Seeing a mound of flour and water go from craggy and dimpled to sleek and taut delivers its own dose of dopamine. Flour equals possibility, and gluten, the naturally occurring protein in wheat flour, rye, and other grains, is the vehicle that gets us where we want to go. I’m entranced by gluten, but maybe, if we’re being honest, a little hesitant around it too?
What is gluten? It’s a tangle of proteins that gives bread dough the strength to hold its shape and rise in the oven, trapping gas bubbles in a stretchy mesh. It’s the architectural glue that keeps cakes, pie crusts, and pastry intact as they bake. When the flour proteins glutenin and gliadin mix with water, they begin to interlock like Velcro, forming a network of protein strands that holds a dough together.
A few weeks ago, I punched down the dough to make a batch of sweet buns. There was the satisfaction of windowpaning the dough to see if it was ready. The delight of seeing it double in size and feeling the satin skin as my hand shaped each lump into a ball. These steps of rest and agitation are essential to forming gluten. How you handle that gluten determines the destiny of your dough. So how could I develop just the right amount of gluten for the pillowy sweet buns I was after?
To learn more about how gluten works, I sought out experts in the fields of bread-baking, pastry, and pasta-making. I wanted their advice about how to handle gluten, to understand its wants and needs. What can gluten teach us about how to work with different types of dough?
Do you need to knead?
Gluten’s potential comes from the type of flour in which it’s contained. More protein in the flour means more gluten, and more structure in your finished bake. Bread flour inadvertently tells you its protein level and purpose in its name. As a high protein flour, its range of 12 to 14% protein means it’s capable of forming more gluten and giving doughs more structure. All-purpose flour offers medium strength, clocking in at 10 to 12% protein. Cake flour is lowest in protein at around seven to 10%; the slight protein content encourages more tender cakes and biscuits. Extra-fine pasta and pizza favorite 00 flour varies in protein levels. Select a flour based on your desired outcome, then come along for the ride.
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I used to think that developing gluten started with mixing or kneading, but Ali Bouzari, culinary scientist and author of Ingredient: Unveiling the Essential Elements of Food, set me straight. “As soon as you’ve gone from dry flour to a wet mass,” he said, “the clock starts ticking.”
To better understand this concept, I pulled down my copy of Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish of Ken’s Artisan Bakery in Portland, OR. What was the role of hydration in activating gluten? Forkish writes in his cookbook: “the enzyme amylase is activated as wheat flour is hydrated, breaking down the sugars in [the] endosperm for the yeast to feed on, which encourages fermentation and gases to develop.” The wetter the dough, the greater its capacity to rise. “A higher hydration dough is going to have literally more room to move,” Bouzari said, “and that will also lead to more gas bubbles and more leavening when the thing is eventually baked.”
My sourdough starter long laid to rest, I took Forkish’s Saturday White Bread recipe for a spin. It starts with gently mixing warm water with flour. Then comes an initial rest, known as an autolyse. Forkish assured me by email that resting is worth the wait: “While you are letting the dough rest, stuff’s happening inside that’s beneficial.” A little rest leads to “more complex flavor, better texture, and that might make the bread more digestible.” It briefly made me question the role of rest in my own life and my tendency to forsake it for more work and activity. Could gluten be the life coach I didn’t know I needed?
Time is often a stand-in for muscle.
Hydration and resting time function as a tag team. Bouzari says: “Time is often also a stand-in for muscle. The ‘secret ingredient’ in a lot of those no-knead breads is how much time you’ve got, because as things are given more time to absorb water and hydrate, things will stabilize.”
I’d forgotten the joy of stretching out bread dough only to swaddle it back onto the bubbly mass below, then folding it into a tight ball. There is contentment in knowing what is shaggy and loose will become elastic and smooth. Forkish writes in his book how time and temperature should be considered essential ingredients; retarding dough overnight in the refrigerator doesn’t stop all activity, but slows it. “As a dough is sitting there under tension, it’s kind of like a long-extended yoga class for gluten,” Bouzari said.
