At a Glance
- Seitan is a nutritious food that’s been eaten in many parts of Asia for centuries.
- Derived from proteins in wheat, seitan is suitable for vegetarian and vegan diets.
- There are pros and cons of including seitan in your diet, and it’s important to be fully armed with the facts.
First of all—don’t panic. We’re not delving into the realms of Satanism here—which was my first thought when I heard the name of this relatively unknown food. The emphasis on the “t” in seitan being the only thing that differentiates the pronunciation of the two!
There are references to seitan being used in Chinese cuisine as far back as the sixth Century AD, where it’s known as mianjin—seitan is the Japanese name given to this interesting vegan-friendly food.
Seitan is still used in many different dishes in Chinese cuisine, and is eaten in many parts of Japan Vietnam and other parts of Asia, and is still popular with Buddhist monks.
Seitan is becoming more widely available commercially, and is easy to make at home. But what exactly is seitan? What is it used for, and how is it made?
Here’s your one-stop guide to seitan…
What Exactly Is Seitan?
Seitan is also known as vital wheat gluten, which is quite an accurate description. Seitan is a protein derived from wheat. Wheat flour is mixed with water and seasoning to form a dough, which is rested and then washed under running water to remove the starch. This leaves only the gluten, which has a stringy, meat-like appearance.
The remaining gluten protein is often mixed with vegetables and seasonings, can be shaped and pressed into a firm, close-packed or a more loose, open texture. Once prepared and cooked, seitan bears very little resemblance to either flour or bread.
There’s a really great video on how to make seitan below. It’s quite a long and labor-intensive process, but it’s also very satisfying, interesting, and a great workout, especially for the arms!
Seitan can be thinly sliced and used in salads and as a sandwich or bagel filling. Alternatively it can be cubed and threaded onto skewers for kebabs or added to stews and curries, shaped into faux ribs, sausages or wings.
It can also be used as a pizza topping, shredded for fajitas and stir-fries or mixed with smoky flavorings (or actually smoked), then pressed to resemble bacon…we could go on…but you get the idea.
What Does Seitan Taste Like?
When prepared without seasonings, seitan tastes quite bland, but not unpleasant. You know the old phrase “it’s a bit like chicken…”!
One really nice thing about seitan is it behaves a lot like meat does during cooking; soaking up all the other flavors really well. This is one factor which makes seitan taste more like meat than other substitutes.
Depending on the seasonings added, and the method in which it’s prepared, seitan can do a pretty good impression of various different meats.
It actually has quite a meaty texture when prepared correctly, and does a much better job of substituting meat than tofu, in many people’s opinion.
You can play around with the texture of seitan. It can be made to resemble a steak or cutlet, but can also be formed into burgers or meat(less) balls. This makes seitan much more visually appealing, as well as being superior in taste, to other meat substitutes.
Benefits of Seitan
Seitan is not only a versatile food, it can also be very healthy. Here’s a quick guide to some of the main health benefits:
A few plants do contain cholesterol, but wheat isn’t one of them, which means seitan is cholesterol free. High levels of some cholesterol is a known risk factor for cardiovascular disease. Reducing your intake of cholesterol in the diet can help to reduce the risk.
May Aid Weight Loss
A very low fat, low carb food, and an excellent source of many types of proteins essential in our diet. Many different research studies indicate high protein foods to be more filling, and to keep the stomach feeling fuller for longer, compared with either carbohydrates or fats. This may help as part of a weight loss plan.
In addition, seitan contains vitamins B2, B3, B6, and some iron and zinc. The B vitamins promote good eye and skin health, boost the immune system, the nervous systems and help control high blood pressure, cholesterol and diabetes.
Iron promotes health blood and the delivery of nutrients to all body tissues and boost immunity; zinc promotes wound healing, eye health, aids in blood sugar control and improves reproductive and prostate health.
When to Be Cautious About Seitan
While seitan has many advantages in terms of health, and can really spice up meals and add a lot of variety to your diet, there are a few issues to be aware of:
Not for Gluten-Free Diets
At the risk of stating the obvious, a meat substitute made from gluten isn’t suitable for anyone who needs to follow a gluten-free eating plan. That means seitan is off the menu for people with celiac disease, and anyone with a gluten intolerance.
In addition, some experts are also concerned that as seitan provides a big whoosh of gluten, it may even increase the risk of gluten allergies and intolerance, although there’s currently no scientific evidence to support this theory.
Not a Complete Source of Protein
Protein is made up of smaller building blocks called amino acids, of which there are a total of 20 different types. Nine of these are referred to as essential amino acids, because they’re the only ones that can’t be manufactured by the body.
We need a regular supply of all nine essential amino acids in our diet. Seitan does pretty well; it contains eight of them. Lysine is the only one missing, and can be found in lentils, tofu and almonds, so these foods can complete the protein profile.
Watch the Sodium
Although you can make seitan at home, it’s not a 30-minute job, so most people buy it instead.
The downside of this is manufactured seitan is highly refined and processed, and often contains a lot of sodium, in some cases, a cup of seitan contains as much as half the daily recommended allowance. Moderation and balance are the keys.
Will You Give Seitan a Go?
So now we know—seitan is a wheat protein which is made from removing the starch from a flour dough, mixed with seasonings before being shaped and pressed to give form and texture, and cooked.
In many people’s opinion, seitan does a pretty good job of imitating the texture of meat. With the addition of different seasonings, seitan can be a very interesting addition to any diet.
As a low-fat, low-carb, high-protein food, seitan provides most of the essential amino acids and other nutrients. The high protein content means seitan helps keep the stomach feeling fuller for longer, which may aid a weight-loss program.
A purely plant-based food, seitan makes a particularly useful addition to vegetarian and vegan eating plans, although it shouldn’t be the solitary source of protein.
With shop-bought seitan often high in sodium, it should be consumed in moderation and closely monitored by those on a low-sodium diet. Alternatively, you can make your own seitan—and control the amount of added salt—easily at home.
Although making your own seitan is time consuming, and a little laborious, it’s an interesting process, and it’s fun to play around with flavors and textures. Seitan is definitely worth experimenting with—see for yourself!