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A Closer Look at Gluten

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2013

See and feel gluten with this simple kitchen experiment.

Gluten—an elastic protein that has the ability to trap air, much like a balloon—is formed when two important proteins in wheat flour, glutenin and gliadin, bond together in the presence of water. Whether we are trying to create more of it in rustic bread or pizza dough or working to limit its development for tender baked goods like cakes and muffins, there’s no denying gluten’s importance. But beyond our conceptual understanding of it, is there a more tangible way to see and feel ­gluten? We ran a simple experiment to find out.

We made two basic doughs by mixing flour and water in a food processor until a smooth ball formed. For one dough we used cake flour, which contains between 6 and 8 percent protein, and for the other one we used bread flour, which usually runs from 12 to 14 percent protein. After making the doughs, we placed each in a mesh strainer and massaged them under running water to wash away all of the starch. Once the water ran clear (a sign that the starch was gone), we were left with two piles of essentially pure gluten. The differences in the appearance and texture of the two doughs were a dramatic confirmation of the profound impact of gluten.

CAKE FLOUR: Low-protein cake flour formed a very small amount of sticky, weak gluten. This characteristic is a boon to cake and muffins, in which too much gluten can turn the crumb unappealingly tough.

BREAD FLOUR: High-protein bread flour formed a large ball of highly resilient, rubbery gluten that could be stretched very thin without tearing. This structure traps air in breads, providing high rise and good texture.