancy with the cheese on the first round.
This made for a phenomenal sandwich and one I would happily make again.
Seitan is very easy to make and also pretty versatile. It works as a meat substitute in stir fries and sandwiches, has a similar amount of protein to meat, and no cholesterol. Basically, its a lot better for you and you don’t even stress about throwing some cheese on ‘der since you’re not starting with a fat packed piece of meat.
That being said, I don’t see a full-on change in behavior coming anytime soon. I love anything classified as meat and there are a lot of animals and parts of animals I still haven’t sampled. Which remains a mission in life. To eat everything. Seitan was a nice change of pace on the blog and in my diet and I look forward to making it again, but I won’t be living on it.
Looking for some inspiration on our visit to the gulf coast this weekend. I’m hoping to visit a meat market in the everglades and see what crazy stuff they have there.
P.S. It turns out Mark Bittman isn’t a bootleg swapping hippie, just an award winning journalist and food columnist who used to work for the New Yorker. So I take back those hippie digs on him, but please feel free to use the massive generalizations I implied about vegetarians on any vegetarians in your life.