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Seitan For Beginners 

 March 2, 2021

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Welcome to another article on high protein vegan foods. We have already discussed some minimally processed high protein, ‘meaty’ vegan  foods like tempeh and tofu. While these articles do not contain a lot of recipes or all the science, they do give you the snapshot of what these vegan high protein foods are all about and how to include them into your diet.

This article is going to focus on perhaps one of the most misunderstood of the vegan meats: seitan.

What is seitan?

Seitan, otherwise known as ‘wheat meat’, is made from the protein of wheat flour (also known as vital wheat gluten), some seasonings and water, which is then cooked by baking, steaming or boiling.  

When prepared properly, seitan has a meat-like chewy texture and can be used as a meat substitute in a wide variety of ways, from a vegan turkey substitute to a ‘beef’ stir fry.  It can often be confused with tofu and can be used in similar ways, but the base ingredients are quite different.


How do you pronounce seitan?

Many people are confused with how to pronounce this ingredient. They often pronounce it  as the word ‘satan’.  It is indeed very similar but there is one sound different. Plus seitan is not evil 🙂 It’s delicious and actually very good for you!

The name seitan is Japanese in origin and was coined in the 1960s. 

Satan: *SAY - tn 
Seitan: *SAY - tan
*means put stress on the syllable

Is seitan vegan?

Yes! Seitan has been used as a popular meat substitute made out of wheat protein (also known as vital wheat gluten) for more than a thousand years and has long been a favorite for those wanting to make a vegan choice.

Seitan can have other ingredients like herbs, stock and spices. While it would be possible that non-vegan ingredients could be in seitan, it is highly unlikely as it is usually marketed as a vegan meat.

Seitan is vegan

Where does seitan originate from?

Like so many other vegan meats, seitan originated in Asia --specifically in China -- as a food that could be consumed by Buddhists or for religious reasons.  It spread throughout Japan, Vietnam and the rest of Asia. 

Which cuisines traditionally use seitan?

As mentioned above, it was traditionally created as a meat alternative for Buddhist monks as an alternative to meat for religious reasons.  In Asia, you can typically find seitan in dishes in vegetarian restaurants and they are popular with many Buddhists who might not necessarily be vegan or vegetarian, but choose to reject meat on certain days of the month in the lunar calendar.  Seitan was first brought to the west more than a hundred years ago.  Up until ~20 years ago, the only time someone would have come into contact with seitan might have been in a Chinese restaurant when they ordered mock duck.

Tofurky was one of the first companies to be successful with its Tofurky roast way back in 1995.  Since then vegan meats have become more popular and as demand has grown more and more companies and recipe developers have become creative and have integrated it into all sorts of cuisines and dishes which would have originally or traditionally contained meat.

What does seitan taste like?

If you have ever gone to Chinese restaurant and chosen a dish with ‘mock duck’ that tastes really meaty, then chances are you have just eaten seitan.  Seitan made in its most basic form (vital wheat gluten and water) would be rather tasteless and bland, however most seitan is very well seasoned with ingredients such as nutritional yeast, soy sauce, herbs and spices.

What is the texture of seitan?

The texture of seitan really depends on how it is cooked. It can be slightly spongy if it is boiled in water, or very dense and carve-able if the expansion of the seitan is restricted during cooking by wrapping up the seitan in cheesecloth or foil as it is boiled or steamed.  Sometimes beans can be added to the seitan which can make a variable texture.  If you don’t like the texture when you first try it, consider trying a different brand or cooking it a different way.

spongy seitan

What is vital wheat gluten?

Vital wheat gluten is whole grain flour that has had the starch taken out. What remains in this is wheat protein. Vital wheat gluten is the main ingredient in seitan.

vital wheat gluten

Where do you buy seitan?

Supermarkets

Seitan is generally not as widely available as tofu.  Many larger supermarkets are starting to stock seitan and you can find it in the refrigerated section. You will usually find it with other other vegan meats. You might find seitan products in the freezer section (usually close to other vegan meats). This is especially the case for specialty products or if there is a low turnover. 

seitan at the supermarket

You should be able to find vital wheat gluten (the base of any seitan recipe) in your supermarket in the baking or the health food section.

vital wheat gluten at the supermarket

Health food stores

As seitan is a delicious meat alternative and considered healthier by those interested in a healthy diet, you will often find seitan products in your local health food store in the refrigerator or freezer, while vital wheat gluten will usually be with other flours.

Online

For those that love a particular brand of seitan or do not live close to a supermarket, you can often buy online either from the big online stores, or even directly from the producer and they will deliver to your door. Making seitan is quite popular as a home business so you might find someone making seitan in your town.

How do I know a product in the store is actually seitan?

Perhaps because the name seitan is a little confusing, not widely understood and perhaps not the most appetizing name, the word ‘seitan’ might often not even appear on the packaging.  If you are confused about whether a product is seitan or not, then look at the ingredient list. If the main ingredient is ‘vital wheat gluten’ then you have seitan in your hands.  Seitan can be ‘disguised’ as so many different meats, for example, sausages, turkeys, burgers, ribs and more.

seitan products

You also can find products in the store that are a mixture of seitan and tofu or a soy isolate.

Seitan and tofu products

How do I know if the recipe I am cooking is a seitan recipe?

Perhaps also because the word seitan is not the most descriptive word, you might find that it is not used in the name of the recipe.  However, like above, if the ingredient calls for a lot of vital wheat gluten in the recipe, we can consider it a seitan recipe.

Seitan in a recipe

source: Isa Chandra Moskowitz's cookbook Isa Does it

Is seitan a highly-processed food?

If you take "highly processed" to mean that it has been prepared in a kind of food science lab and has been chemically similar to a soy isolate, then no, you should not consider seitan highly processed.  However, technically it is highly processed as vital wheat gluten flour is simply wheat flour that has been rinsed many, many times so that the starch that would normally make up a large part of the flour is no longer present. The resulting gluten flour is then simply mixed with some other herbs and spices and cooked. 

Seitan nutrition

Seitan is considered to be a highly nutritious food. It’s very high in protein, but unlike meat it is very low in fat.. It is not considered a complete protein however, this is not worrying as many other foods commonly contain the amino acids that are missing from seitan’s amino acid profile.

calories per 100g

protein per 100g

fat per 100g

carbohydrates per 100g

135 calories

24 grams

0.2 grams

9 grams

Nutrition info for Seitan

Nutritional Information Tofu vs Seitan

NUTRITIONAL INFO

TOFU

*SEITAN (cooked)

Calories per 100 grams

76

135

Protein per 100 grams

8

24

Fat per 100 grams

4.8

0.2

Carbohydrate per 100 grams

1.9

9

Fibre per 100 grams

0.3

1.5

Low carb

Soy free

X

*1

Gluten-free

X

Rich in

Calcium, isoflavones

selenium, iron

*Seitan can be prepared in many different ways so the exact nutritional information can vary. For exact nutritional information, see the nutrition label or plug the recipe into a nutritional calculator.

*1 Some products or recipes made of gluten can ALSO contain tofu. An example of this is Tofurkey. It is also possible that seitan might include a seasoning that is not soy free (for example soy sauce). If you are sensitive to small amounts of soy, you should check the label. Because soy is considered a common allergen, it will be clearly marked in the ingredients.

Is seitan a raw food?

Despite seitan being very nutritious, it is not considered a raw food.  It is made from the prints of wheat flour which must be cooked in order to eat it.

Is seitan soy-free?

In its purest form (vital wheat gluten flour and water), it is soy free.  However, some of the seitan products that you find in the supermarket and in recipes are not soy-free.  Some brands like to make their vegan meats with a mix of seitan and tofu or perhaps they added some soy sauce to make it more flavorful.  If you are sensitive to soy, check the label of shop-bought vegan meats carefully.

If the seitan recipe you are using asks for soy sauce, you could substitute soy sauce for  an alternative like coconut aminos.

Is seitan gluten-free?

No. Seitan is not gluten-free. It is almost entirely gluten therefore it is not suitable for someone avoiding soy.  Some creative chefs have created dishes that are similar to seitan that are gluten-free, but technically they are not seitan.

Is seitan considered a low carb food / keto?

A low carb or carbohydrate diet is usually defined as a diet that contains less than 100-150 grams of carbohydrate a day.  Seitan is considered a low carbohydrate food as there is approximately 9 grams of carbohydrate per 100 gram, and as such can be included in a low carb or keto diet.

Is seitan genetically modified?

At the current time, wheat and therefore vital wheat gluten is not a genetically modified crop.  It is possible that some of the other ingredients in seitan might include genetically modified ingredients. If this is important for you, then you should choose products that are marked organic or GMO free.  Many makers of seitan products are aware that the consumers of these products are concerned with what is in their food.  For this reason, the producers often chose GMO free ingredients.

