What Is Seitan and What Makes It a Good Meat Substitute?

When my boss, Sporked editor-in-chief Justine Sterling, asked me to write an article about seitan, I thought, “Finally! My years of praising the Dark Lord have paid off!” But then she just looked at me and said, “Not Satan, you moron. Seitan, the food. You know we are a food website, right?” I sheepishly put away my pentagram and got to work while Justine threatened me with a meeting with HR.

What is seitan?

Seitan is pure gluten (sorry, celiacs). Gluten is a protein in wheat and other cereal grains that, along with yeast, helps create the airy structure of a loaf of bread. Guten also creates chew and the more gluten, the more chew; pizza and bagels have a higher gluten content than something like a croissant. Gluten’s chewiness is also why seitan is often used as a meat substitute—its texture more closely resembles meat than other plant-based proteins like tofu. 

While seitan is a Japanese word (セイタン), wheat gluten food products can be traced all the way back to 6th century China. Under different names, seitan has been a consistent element of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cuisines. It’s also an essential element of the diet of many Buddhist monks.

In America, seitan has been around since the 1950s and is currently a very popular meat replacement, appearing in everything from burgers to jerky to imitation seafood.

How is seitan made?

Traditional seitan is made by hydrating wheat flour and forming a dough. This process builds up gluten strands that naturally occur in the wheat. Once this is done, the dough is literally washed so that the starch is removed from the dough. All that remains is the stretchy gluten, which is then cooked (typically it is simmered or steamed).

Today, you can buy something called vital wheat gluten flour. This is made by doing the exact same process as above, except instead of cooking the gluten, it is dried and made into a powder. The result is nearly pure gluten, a shortcut for homemade seitan.

Commercially available seitan in America is often flavored with spices or enhanced with portabella mushrooms to more accurately replicate meat taste. 

What does seitan taste like?

Plain seitan on its own has a pretty mild taste. It really is all about texture and how it soaks up other flavors. The chewiness does a great job of replicating meat, particularly chicken. Add to that the fact that it easily picks up whatever flavors that are mixed into it, and it becomes a pretty versatile faux meat. I’ve had seitan chicken wings that were delicious and seitan bacon that was almost exactly like turkey bacon

How do you cook with seitan?

Most seitan products are good to go right out of the package and just need to be heated up. When doing so, you want to pick a cooking method that will incorporate some liquid: steaming, simmering (not boiling), even frying in oil. This prevents the seitan from drying out and becoming rubbery. That said, you can also bake seitan if you are looking for a crunchy alternative protein that is not like meat.

Seitan is great in homemade Asian-inspired dishes like stir-frys and other wok-cooked meals. It also works as a breakfast meat replacement.

How is seitan pronounced?

It’s say-tan, emphasis on the first syllable. Ironic that it is so close to Satan, since he is the father of lies. And Seitan is the father of meat lies. Hail, seitan!

About the Author

Luke Field

Luke Field is a writer and actor originally from Philadelphia. He was the former Head Writer of branded content at CollegeHumor and was also a contributing writer and actor to the CollegeHumor Originals cast. He has extensive improv and sketch stage experience, performing both at The Upright Citizens Brigade Theater and with their Touring Company. In addition to writing, he also works as a Story Producer, most recently on season 4 of Accident, Suicide, or Murder on Oxygen. Keep your eyes peeled for his brief but impactful appearance as Kevin, the screaming security guard, in the upcoming feature The Disruptors, directed by Adam Frucci.

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