All About Gluten and its Role in Baking

  • Baking Fundamentals Lesson #8: All About Gluten and its Function in Baking
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The Function of Gluten in Baking Lesson Overview:

Today is a bit of a continuation from our lesson about flour’s role in baking, because we are going to explore the topic of gluten more in depth. Understanding gluten development in baking is crucial for successful baking. In tender baked goods gluten needs to be controlled, while in strong and chewy baked goods we need to work it and develop it. Let’s dive in!

Watch the Video Lesson


What is Gluten?

The grains wheat, barley, and rye contain two proteins called glutenin and glaiden. When these proteins absorb water they bond together forming an elastic network called gluten. As a dough or batter is mixed or kneaded more, these strands become stronger and more elastic.

In baking, it is very important to be aware of gluten formation, its function, and how to control it.

Gluten’s Role in Baking

Gluten is what gives traditional baked goods structure. When a dough or batter is baked, the gluten network stretches to contain the gasses that are leavening the baked good.

A strong gluten network will produce baked goods with a lot of chew and a sturdy structure. In contrast, a weak gluten network will produce baked goods and are light and tender.

How to Control Gluten Strength

There are a variety of ways to control gluten formation in your baking. Understanding how gluten formation occurs and how it can be developed or kept under control is a foundational principle of baking.

How the Variety of Flour Effects Gluten Development

As discussed in our lesson about the function of flour in baking, choosing the right variety of flour is critical for gluten development. Flour with a low protein content, such as cake flour, works well for baked goods where you want to keep the gluten development at a minimum. While flour with a high protein content, like bread flour, works well for baked goods where developing a strong gluten network is desirable.

How the Mixing Method Effects Gluten Development

Mixing methods of recipes serve many purposes, but controlling gluten development is one of the most important. The chiffon cake method and the biscuit mixing method are both excellent examples of mixing methods that aim to minimize gluten development.

In the chiffon cake method, the batter is very gently folded together, mixing as little as possible. In the biscuit mixing method the flour is first cut with fat, which protects the proteins from water absorption and therefore limiting gluten development. The dough is also handled as little as possible, further keeping the gluten under control.

In contrast, any yeast bread recipe is a perfect example of mixing methods that serve to develop the gluten structure. The process of kneading dough for a long period of time serves to build and align the gluten strands.

How Water Effects Gluten Development

Gluten cannot form until the proteins found in flour absorb water. The timing of when liquids and flour are introduced to each other in a recipe as well as the amount of liquid is strategic for gluten development. The liquid can be withheld when minimizing gluten development or it can be introduced early when looking to develop it.

It is also important to note that while hydration is absolutely necessary to develop gluten, high hydration can actually weaken the gluten structure. Once the proteins in flour are fully hydrated, additional water dilutes and weakens the gluten structure. This is why you may notice that some tender cakes and more delicate breads may have a very high ratio of liquid in the recipe.

How Other Ingredients Effect Gluten Development

While liquid is the most essential ingredient to pay attention to with gluten development, there are other ingredients that also affect the way gluten develops.

Sugar and Gluten

In our lesson about sugar’s role in baking, we reviewed that sugar is hygroscopic in nature (meaning that it absorbs and holds onto moisture). Because sugar so readily absorbs liquid, it leaves less liquid readily available for the proteins in flour to develop gluten with.

Fat and Gluten

Fats work to coat the proteins in flour making them resistant to water absorption. Fat also shortens gluten strands as they are forming. This is literally where the name “shortening” came from. In professional baking, all fat is referred to by the basic name of shortening, not just the vegetable fat we all know as shortening. And this is because of the role fat plays with gluten development.

Yeast breads are an excellent example of how this works. A baguette is made without any fat. It is crusty and incredibly chewy. In contrast, cinnamon rolls are made with an enriched dough (a dough with fat and sugar) and even though the dough is kneaded for a long period of time to build the gluten structure, the cinnamon rolls stay fluffy and tender due the way fat shortens and weakens the gluten strands.

Salt and Gluten

While sugar and fat inhibit and weaken, salt strengthens gluten formation. When salt dissolves into a dough or batter it works to give strength to gluten strands and allows for longer and more elastic strands to be built.


Homework

Now that you understand how gluten works in baking and all of the things that contribute to or inhibit its formation, I want you to try a new mixing method to see this in action! I want you to bake something using a method you have never used or one that isn’t super comfortable to you yet. During this process, be mindful of how the ingredients and the mixing method are either working to inhibit gluten production or promote gluten production. Below are a few ideas of recipes/mixing methods to try.

Muffin Mixing Method (inhibits gluten development)

Biscuit Mixing Method (inhibits gluten development)

Chiffon Mixing Method (inhibits gluten development)

Straight Dough Method (promotes gluten development)

Modified Straight Dough Method (promotes gluten development & weakens gluten structure)

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