Getting to know gluten

We all know that gluten formation is needed to make bread, but how much do we understand about its formation or what conditions are needed for it to thrive? While having a rudimentary grasp of gluten allows us to bake acceptable cakes and breads, a deeper understanding of it will greatly improve our baking, says Annelies Zijderveld.

Knowing the conditions under which gluten forms, and how time, temperature, and liquid factor into its development, are vital to understanding the role gluten plays in every baked good made with wheat, barley, or rye flour. Zijderveld likens gluten to a common fabric fastener: “When the flour proteins glutenin and gliadin mix with water, they begin to interlock like Velcro, forming a network of protein strands that holds a dough together,” she writes.

The article explains that gluten is necessary in items like bread and pasta, but it can also be the enemy when you are talking about muffins, cakes, or scones. While you need some gluten to keep the baked goods from collapsing, too much of it will produce leaden or rubbery outcomes, and no one wants to eat a rubber muffin. Gentle mixing is the ticket when making these batters.

Armed with a better grasp of how gluten affects various baked goods will allow you to know when your dough needs more liquid, more flour, or just more time. Time is a factor that is often overlooked, but it can be all that is needed to turn a recalcitrant pasta dough from a shaggy, shrinking mess into supple, lithe noodles. And time is also key to most no-knead bread recipes, says Zijderveld.

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