While the idea of breadmaking might conjure images of aggressively working the dough—punching it down, muscling it into shape—it surprised me to read Forkish talk about gluten’s fragile nature, especially right before baking. He cautions not to tear gluten strands when transferring the proofed dough to the pre-warmed Dutch oven. There’s no punching down the dough or de-gassing it for a uniform crumb. Instead, Forkish relishes how the gas brings flavor and stretches the gluten, giving rise to the dough. “Gluten is delicate at the final stage prior to baking. Or, it should be, anyway. A naturally occurring enzyme in the dough (protease) breaks down the gluten over time, and when you see a dough go too far and collapse, that’s why.”
I’ve been there—the dough that proofed too long—and never understood why it just kind of deflated like a sad balloon as it was transferred from the proofing basket to my scorching-hot pot. This time, though, the dough doubled in size. And after baking, it was hard to wait to slice into it as the loaf crackled against the wire rack cooling, its inside a web of open-weave holes.
While I want to maximize that lovely gluten development in bread, the texture I want in pastry, cakes, and pie is different. So what’s the best way to inhibit gluten development for a softer texture? ADVERTISEMENT
It felt like kismet to learn that Margarita Manzke’s first baking project (age seven) was a batch of muffins that turned out rubbery.
Why are my muffins dense? Why is my cake rubbery?
Manzke’s email said this: “I didn’t care what other people said about my rubber muffins! Because I kept doing it and I kept baking.” As the pastry chef and co-owner of République in Los Angeles, Manzke oversees the restaurant’s pastry department and is a prolific bread baker. Baking at République, the cookbook she coauthored with Betty Hallock, provides some clues on how to curtail gluten development in tender-textured bakes. Her chapter opener for muffins and scones guides you to just mix to the point of “streaks of flour here and there,” prompting, “if you mix it any more, then your muffins won’t be as tender as they should be.” Challenge accepted.
I headed to the kitchen to make her Bacon Cheddar Jalapeño Muffins. The recipe started with whisking all the dry ingredients separately, no hydration yet. Corn kernels roasted. Bacon gently sizzled until crisp. I mixed in the liquids, leaving streaks of flour, knowing I wasn’t done mixing, but didn’t want to mix too much. I gingerly stirred in the roasted corn and jalapeños. Then began the quick action of portioning into muffin wells to get them in the oven. Intent on mixing “just enough,” I also didn’t want the batter to sit around long enough for time to get involved and develop gluten on its own.
“You want to be gentle with your cake and scone batter, so as not to develop a tough texture,” Manzke continued. “It took a lot of time, practice, and experience for me to develop the hand-feel of what is just right.” Those streaks of flour can rattle me. What is it about our need to see a batter be completely smooth? Do you ever have to hold yourself back from the “just one more stir”? It’s a decision well made, even if the batter or dough might look unfinished. Manzke opens the section on cakes in her cookbook nudging the reader: “I always come back to mixing extra-gently for a really moist crumb.”
I pulled the muffins out, and as they cooled on the wire rack I couldn’t help but tear into one, finding it bouncy and light before devouring it.
So, I’d coaxed out gluten in bread and tamed it in muffins—what would it take to get gluten stretchy enough for lithe noodles?
Why is my pasta dough tearing?
Once I took a pasta-making class at a local restaurant after an anniversary meal there had me transfixed. In class, though, they gave us prepared dough. We learned how to run it through a machine, then how to cut and shape. We took our pasta home and it made a stellar dinner later.
I can’t help but think now about how we skipped a major step in the process. Two steps, really: kneading and resting. I’m struck by how much arm work is necessary to get the right strength and tension in the gluten to give pasta dough its necessary extensibility. With bread, gluten brings structure and rise, but pasta’s interested only in structure. Knowing more about what activates gluten now, could I make restaurant-quality noodles at home?
