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I’ve been reading of late about gluten. How it works, how it develops, why it matters. Gluten is the key to good bread and pasta (the gluten-free fadists notwithstanding, gluten-free anything is an aberration that should be shunned by anyone not diagnosed with celiac disease*).
I’m learning more about how gluten links with itself to form the chains necessary to make our food, and how to improve it in my cooking. The Canadian Grains Commission tells us:
Gluten is a protein composite that accounts for 75 to 85% of the total protein content in bread wheat. Gluten component proteins are found in the endosperm of mature wheat grain, where they form a continuous framework around the starch granules… Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed. During mixing, a continuous network of protein forms, giving the dough its strength and elasticity. By holding gas produced during fermentation, the protein network allows bread to rise.
Key words: “Gluten forms when water is added to flour and is mixed.”
At one point, I tried adding extra vital wheat gluten to my doughs to help create a better crumb when I felt it was failing, but I’ve learned that is unnecessary with the typical unbleached white flour I use. With the mixes of whole grain, rye and heritage flours, however, it might help. But it seems the best remedy is mixing and time.
Recent books on baking bread and making pasta have provided me some new insights into gluten in both bread and pasta, which are, of course, related by their common component: flour. Gluten – the wheat protein strand that gives dough both its plasticity and elasticity – is essential to both bread and pasta. But it doesn’t automatically develop to its fullest without human intervention.
The Big Bake Theory adds:
…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…
Humans have been eating wheat and its gluten for at least 10,000 years. Approximately 1% of us has celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten. Another 3-6% have a lesser intolerance. The other 93% of us can digest wheat and gluten with no ill effect, as we have done so for ten millennia.
Gluten is a complex protein structure built from glutenin and gliadin. For bread, glutenin is the more important of the two because it creates the strongest bonds. The gliadin thickens the glutenin bonds. Both need to be present, however.
Higher amounts of gluten make a dough more plastic; lower amounts make it more elastic (see Marc Vetri: Mastering Pasta, p. 13-15). High-protein flours – which means more gluten – take longer to develop the gluten than low-protein.
Bread and pasta require gluten. Without it, neither can form the molecular chains that characterize each – chains that provide texture, consistency, and the net that, in bread, captures the gases from the yeast to characterize the crumb. In pasta it gives the noodles and other shapes the strength to stay intact.
Gluten itself requires two things: kneading and time. The kneading helps build the chains, and the time lets them stabilize and uncurl properly as the flour hydrates more fully. Folding can be as effective as kneading, to help build the gluten bonds, as can mixing. However, mixing introduces oxygen, which oxidizes the wheat and bleaches it, removing flavour and texture. It’s easy to over-mix with a machine, so I do it all by hand.
In French baking, water and flour are combined – mixed but not kneaded – and let rest for a short time – the autolyse period – before salt is added. Although some cookbooks I’ve acquired suggest the yeast can be added at the same time as the water, Jeffrey Hamelman (author of Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes) suggests not to do so, because the fermentation also increases acidity which, like salt, “tightens the dough.” He advises waiting until after the first rest before adding either.
On Bread Bar None, it notes:
Autolysing does two things: starts the enzyme breakdown process, meaning that gluten is forming whilst you’re having a cup of tea and a sit down, and hydrates the flour, aligning the gluten and making the texture more elastic and workable.
For his home baking, Samuel Fromartz (In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey) uses a rest period of 20 minutes, and does four periods of folding and resting before his final rise. He, however, incorporates yeast at the start, although the salt does not get included until after the first rest.
On the No Bread is an Island site, the author experimented with autolysing and concluded little difference in the final flavour between batches made with and without the resting period:
I have to say I could find no difference in flavour between the two batches. The flavour overall is excellent – but then, it always is!
Similarly, pasta dough benefits from resting, but apparently after kneading rather than before. I have not attempted to autolyse pasta dough as I have bread, but I think it might be interesting to experiment. I suspect it will help strengthen the gluten in the dough even more. On the Four Chord Kitchen, it says:
…if autolyse is so critical for gluten development in bread, why is it not a part of pasta making?? I don’t know this answer. My guess is that if you wrapped the above dough with plastic wrap and gave it a good 20 minute rest, then kneaded it, you wouldn’t have to knead it as long to get the same amount of chew in the final noodle. The upside is you do less work. The downside is the pasta takes a bit longer to make. I’ll get around to testing different approaches soon enough, but I didn’t want to delay this general recipe any longer than it already has been.
On the Keeler and Spon site it notes:
The method for an autolysed dough is appreciably simple; flour and water are mixed at low speed and then allowed a period of rest (anything from 30 minutes to being left overnight) before the salt and then levain are added and the mixing and kneading is completed. The reason to use such a technique is because it is thought that by allowing the dough to relax before kneading has fully developed the gluten it will become more extensible, and therefore easier to shape…
Because the role of the autolyse is primarily in influencing dough structure, the main difference you’ll notice is in the handling as doughs made using an autolyse are purportedly more extensible and easier to shape. The resulting loaves are said to have more volume and a better crumb structure than those made with extended kneading, and should also appear lighter as there is less oxidation of the flour (and better retention of the creamy carotenoid pigments) due to the shorter mixing time. Lastly, as the length of time for the autolyse increases there is also a greater availability of sugars due to the action of enzymes (mostly amylases) present within the flour. Not only will this provide a noticeable sweetness to the bread, but the crusts on doughs made using a long autolyse should also caramelise to a deeper golden hue.
Once the pasta dough has been created, all the best recipes and books recommend letting it rest for 20-60 minutes. Serious Eats has a terrific article on making fresh past that examines all sorts of mixes, techniques and time. Author Niki Atchitoff-Gray found that an hour’s rest was optimal for her pasta dough, since longer rests didn’t seem to make much difference. I, however, suspect that the optimal rest time depends as much on the volume of the dough, since a larger mass would take longer for hydration.
* Thanks to science, the anti-glutenites and their pseudo-science fad diets have been debunked and discredited, so their nonsense will soon be forgotten as a fad equal in validity to pet rocks and Betamax. Bread or pasta without gluten is more commonly called ‘processed sawdust.’ Eschew it. Going gluten-free can be dangerous, too.
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