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Kitchen Science – Gluten

You can’t go into many restaurants, grocery stores, or bakeries these days without seeing a sign or menu boasting which tasty offerings are gluten-free. It seems that this dietary restriction – or requirement, in some cases – is truly taking the food world by storm.

More recently, gluten has been popping up in the news since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandated a more strict regulation of all products labeled as “gluten free.” An entirely gluten-free diet is the only way to treat celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder that interferes with the body’s absorption of nutrients through the small intestine. Though celiac disease is the most extreme form of gluten intolerance, many others suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity and find relief from eating a gluten-free diet. Odds are that if you are reading this article, you or someone you know probably eats gluten-free.

That’s all great, but what exactly is gluten? Many of us might be able to identify that it is some kind of substance that is in wheat. Did you also know it is found in barley, rye, and some oats? Gluten is a general name for the protein in these grains that helps hold food together. The word “gluten” itself comes from the Latin word for “glue.” Gluten is what makes dough stretch, sauces thicken, bagels chewy, and gives your English muffin those tasty little nooks and crannies. Without gluten, flour simply would not have the ability to stretch itself into the tasty shapes we often eat it in.

Whether you eat gluten-free or gluten-full, here is a neat experiment you can try with your kids in the kitchen. Which flours contain the most gluten?

You will need:

  • 1 cup each of any baking flour (for the best comparison, try a very glutinous flour such as whole wheat or all-purpose flour with a gluten-free or cake flour)
  • Small bowls
  • Water

Measure 1 cup of each type of flour into separate small bowls. Gradually add about 1/2 cup of water to each bowl and gently knead until a soft ball of dough forms. Over the sink, cup a ball of dough in your hands and run water over it, gently squeezing the dough. When the water running off the dough ball is clear and no longer murky, you should be left with a sticky, slimy, gooey ball of gluten. Try this again with another flour. Do you get the same results? Which flours do you think have the most gluten in them? The least?

For an added experiment, you can try baking the washed dough to see how heat also interacts with the gluten.


– Amy Tortorello, Intern

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