Discover more from Fine Kettle Of Fish
Playing With Your Food
You won't see flour quite the same way again
I read somewhere that it takes 400 repetitions to make a new synapse in the brain, unless it’s done through play, in which case it only takes 10 to 20.
I don’t know the accuracy of those specific numbers, but I can tell you that as a chef and a parent there is definitely something to this.
Anyone who has watched a talented chef, especially an older one, can see the fluency of skill developed by thousands of repetitions: the ease of filleting a fish or the turning of a vegetable is the result of countless hours of practice and more mistakes made than number of attempts that most of us will ever make. The desired result is achieved by practice.
But then, watch a little kid take a toy apart, or a toddler shove something into their mouth. They learn pretty quickly what’s what, how something works, or whether something is edible not by practice, but though curiosity with no expectation of a particular result.
A home cook, though, is in a bit of a strange middle ground. Unless your family enjoys eating quite literally the same meal every day you’ll never get the same number of repetitions as a chef would, but nor are you willing to waste ingredients taking wild fliers to just muck around and fingerpaint the walls with squash puree. You’re kinda stuck in the middle.
But what if there were a way to study the properties of an ingredient and even get your hands a little messy, while actually making something edible? To do something completely different, but with minimal risk?
Thanks for reading Fine Kettle Of Fish! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.
Regular readers will note that my Friday newsletters tend to be about techniques – the building blocks of great cooking: the vinaigrette, the crème anglaise, the poached egg, etc. And I have many more such techniques to come, including several weeks’ worth of flour-based preparations – the doughs and batters that fuel our carb-loaded fever dreams. So it’s worthwhile to explore, in a playful way, some of the properties of wheat flour because knowing your ingredients is an important first step.
Let me start with a vast oversimplification.
Wheat flour is made up of two main elements of interest to a cook – starch and protein. The protein (mostly gluten) is what give breads their chewy bite. Generally you would use lower protein (soft) flours for cakes and pastries and higher protein (hard) flours for breads. That all-purpose flour in your pantry? As its name suggests it’s the middle ground – good (but maybe not excellent) for all purposes.
When we add water to flour it hydrates the starch making things sticky, but it also starts to organize the gluten into long strands. All your flour-based recipes do one of two things: minimize the development of gluten to keep things tender, or push it hard to develop those strands. It’s why over-stirred muffins or pancakes are unpleasantly tough, and why bread dough gets a long kneading for that amazing chew. Working fat into the mix can shorten the strands (which is what gives “short crust” and “shortbreads” their names, but let’s not overcomplicate things too much, at least for today.
So what if you could get rid of the starch and get a good look at gluten strands up close? And make a cool plant-based meal that will impress the heck out of your veggie eating friends and family?
Let me introduce you to seitan.
Seitan, history suggests, was a happy accident of the noodle-making process and its origin dates back more than a thousand years. Seitan has been used as a protein source in Asia and is a frequent stand-in for meat products either for religious and ethical reasons or plain old personal choice. And unlike Impossible this or Beyond that, seitan can be made from ingredients you already have in your kitchen and skips a lot of the questionable additives endemic to highly-processed foods. It’s also no contest when it comes to cost – homemade seitan is pennies on the dollar compared to a package of meat-ish patties or cutlets.
Ready to play with your food?
In breaking from my usual method, I’m going to point you over to YouTube for the step-by-step on this. It’s not my video either – it’s by a lovely YouTuber who goes by the handle Emmymade. Her video are lots of fun (though you do have to suffer through some sponsored content stuff), but honestly, I couldn’t document the process any better than she demonstrates in this recipe from TikToker @futurelettuce.
Essentially the process works like this: you create a basic dough from flour and water, then wash away the starch by kneading the dough under water. You’re left with a stringy lump of gluten (protein) that you can shape and flavour to your personal taste.
And what do you learn? Among other things you’ll see just how much of your flour is starch vs. protein, how quickly gluten strands begin to form, and that strings of gluten are really fun to squish! Believe it or not, you’ll remember these things when you’re handling doughs and batters.
Now, I’m not a vegan or plant-based eater by any means, but when I first tried this I was seriously impressed. It wasn’t meat and it really didn’t taste like meat, but it was pleasant and would be completely suitable for veggie-inclined guests if meat were on the menu. The texture was much more meat-like than I expected it to be thanks the way the gluten strands line up. If you can sub the veggie broth for a “chickenless” flavoured version and get your seasoning just right you could give those chemistry lab meat-like things some stiff competition. Hot sauce doesn’t hurt either.
Even if plant-based cooking isn’t your thing, I hope you’ll consider giving this recipe a try, or at least watch the video. I always talk about getting to know your ingredients, and making seitan is a perfect example of what I mean: you’re exploring the properties on an everyday ingredient (flour) in a whole new way. Even if you never make it again you’ll carry with you an expanded idea of what flour and wheat can do and a picture of gluten in your mind. Like an unsupervised toddler with a pair of scissors and an unloved stuffed animal you can learn an awful lot without too many repetitions (you hope anyway!) if you’re playing and having fun.