With celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, Victoria Beckam, and Chelsea Clinton (does she count as a celebrity?) going gluten free, everyone seems to be jumping on the gluten-free bandwagon these days. While gluten does effect people with celiac disease, like my best friend Sarah, and others may experience some gluten intolerance, most of us can live quite happily incorporating gluten into their diet.
And that’s a good thing too, because we need gluten to make fantastic loaves of bread.
Basic Sourdough Bread
What is gluten anyway?
Barley, rye, and wheat naturally contain proteins glutenin and gliadin. Gluten is formed when these two molecules are linked together.
How does gluten form exactly?
Kneading the dough is the process by which the glutenin and gliadin proteins link together to form gluten. When you smack the dough around a bit, these proteins start bumping into each other and the result is the molecular cross-linking we know as gluten. The more you knead the dough, the more homogeneous the links, and the stronger it will be.
Don’t worry about overmixing the dough to the point that gluten strands start to breakdown again. Unless you have a bionic arm, this is impossible.
It helps to use a flour that is high in protein to ensure a hearty loaf of bread. No two flours are created equal.Most bread recipes will work with all purpose flour, but your best bet is a bread flour or a high-gluten bread flour.
High Gluten Bread Flour: 14-16% protein
Bread Flour: 12-14% protein
All Purpose Flour: 10-12% protein
Pastry Flour: 7-10% protein
Cake Flour: 6-7% protein
Well, then what about those crazy “No Knead” bread recipes? Do they have gluten?
But of course! A lot of these recipes call for an overnight pre-ferment. Gluten will develop naturally and slowly during this fermentation process. Also, the manual mixing and shaping of the dough will assist in the gluten development.
Why do we need gluten in baking, exactly?
“Proofing” the dough (ie. letting it rise) allows it to just relax and chill out while the yeast eats up the glucose we’ve created from our flour, water, yeast, salt combination. Once the yeast is full from it’s glucose feast, it poops out carbon dioxide and ethanol gases which can’t escape, so the dough rises.
If you were wondering why the gases can’t escape, the answer is gluten. Gluten is like a big balloon that holds all the gas byproducts of all the chemical reactions going on during proofing. Without it, there would be nothing to hold the gas and the bread would not rise. That’s why it’s important to be sure that the gluten is fully developed before you let the dough proof.
How do I know if I’ve developed the gluten?
The windowpane test.
Gluten development is tested with the “windowpane test.” Pinch off about two tablespoons of dough and try to stretch it into a paper-thin membrane– a windowpane. If you can do so without tearing, you’ve got gluten!
Did you know? More development of protein creates chewier products like pretzels and bagels, while less development is ideal for pastries. Shortening is used in pastries because it literally shortens the links between the protein molecules to prevent the formation of gluten resulting in a flaky product (like scones or pie crust). Pretty cool, eh?
Other posts in the Flour Girl Series: