Seitan for Beginners: What It Is and How to Cook With It
Plus, how to make seitan from scratch
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If you scan through the vegetarian and vegan sections in an organic supermarket, you’ll probably come across tofu, oat milk, lupine yogurt—and seitan. Maybe you’ve already dared to try the latter and were surprised by its chewy, almost meaty consistency. But what exactly is seitan?
Seitan is by no means a new product, but rather an old ingredient with a “new” name. Known as “mian jin”, it was already eaten in China in the 6th century, while in Japan "Fu" has been served for centuries, which is pre-cooked seitan that is dried and then soaked again. But in the early 1960s, it was George Ohsawa, the founder of the macrobiotic diet, who introduced “seitan” as a new term, combining "sei" (meaning “made of") and "tan" from "tanpaku" (meaning "protein").
Since then, it’s often used as a meat substitute because of its texture. You can buy it as sausages, patties, or even as large seitan roasts. But like all convenience products, all of these are heavily processed and should be purchased as an "emergency solution", or if you’re just getting to know seitan. . When you know how easily you can make it yourself, there’s actually no need to grab these convenience products anymore. You’ll know exactly what's inside your homemade seitan and can prepare it just the way you like it.
What is seitan made of?
Seitan consists of wheat gluten—a pure protein derived from wheat. When you bake bread with wheat flour, this exact wheat protein builds up long chains that hold together, which provides elasticity and the interior structure of the bread.. The consistency of seitan is therefore very chewy and many actually speak of a surprisingly "meaty" texture.
That said, if you are gluten intolerant, seitan is unfortunately not an option for you. For everyone else, however, it’s completely safe to enjoy and also scores for being low in fat and calories. Seitan contains no cholesterol and a lot of protein—but there’s one thing to consider about the protein and we need to dive a bit into science for this. Wheat gluten lacks an essential amino acid called lysine. This means that its protein chain isn’t complete and therefore the human body cannot use it optimally. However, it’s relatively easy to complete the amino acid profile.Simply combine seitan with other sources of protein when you eat it. It’s also possible to add chickpea flour, soy flour, or soy sauce to your seitan dough.
The Austrian “Sustainable European Research Institutes” calculated the life cycle for the production chain of meat alternatives and analyzed its CO2 emissions, as well as land and water consumption, then compared them with the data for meat production. The results show that plant-based alternatives perform significantly better than meat products. However, seitan produces more CO2 emissions than soy products and also requires more land. Therefore, when it comes to seitan products, it’s good practice to double-check where it’s coming from and, if you can, buy products that have been produced as close as possible to where you’re living.
How to make seitan from scratch at home
Wheat protein: Pure wheat protein is often found in organic shops and sometimes in larger supermarkets. It’s the base for seitan and you could also make it yourself by washing out wheat flour. Find the instructions for this step below.
Chickpea flour/soy flour: This addition is optional but results in a smoother texture and provides extra protein.
Nutritional yeast and spices: As wheat protein is tasteless on its own, spices are a must for seitan. Feel free to experiment and go with your favorite spices to start with. Nutritional yeast will add an intense and complex flavor.
Water: Although using plain water as a liquid for your seitan dough is all you’d need, you can also season it to add even more flavor, e.g. with vegan Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, or miso paste. A few drops of beetroot juice give seitan a darker color.
Extras: Optionally, you could also add legumes or finely crumbled tofu to the dough.
No wheat gluten at hand?
If you can’t find wheat protein in any supermarket or organic market near you, you can also make it from scratch by washing out wheat flour. To do this, knead 500 g (4 cups) wheat flour and 250 - 300 ml (1 - 1 ¼ cup) water into a smooth dough. Add the dough to a bowl, cover it with water, then let sit for half an hour. Afterwards, drain the dough to a sieve, then place it back in a bowl filled with water. Start to knead again and you’ll see that the water becomes cloudy, as starch is released from the dough. Repeat the process and change the water regularly. As soon as the water is clear, all starch is washed out and you’re left with pure wheat protein.
Although this method is very practical when you can’t find wheat protein, it’s also quite time-consuming and requires a lot of water. It’s also not possible to add any extra flours or spices directly to the dough with this method, so you need to make sure to season the otherwise tasteless seitan with strong broths or marinades.
A recipe to begin with:
- approx. 125 g (1 cup) wheat gluten
- approx. 40 g (¼ cup) chickpea flour
- approx. 25 g (¼ cup) nutritional yeast
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
- ½ tsp onion powder
- ½ tsp paprika
- ¼ tsp garlic powder
- approx. 150 - 175 ml (⅔ - ¾ cup) water
Step 1: Mix wheat gluten, chickpea flour, nutritional yeast, and spices in a bowl. Add water and stir until a rather lumpy mixture forms.
Step 2: Knead for approx. 5 - 10 min. into a smooth dough. You can do this by hand, but it’s easiest to use a stand mixer for this step. Since seitan can be over-kneaded, which results in something spongy, you shouldn’t knead it for more than 10 minutes.
Step 3: Either use the dough immediately or let it rest up to 8-12 hours in the fridge. Shape it according to what you want to cook with it (you could press it flat, roll into logs, cut into smaller pieces, or leave it as one big chunk). If you want the seitan to keep this form, wrap it firmly. Depending on the methods of preparation, use aluminum foil (for baking), plastic wrap (for simmering), or just a simple clean kitchen towel (for steaming).
Step 4: You can now decide if you want to bake, steam, or boil seitan (or combine methods) which will result in different textures. Depending on the size of your seitan, this can take from 15 - 60 min.
Simmering seitan: For this method you’ll only need a pot and can prepare a large portion of seitan at the same time. The seitan shouldn’t cook in boiling water but rather simmered until done. Water is sufficient for this, but you can also season it with vegetable stock, soy sauce, miso paste, nutritional yeast, or other spices. Since the seitan is in direct contact with liquid it will soak all that up and develop a very soft, almost spongy texture—it’s not necessarily everyone's preferred taste and won’t work well in firm dishes, like as an alternative to cold cuts.
Steaming seitan: For this method you’ll need a steamer or a simple steaming basket that can be set up in a pot. While the water simmers in the pot, the seitan is added to the steaming basket and develops a very pleasant texture, which is not too soft and not too firm. The seitan’s skin will remain rather smooth instead of developing a crust. Seeing as space in a steamer basket is limited, you may have to prepare the seitan in smaller portions.
Baking seitan: If you want your seitan to have a firmer consistency, I recommend baking it in the oven. This dehydrates the seitan and even gives it a crust on the outside. Place the seitan on a lightly greased baking sheet and bake at 180°C - 200°C/360°F - 390°F. To prevent the seitan from drying out, it’s worth marinating it beforehand or putting it in a baking dish with some liquid.
Step 5: Theoretically you could eat the seitan right away, but in most cases you will pan-fry, braise, grill, or bread it, depending on the recipe. If you don’t want to use all of it directly, refrigerate seitan for up to one week or freeze it for up to three months.
Which dishes to cook with seitan
From my experience, two questions will likely be asked in the comments of this article, so I want to address them at this point. The questions will probably be 1) "If you don't want to eat meat, why imitate meat dishes then?" and 2) "Why do you call it schnitzel when it’s not one?"
The first question is a very personal one, and I can only answer it for me and not for other people (of course there are also vegetarians/vegans who don't even like the meaty texture of seitan). Since there’s no factual solution, there’s no right or wrong approach to this. There are only opinions about it and I think it’s important to have an understanding for different opinions—even those which don’t correspond to your own. I became vegan for ethical reasons, not because I didn't like the taste or the texture of meat. So if there’s something plant-based that resembles meat in texture and taste, there’s no contradiction to my personal mindset. This doesn't have to apply to everyone and I still respect your opinion if you disagree and I hope that you do too.
The second question is often the subject of discussions and all I can say to this is: Nothing will happen to your pork schnitzel if others are breading and frying seitan,celery, or something else that’s plant-based. Terms like these are mainly used to orient people and to make it clear what kind of dish will be made. When you talk about a "schnitzel" it’s immediately clear that something is breaded and fried, regardless of whether this is veal, pork, turkey, chicken, seitan or celery.
Is that all clear? Great, let’s move onto the question of how seitan could end up on your plate. Get inspired by the selection of convenience products in organic supermarkets that showcase the variety of dishes and shapes you can prepare with seitan—from seitan steaks, patties, and sausages to even bigger seitan roasts that you can thinly slice after steaming, cooking or baking.
Our chef Hanna decided to give seitan a try and cooked a seitan schnitzel, served with a German classic side dish: potato and cucumber salad. She seasoned the dough with ras-el hanout, a North African spice mixture containing cumin, coriander, chili, cinnamon, and cardamom, among other spices. After the dough has been kneaded, Hanna pulls and presses the seitan until it’s super thin, then lets it simmer in a mixture of water, soy sauce, and vegetable broth. Afterwards, the seitan cutlets are breaded and fried in oil until golden brown and crispy from the outside. You can find the recipe here.
Published on June 10, 2020