How is seitan made?

Most people make seitan using vital wheat gluten, but if for some reason you want to make your own vital wheat gluten, you can.  If you decide to do this, you will need whole-wheat flour and water, knead it into a stiff dough, cover the dough in water for several hours and then rinse the dough many, many times until the dough is clear. 

When the dough runs clear it is ready to be boiled or steamed in a flavorful stock. The disadvantage with this method is that it is not possible to get flavor into the seitan. Our preferred method is to use vital wheat gluten which looks like nearly white flour, add flavor in the form of some oil, spices, tomato paste, nutritional yeast, add some liquid, knead and cook as per the recipe suggests (usually boiled or steamed).

Depending on the type of seitan you are making, you might need to fry the seitan. This would be the case if you are making sausages or a stir-fry where you want some browning or crispiness on the edge of the seitan.

how seitan is made

Tools you need to make seitan

The tools you will need to make seitan really depend on the recipe.  However, most of the tools you need are basic ones that you will have in your kitchen.  Having said that, there ARE a couple of tools that are commonly used in making seitan that might not be in your kitchen.

tools to make seitan

NOTE: an assistant cat is optional 😉 

Stockpot

A stockpot is important when you are cooking large pieces of seitan. If you are cooking small pieces then you can cook in batches, but if you are cooking a seitan-based Thanksgiving centerpiece, then you will need a larger pot.

Steamer

Many seitan recipes require the seitan to be steamed. We like this one because it fits every saucepan and sits flat in a big saucepan. Be aware that  the piece of metal sticking up in the middle might interfere with the cooking of large pieces of seitan.

Instant pot or a pressure cooker

It can take quite a long time to steam or to boil seitan -- perhaps more than an hour -- and you need to be checking it often during that time to make sure that the water has not boiled dry or that it's at the right temperature (many recipes ask for a rolling boil).  A pressure cooker (especially an electric one) means you can just set it and forget it. We love to make seitan in our Instant Pot!

Cheesecloth

Sometimes large pieces of seitan need to be wrapped tightly in cheesecloth as it is being cooked. This is to stop the seitan expanding and becoming spongy. After cooking and it is cooled, you can take off the cheesecloth and wash and reuse it. It’s a handy thing to have in your kitchen.

Standmixer

A stand mixer is not absolutely required, but using the dough hook to knead the dough can save some time. Depending on the recipe the dough must be kneaded for a while so that the gluten is activated which is the key to the meaty texture.

Food processor

Depending on the recipe, it might ask for a food processor which often comes with a dough blade. This can be used instead of the stand mixer. Be careful not to over knead as the texture can become very hard.

Aluminum foil

Sausage shapes can be successfully made wrapping small pieces of seitan dough foil and then twisting the ends like a tootsie roll.

Can you freeze seitan?

Seitan you buy at the store in the refrigerated section can be placed in your freezer at home with no problem. Homemade seitan you make at home can also be frozen. This is great if you want to make sausages in bulk for example and just want one sausage with your breakfast.  You can even freeze seitan dough and it will last for up to 6 months in the freezer. Make sure that you put it in a freezer safe bag. Freezing might lead to a small change in texture.

How do you store seitan?

Seitan that is not sealed or homemade should be kept in the refrigerator for up to 7 days. If you purchase seitan products from the store, you will find that it lasts in the refrigerator for several weeks. In the freezer, it will last for up to 12 months.

How much does seitan and vital wheat gluten cost?

Out of all of the other ‘whole food proteins’ like tempeh and tofu, it is more expensive to make and to buy. You can buy seitan for around $5 for 250 grams. Buying vital wheat gluten is also more expensive than regular flour.  It is usually about $8 for 500 grams.

How do you use seitan?

Seitan can be used instead of meat in dishes in non vegan recipes such as stir fries. 

You can also find and make products that replace meat such as sausages, hotdogs, ham, pepperoni, burger, taco filler and even holiday centerpieces.

Can seitan be grilled?

Yes. Seitan holds up well on the BBQ and does not disintegrate like softer tofu or homemade patties when flipped. Make sure that there is oil on the seitan. Seitan is usually very low in fat, so you might need to add some oil to get that juiciness you’re looking for.

Learn more about seitan

If seitan has captured your imagination, you might be interested in some of these books that focus specifically on these foods.


Let's Discuss!

We'd love to hear from you!  Do you have any questions?   Want to share your favorite seitan brand, tip, trick or recipe?  Write it down in the comments below!

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