I may get a ton of emails asking me questions about how to best prepare tofu, but it’s nothing compared to the number of people who write with questions and frustrations about making homemade seitan. Seitan (pronounced say-tan), also known as “wheat meat” or gluten is one of people’s favorite vegan meats. It’s extremely versatile – it can be made with a multitude of flavors and textures. Seitan can be made to taste similar to beef, pork or chicken; the texture can be soft like pot roast or as firm as a cutlet or steak. Seitan is a great source of protein and is low in calories. If you have ever eaten a vegan “chicken” or “beef” dish in a Chinese restaurant or one of the many vegan meat products available, you have probably had seitan.
You can buy pre-made seitan in the refrigerated section of many supermarkets and health food stores, but it is less expensive to just make your own. Some people make seitan completely from scratch, rinsing the starch from wheat flour to get to the gluten. Luckily, we can also buy a bag of vital wheat gluten so that part is already done for us. Making your own seitan means you get to choose what flavors and spices go into it. Then you can add which texture you want it to have. Don’t be intimidated! With these tips, you will be able to make perfect seitan and the most delicious meat-free meals of your life.
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1. The Basic Ingredients
Technically, all you need to make seitan is vital wheat gluten and water. But no one wants to sit down to a dish of pasty, flavorless dough. Many seitan recipes include some chickpea or garbanzo flour which is used to give the seitan a lighter texture. This can also be done by adding nutritional yeast with the added benefit of lots of vitamins. The most common wet ingredients used in seitan are water, vegetable broth, olive oil and tamari, soy sauce or liquid aminos. Together, these dry and wet ingredients will be combined to make the seitan dough. Seitan that is chewier, such as ribs, requires less liquid than the soft, tender seitan you would want for a stew like this Seitan and Mushroom Bourguignon.
2. Season Inside and Out
As with any meat you would prepare, seitan needs to be seasoned. One of the advantages of making your own seitan is that you can season it from the inside as well as on the outside. If I want my seitan to have a “beefy” flavor, I add tomato paste to the dough. Sometimes I also add vegan Worcestershire sauce for that deep umami flavor. Then I choose herbs and spices associated with beef such as cumin, coriander, oregano, and paprika. Vegan “beefy” broth can also be used instead of vegetable broth to further boost the “beefy” flavor. On the other hand, if I want my seitan to be more like chicken, pork or just more neutral, I will use vegan “chicken” flavored broth and herbs such as thyme and sage.
After the seitan is made, it gets more seasoning depending on how I am going to prepare it. You do not want to eat seitan without cooking it somehow. At the very least, saute the seitan in some oil to give it a nice crust and added flavor. Chunks of seitan for a stew will get browned in seasoned flour before adding any liquids. Sliced seitan gets seasoned with garlic powder, celery salt, black pepper and cayenne when I am making a French Dip sandwich. Seitan ribs and steaks are flavored with spice rubs and/or marinades. Food is all about texture and flavor, so be generous when it comes to seasoning your seitan. You might even choose to flavor your seitan with whiskey and pineapple to make these Pineapple Jack BBQ Sandwiches.
3. You Need to Knead
Seitan is a dough, and like most dough, it needs to be kneaded. Kneading helps develop the gluten and brings elasticity and stretch into the dough. The longer you knead the dough, the more gluten you develop leading to a chewier seitan. If you want a less chewy and more tender seitan, knead it for a shorter period of time. Most recipes require kneading the dough for an average of 3 minutes, followed by a 10-minute rest period and then a bit more kneading. As you knead the seitan, you will feel it change from a wet, sticky mixture to firmer dough; that is the gluten developing. You will be able to stretch the dough and watch it snap back into place; that is the elasticity.
4. Simmering Seitan
The most traditional method of making seitan, and probably the one everyone tries first, is simmering. Simmering may be the method of choice for tender, less chewy seitan. In my opinion, it is also the method that people seem to have the most trouble with. The key is to keep the water at a simmer. If the water is boiling, the seitan will become spongy, soft and jiggly…sort of like meaty jello. Yuck. Keep the broth at a gentle simmer and your seitan will develop the proper texture.
Simmering involves combining ¼ cup of soy sauce with enough water and broth to fill a pot with 8 cups of liquid. Some of this liquid will be absorbed into the seitan so you want it to be flavorful. Bring the liquid to a rolling boil and then bring it down to a simmer. Add the gluten to the pot and cover it partially, letting steam escape. Let the seitan simmer for 45 minutes, turning it in the broth every so often. Remove the lid, turn the heat off and let the seitan swim in the broth for another 15 minutes. Carefully remove the seitan from the broth with a strainer spoon or tongs and let it drain in a colander until it is cool enough to handle. You can then use the seitan however you want but I think it tastes best the next day. Refrigerate the seitan in its cooled broth in a storage container. It will keep for up to ten days. You can also freeze the seitan for up to three months. The broth, which is full of flavor, can be used when cooking the seitan to make sauces and gravies. Use this method to make the seitan for this “Chicken” Green Chile and Hominy Posole or my Seitan Pot Roast.
5. Steaming Seitan
Steaming is the method I use most when making seitan for sandwiches, cutlets, and steaks. I also use it for making vegan sausages. Cooking the seitan in this method makes it firm and chewy and I don’t need to make a huge vat of flavored broth. To steam seitan, place the kneaded dough on a cutting board and divide into however many pieces of seitan you are making. You can make half a dozen thin cutlets, four thick steaks or even one big log that you can cut up or slice later. Just shape each piece of dough the way you want it. Wrap each piece a bit loosely in a piece of aluminum foil – loosely because the seitan will expand as it steams and you don’t want it to burst. If you are concerned about aluminum foil touching your food, you can use parchment paper or a layer of parchment paper under the foil. The foil is extra important when making something like sausages or a log that requires the strength of the wrapper to help keep its shape.
Place the foil packets in a steamer basket that is sitting atop a large pot of boiling water. Steam the seitan for 30 minutes. If you are making more than four packets, you might want to do this in batches so the steamer isn’t too crowded and each packet has room to expand. Remove the packets from the steamer and let cool before transferring them to the refrigerator for a few hours but preferably, overnight in a container. Bring the seitan back to room temperature before cooking with it. Use this method for making this Vegan Gutbuster Sausage Sandwich or my Seitan Steak in Beurre Blanc Sauce.
6. Baking Seitan
My favorite way of making seitan is to bake it. To me, this is the easiest method of all three because there is no broth, no big pot of water and no individual foil packets to worry about. Plus, you don’t have to wait until the next day to eat it. Baking seitan is especially good when making very firm recipes such as ribs or roasts. I have found that these firm pieces of seitan can be softened when braised so it has really become my go-to method. To bake seitan, grease a baking dish and add the kneaded and rested dough to the dish. Flatten and stretch the dough to fit the dish. How much you flatten and stretch it determines how thick or thin the seitan will be. Cut the dough into however many pieces you want, top with a spice rub and bake for an hour or so until the seitan has a sturdy texture to it. Remove the baking dish from the oven, recut the pieces and remove them from the baking dish. Then use them in whatever recipe you are making. This is the method I use to make my Balsamic BBQ Seitan Ribs and my irresistible Braised Seitan Short Ribs in Spicy Chile Sauce.
The important thing is to find the recipes and methods that work best for you. Then make them often so it becomes familiar and easier to you. Once you get the hang of making your own perfect seitan, you will never buy it again.
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