I’ve been captivated by the read-your-newspaper-thin sheets of pasta that Evan Funke, chef of Felix Trattoria in Los Angeles, features in his cookbook, American Sfoglino. The pasta almost glows. Before attempting it myself, I messaged Freedom Rains, executive chef of San Francisco’s A Mano, to help me figure out how to recognize when the pasta was worked enough. He said that you’ll know when a pasta dough is ready, because when you push into it, the dough will push back. (That push back is our friend gluten in action.) If it doesn’t spring back, it needs to be worked more. This stretch—brought about by kneading the dough enough—is essential to prevent your pasta from tearing, whether you plan to roll the pasta out by hand or extrude it through a machine.ADVERTISEMENT
I sifted an anthill of 00 flour on my countertop, then pushed my fist into the center to form a well into which I broke five eggs, ready to get to work kneading. The eggs hydrate the flour, starting the process. In Funke’s recipe, he tells you to wash your hands but not to dry them, instead working that residual water into the dough while kneading. I hopped onto YouTube to see Funke’s pasta kneading technique, following along, rolling the dough ball out like a wave, and then pulling it in over and over, but eventually defaulted back to my heel-in-and-fold-style kneading method, finally getting both heels of my hands in on the action. I pushed my finger down into the dough looking for that partial springback Rains said to look for.
Kneading the dough was critical for giving the dough stretch; rest was essential too. “It’s just like your muscle. If someone punches you in your arm, what’s your arm going to do? It’s going to seize up. So, if you’re working and working and working your pasta dough until it pushes back, it’s seized up,” said Rains. “Once you wrap it and let it rest, it’s going to relax, so when you cut it and then you roll it out with a rolling pin, it’s going to be much smoother.”
A rest after all that kneading functions like a post-workout steam room, letting the newly strengthened dough relax enough to become malleable.
In the past I’d let my pasta dough rest for 30 minutes. This time, Funke said to set the pasta dough aside for two to three hours, at least. Just like in breadmaking, time and rest are essential parts of the process. In bread dough, resting gives gluten added muscle. In pasta dough, a rest after all that kneading functions like a post-workout steam room, letting the newly strengthened dough relax enough to become malleable.
After a three-hour rest in cling film on my counter, my dough was as elastic as rubber—too elastic. I rolled one ball out with my rolling pin, intent on making gossamer-thin strichetti. Instead, I made chubby bow ties. The dough fought me. I should have quieted my impatience and left it to relax some more, listening to the dough instead of the clock.
I kept the second ball of dough in the refrigerator overnight, wondering how that extra time would impact its final texture. After bringing it back to room temperature the next day, I rolled it easily. And this time, I pulled out my hand-crank pasta machine. It pushed out gorgeous sheets of pasta; I almost changed course to make lasagna. But instead I fed the dough through the linguine side of the machine, and out came silky-smooth strands that had me ogling my dinner plate. Next time I’m going to heed Forkish’s comments about letting the dough rest. While he aimed them at bread, that idea holds true for pasta too.
The thing I’ve always loved about dough is how it tells you what it needs. How it asks you to learn to listen. Maybe this is particularly true for bread dough or pasta, but I’m keeping it in mind for cake, muffins, and scones in a new way too. Getting to know gluten better opened me up to seeing how the web of protein strands works hard, and deepened my appreciation for its purpose. I’m still absorbed in something Bouzari told me:
“The central rule of gluten is it’s a protein, and in general proteins are among the most dynamic molecules we can cook with. They respond really strongly to stress. Stress changes proteins. And in the case of gluten, stress makes an ever-tightening network. The type of stress you choose and the way you apply it will eventually literally shape the thing that you’re making.”
Headphones on, Frou Frou playing “Let Go,” getting my hands deep into flour, I’m hanging on to the idea of work and rest, of stress, and how stress can be good—how it creates a web of gluten that glues together the best parts of our days.