All About Gluten

Gluten has become a rather hot topic lately, as gluten-free diets are becoming increasingly popular. This gluten-free trend has sparked some pretty heated debates; however, there isn’t enough evidence to conclude that gluten-free should be for everyone. A strict gluten-free diet is absolutely necessary for some: people who suffer from celiac disease  are unable to process gluten properly, resulting in damage to the small intestine. More and more people without the disease, however, are turning to gluten-free foods as well.

While I eat gluten myself, I have experimented with gluten-free baking. This has helped me realize what a huge role it plays in baked goods.

What is Gluten?

Have you ever noticed that when you knead dough, it becomes elastic? That’s gluten. It is a protein that is found in wheat and other grains and is responsible for the shape and texture of many baked goods. It is made up of two different proteins called glutenin and gliadin. When mixed with water, these two proteins combine to create gluten particles, which in turn come together to create gluten strands in the dough. The gluten strands become stronger and more developed, the more the dough is mixed.

Gluten’s Role in Baking

The more the gluten is developed, the tougher and chewier the baked good.  Bread, for example, has more gluten than a tender, flaky pastry. Bread dough relies on gluten to hold the itself together, which is why gluten-free bread tends to be crumbly. Bread dough also relies on gluten to trap the gases that are produced by yeast during fermentation. Without gluten, these gases would escape from  the dough, resulting in a more dense bread.

While bread has a high gluten content, other baked goods, such as pastries, should have relatively low amounts of gluten. Pie crusts, for example, should be tender and not chewy. Take a minute to compare the differences between bread dough and pie dough. Bread dough is elastic, meaning you can pull it and it will stretch before it breaks. This is not the case for pie dough. This does not mean, however, that the more gluten in bread and the less gluten in pastries the better. If the gluten is too developed, bread dough will no longer stretch easily (think of a really tough elastic band that is difficult to stretch out.) This would result in bread that is too tough and chewy. Pastry dough with too little gluten would be too tender and would fall apart easily.

Factors Affecting Gluten Development

Luckily, there are ways of controlling gluten to obtain the optimal amount of gluten development for the particular baked good you are working with.  These include:

  • Extent of mixing
  • Type of flour
  • Amount of water
  • Presence of fats
  • Other such as pH, salt, temperature…

Mixing, Kneading and Relaxing Dough

Earlier, I mentioned that the more you mix dough, the more you develop the gluten. This is the whole reason why bread dough is kneaded and pie dough is mixed only to the point where it is just combined. This is also the reason why recipes for cookie dough, cake and muffin batter, etc. often say “do not over mix.”  While you cannot undo the gluten development in an over-mixed batter, relaxing the dough can make it easier to work with. You may remember from my puff pastry tutorial, that there are many dough relaxation stages. This gluten-relaxation lessens the elasticity of the dough, making it easier to roll out.

Protein Content in Flour

The main difference between bread, cake, pastry, and all-purpose flours is the protein content.  I think a closer look into these flours deserves a separate post because it isn’t quite that simple, but for now, let’s just worry about protein content. Remember that gluten forms once glutenin and gliadin are mixed with water. This means that gluten itself isn’t actually present in the flour, but rather its components. Therefore, it makes sense that bread flour has a higher protein content than other flours: higher protein content = more gluten.  Cake and pastry flours have lower protein contents because we don’t want too much gluten formation in these baked goods. All-purpose flour is somewhere in between.

I’ve mentioned before that Canadian flour generally has higher protein content than most European flours. Most of the European all-purpose flour I encountered had a protein content of about 10%. In Canada, however, the most common all-purpose flour  brand (Robin Hood) has a protein content of around 13%. This happens to be the same percentage  as the Robin Hood Bread Flour.Weird. After realizing this, I looked into the protein content of the Robin Hood Cake and Pastry flour, which is 10%. Most other cake and pastry flours are around 6-8% protein. Just something for my fellow Canadians to think about.

Amount of Water and Fat

Adjusting the amounts of water and fat in a recipe plays a major role in the extent of gluten formation. Water is absolutely essential: no water means no gluten. Fat, on the other hand, hinders gluten development by creating a coating around the proteins. This blocks water from hydrating the gluten proteins, thereby preventing the gluten strands from developing further.

Gluten-Free Baking

After doing some gluten-free experimentation, I’ve found that some baked goods are really easy to make gluten-free whereas others are not. Not surprisingly, baked goods that do not rely as heavily on gluten are easier to make gluten-free. I had a lot of success with muffins, cakes, and some pastries, using various gluten-free flours. My favourite gluten-free flour is Schar Mix Patisserie. I have yet to find this brand in Canada, although maybe it is possible to order it online. Otherwise, it is really fun to experiment with different types of flours. I’ve used buckwheat, rice, millet, chestnut, almond, potato, cornstarch, arrowroot, chickpea, and soy flours. My best results have been from mixing rice, millet, potato, and soy flours together to make some pretty great muffins. Xanthan gum and guar gum are often used to make up for the lack of gluten and help hold the crumbs together.

