Known by the Chinese as “the muscle of flour,” gluten (GLOO-tihn) is the protein that gives bread its structure. If you could isolate gluten, you’d see a tough, elastic, grayish mass that resembles a well-used wad of chewing gum. Scientifically, it’s one of the largest protein molecules in the natural world. Practically, it’s what gives kneaded dough its springy aliveness and provides the framework for the intricate network of air bubbles produced by leavening agents.
When we knead bread or pizza dough, we’re “developing the glutens.” But not all baked goods benefit from strong, muscular glutens. Overworked glutens produce tough biscuits, leathery cookies and less-than-flaky piecrusts.
Wheat flours are generally high in gluten, hence their popularity in breads. All-purpose flour is made with a blend of high-gluten hard wheat and low-gluten soft wheat. Bread flour and gluten flour are made almost exclusively with high-gluten hard wheat and can be used alone or in conjunction with low-gluten flours like rye. Cake flour is a soft wheat, finely ground flour that yield delicate textures.
Unfortunately, what’s good for the loaf of bread isn’t always good for the eater. Some people suffer from celiac disease or other disorders in which the body forms antibodies to fend off the proteins (or gluten) in flour, resulting in serious malnutrition. Fortunately, this doesn’t necessarily mean swearing off baked goods. Flours that may be “safe” for the gluten-sensitive include corn, rice, buckwheat, amaranth, millet and quinoa.
—By Jo Marshall, a food writer in Deephaven, Minn.