What is Seitan?

what is seitan

Laurel recently requested an episode on seitan: What the heck is it, how does it stack up nutritionally, and how do you eat it?

Seitan is not a new thing. The word (pronounced say-tan) is Japanese and was coined just 50 years ago by one of the proponents of the macrobiotic diet. But the food it refers to has been a staple in Asian cultures for at least 15 centuries. I remember seeing it (but not buying it) at the Food Coop I belonged to as an undergraduate at Boston University. Although that was not quite 15 centuries ago, it was still long before the days of Whole Foods stores and yoga studios on every corner. Back then, food coops (and health food, in general) occupied a sort of a fringe culture left over from the Age of Aquarius.

Today, of course, minimally-processed foods and plant-based diets are relatively mainstream pursuits, so a whole new generation of hipsters and Lulu-lemon-wearing moms are getting acquainted with things like kombucha and seitan.  I talked about kombucha just last week in my Nutrition Tips for Fall. This week, I have a quick primer on seitan for you.

What is Seitan?

Seitan is most frequently used as a meat substitute in vegetarian diets. It has a sort of stringy, chewy texture that makes it a fairly good substitute for meat. Unlike some meat substitutes, however, it’s actually a decent source of protein.  But the source of the protein might surprise you.

Seitan is made from wheat gluten. Yes,  you heard me correctly. This “health food” consists almost entirely of gluten: a substance that a lot of people are going to great lengths to avoid these days. It’s made by rinsing wheat flour dough to dissolve and remove most of the starch and fiber. Eventually, what you have left is a sticky, elastic mass of protein.

Wheat as a Source of Protein

We tend to think of wheat and products made from wheat (such as bread and pasta) as “carbs.” However, people forget that wheat is around 15% protein, mostly in the form of gluten. A slice of wheat bread or serving of pasta contains about 5-10g of protein.

Among all the grains, wheat is actually one of the highest in protein. One unfortunate aspect of a lot of gluten-free products is that they are significantly lower in protein (and higher in carbohydrate) than the wheat-based products they are intended to replace.

But back to seitan: Historically, wheat gluten was a popular source of protein for Buddhists, who are vegetarians. It became an important element of the macrobiotic diet, which dates from the 1930s, and continues to be popular with those following a plant-based diet. 

Wheat gluten also turns up frequently as an ingredient in soy-based sausages, burgers, and other meat alternatives. If you’ve every tried Tofurkey, for example (you remember that year in high school when you declared yourself to be a vegetarian and your Mom made you Tofurkey for Thanksgiving?), then you have had wheat gluten.

Seitan, Tofu, and Tempeh

What’s the difference between seitan and tofu? Or for that matter seitan and tempeh? All three are excellent vegetarian protein sources. Here are how the three compare:

Seitan vs. Tofu: Seitan is made from wheat protein (gluten) and tofu is made from soy protein.

Seitan vs. Tempeh: Seitan is made from wheat protein (gluten) and tempeh is made from fermented soybeans.

Tofu vs. Tempeh: Both are made from soybeans; tofu is unfermented and tempeh is fermented (probiotic).

How to Cook Seitan

The stuff is quite versatile: it can be steamed, baked, rolled into noodles and boiled, or marinated and stir-fried. It’s especially useful for those who, for whatever reason, cannot eat soy protein. But, for obvious reasons, it would not be appropriate for anyone with celiac or another gluten sensitivity.

With little flavor of its own, seitan readily picks up the flavor of whatever you’re cooking it with or in.  If you want to try seitan in its more traditional guises, seek out an authentic Chinese restaurant or a macrobiotic cafe.

With little flavor of its own, seitan readily picks up the flavor of whatever you’re cooking it with or in.

If you’d like to try it at home, you may be able to find seitan at your grocery store. Look for it in the section where they stock the tofu or vegetarian hot dogs.  If you can’t find it there, seek out a health food store, food coop (yes, they still exist!), or Asian grocer.  You’ll find a wide variety of products, including pre-seasoned or marinated crumbles, strips, ribs, nuggets, or patties.  Usually, all you have to do is heat it up.

In terms of nutrition, a 3-ounce serving of seitan will provide about 20 grams of protein, which is not too shabby for a plant-based protein.

If you’ve never had it, why not try some seitan this week? Let me know what you think. You can post your comments below.