Please feel free to contact me if you are interested in gluten-free baking and I will be happy to post some recipes that have worked for me.


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15 Responses to All About Gluten

  1. Michael March 22, 2012 at 9:38 am #

    Thanks for making this easy to understand. It saves me from many hours of experimenting. But can someone help with another related question? If I want light fluffy chewy bread, how do I do that? More yeast? More kneading? Less of those? Knead twice? More rising?

    One more question. When I roll out my dough it snaps back. How do I roll out dough more easily?

    • Ashleen March 28, 2012 at 7:39 pm #

      Thanks for commenting! If you want light, fluffy bread, you want to make sure that you don’t over knead the dough. Otherwise you will end up with a dense bread. More yeast could give a fluffier bread; however, you want to be careful because too much yeast will make the bread taste very yeasty.
      If you are finding that the dough won’t roll out and springs back, you can try resting the dough in the fridge for a while to relax the gluten. Good luck :)

      • Michael Murphy April 2, 2012 at 9:49 am #

        Letting the dough relax made a huge difference. I froze some dough and then made bread. It was very very tasty. Much sweeter and it had a nice texture. Any idea on why? Whatever it does to the dough, freezing it makes it delicious!

        • Ashleen April 6, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

          Did you freeze the dough right after kneading it, or did you allow it to rise? My guess would be that you affected the yeast activity by freezing the dough (yeast won’t be active in a cold environment.) This would result in a sweeter tasting dough because the yeast wouldn’t be eating the sugars present :)

  2. Ruhi Gupta August 17, 2012 at 3:23 am #

    Hey Ashleen,

    I am in love with your website. I love the way you have explained about gluten and leavening.
    I can’t wait to read about types of flour as you have mentioned above that you would write a whole new post for it and I would be grateful if you could also explaining about shortening in baked goods.

    Best Regards

    • Ashleen September 3, 2012 at 9:25 pm #

      Thank you for your lovely comment :)
      I’ll be sure to do a post on flour very soon!

  3. diana January 14, 2013 at 3:26 pm #

    Hi very interesting to find easy to understand the definition and how it works all the ingredients that it used in baking.i enjoyed reading and learned the theory in baking.i ve done a lot of baking but im always turned out a disaster especially in making bread always goes into the bin. Im not giving up .until I learned all the methods and uses in baking thank you.

  4. saumya gupta June 19, 2013 at 10:23 pm #

    hello sir,

    i m very thankfull that u give a very clear explanation of gluten in very easy language it also gives a great help in my project.


  5. Sierra Nevada November 10, 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Your website name is amazing and this entry on gluten in cooking is so in depth! Thank you so much

  6. Sierra Nevada November 10, 2013 at 3:30 pm #

    Your website name is amazing and this entry on gluten in cooking is so in depth! Thank you so much.

  7. Sierra Nevada November 10, 2013 at 3:31 pm #

    Your website name is amazing and this entry on gluten is so in depth! Thank you for creating this.

  8. Berkshire Jones January 18, 2014 at 5:45 am #

    Sometime ago, I started baking my own bread, so that I could make better bread without having to pay $4 per loaf. I have been having problems with the bread rising, and I’m beginning to wonder if ph is the problem. Our water has so much calcium that the town adds a chemical to keep peoples furnace boilers from clogging. Occasionally I add whey, which I get from making my own yogurt. Sometimes this works and other times I end up with bricks. Recently, my daughter (not a gifted baker) made a loaf from a box mix. She started it in the bread machine, and I suggested that we bake it in the oven, since I was warming the oven for dinner anyway (and I hate those little holes that the bread machine makes in the bottom). We took the dough out, shaped it, and put it in a loaf pan. It never really seemed to rise very much. She only used water from the tap, and the bread machine had done all the mixing and kneading. What could have gone wrong?

  9. Mabel February 22, 2014 at 9:39 am #

    Can you tell us the proportion of the mix of gf flours? To me, the real challenge of gf baking are puff pastry and soft sandwich bread.n love with the website. Hope you keep up posted!

  10. Josephine May 5, 2014 at 9:53 am #

    Hi, my daughter is doing a science fair project. The project is to find out which type of flour (whole-wheat, all-purpose and cake) will make a fluffiest cupcake. The result show whole-wheat make the fluffiest cupcake follow by all-purpose and cake flour. Personally, I think cake flour should make the most fluffiest cupcake instead.

    In theory, what type of flour will be fluffiest cupcake and why?


    • Allie May 10, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

      Cake flour will make the fluffiest because it is sifted and has a much lighter texture. It also has lower protein than all purpose.
      All purpose is the next fluffiest.
      Whole wheat is NOT fluffy at all it will make bricks. Whole wheat absorbs moisture and doesn’t respond as well to lighter recipe types. I have no idea about protein content but in this case I’m not sure it matters.

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