Now, I love tofu as much as the next vegan. Not only is it low fat, packed with protein, and able to absorb marinades like a sponge; it can also be crumbled or blended to make a rich, creamy cheese-like filling or sauce. For all its versatility, though, tofu has a hard time standing out and shining as the focal point of a meal. Sure, it can be done–Thousand Chili Tofu at Wa Jeal Sichuan Chili House on 2nd Avenue in NYC is pretty darn good– but tofu tends to play a supporting role, blending into the background and reflecting and echoing the other flavors in the dish rather than having something of its own to say. The biggest complaint I hear (or read) from fledgling vegans and vegetarians is that they have an unshakable craving for meatiness that tofu just cannot satiate, but are uncomfortable with heavily processed products like Qorn and Morningstar.
I’ve never been one to crave faux meats (or real meats, for that matter) but, like anyone else, there are days when I need something with a little less give, something that will maintain some chewiness and really hold its own against the textures and flavors around it. There’s just something so gratifying about coming across tasty little nuggets of toothsome protein as you make your way through a big bowl of starch and veggies.
Enter seitan, aka wheat meat. Made simply of vital wheat gluten flour, broth, and a drop of oil, seitan is miraculously the most meat-like vegetable protein out there. With only the slightest bit of elbow grease, it can be formed into cutlets, flavor-packed sausages (recipes to follow later this week), or even fancy roulades. Not only is it firm and chewy, but it actually has its own distinctive rich, complex, umami-packed flavor, and it browns and caramelizes when cooked in fat in much the same way any animal meat would.
I know many of my vegan readers are probably already very well-versed in the pleasures of seitan, but I’m often surprised to learn how many folks out there have never even heard of it, let alone tried it. I, for one, grew up eating seitan, but I’d always imagined that it was made in some elaborate factory with all kinds of chemicals and weird contraptions. It wasn’t until I started cooking my way through Veganomicon (aka the vegan bible), that I discovered that you need little more than a big bowl, a wooden spoon, and a stovetop to prepare it yourself (and for mere pennies per pound). These days, I regularly make a HUGE batch of the dough and divide it up into several weeks’ worth of proteins. With only about 15 minutes of active cooking time, this recipe is seriously easy and completely fool proof. Plus, you’ll feel like a badass for being able to make the nutritional equivalent of several steaks with your bare hands out of a bag of flour.
Veganomicon’s Simple Seitan, with tips from my home kitchen
(Makes about 1lb)
To make the basic “dough”:
- 1 cup vital wheat gluten flour
- 3 tablespoons nutritional yeast (Adds depth of flavor, but you can skip it if you don’t have it on hand)
- 1/2-cup cold vegetable broth (It’s essential that it be cold, or else the dough will seize up. If you don’t have cold broth, just use water and a pinch of salt or dash of soy sauce)
- 1/4 cup of soy sauce (If you’re anti-soy, just use liquid aminos, or salty broth)
- 1 tablespoon olive oil (tahini also works great)
- 2 cloves garlic, pressed (I usually omit this out of laziness)
- Combine the dry ingredients (flour, garlic, and nutritional yeast, if using) in a large bowl. Add liquids and stir with a wooden spoon to combine, until the ingredients have clumped and there is no longer any visible loose flour in the bowl. The recipe calls for combining the liquids first before adding to the dry, but, in my experience, this doesn’t appear necessary.
- Knead the mixture with your hands until it forms a solid loaf and is stretchy.
In the steps that follow, I’ll be walking you through how to make the basic, all-purpose simmered seitan from Veganomicon, which can be sauteed whole or in chunks and used much as omnivores would use chicken breast. If you’d like to try to make a more specialized seitan, like “ribs,” a roulade, or the sausages I’ll be sharing later this week, then you can stop after Step 2 above and shape and cook the dough to your desired specifications. As a rule of thumb, if you’d like a firmer, chewier seitan, then you’ll want to bake, rather than simmer, the dough, usually for about 45 minutes at 350F.
To make all-purpose chicken-like seitan hunks:
- 1 batch seitan dough
- 6-8 cups broth (The recipe calls for water, bouillon cubes and a generous amount of soy sauce, but any broth or flavorful liquid will work well. Kombu and/or fresh herbs make a great addition.)
- Divide dough into chunks of desired size and thickness. The recipe has you divide it into thirds. I find that this renders the pieces an awkward size (not enough for 2 people, too much for 1). I prefer instead to divide it into halves, so that I can use an approximately 8-ounce chunk for each meal to serve my husband and I.
- Put seitan chunks in a large pot with broth. Cover and bring to a low simmer. Cook for about 1 hour, making sure the broth never comes to a roaring boil.
- Allow the seitan to cool, and transfer to individual containers. The recipe has you store the chunks in broth, but I find this is unnecessary and just creates more hassle and waste. The leftover broth, which takes on a rich flavor from the seitan, can be frozen and reused multiple times to simmer more seitan. It also makes a great base for a tasty gravy.