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Microwave tricks: Seitan without Simmering

My sisters-in-law from Oakland were planning a visit to us this summer now that we actually have a house and can host them. It fell through, but the prospect got me thinking about vegan food and what we might serve them. They’re both good cooks, but they eat a lot of commercially-prepared vegan meat substitutes along with their own fresh vegetables and grains and baked goods.

I’m not great on packaged foods in general, and unfortunately, vegan proteins other than plain fresh tofu and dried beans look an awful lot like vegetarian versions of Oscar Meyer sliced bologna and turkey loaf to me. Not just the appearance, but the cost per serving (really high–something like 4-6 bucks for a chic little package that serves two, ostensibly) and the salt (also really high–600 mg and up per serving). And the ingredients lists are always long and kind of mysterious-sounding, either in a surprisingly chemical way or in a Japanese-ingredient-names-as-authenticity way. Not that I’m not working to figure out exactly what kombu and dulse and Job’s tears are. Two seaweeds and a resin? I think, anyway.

There’s also a lot of yeast extract in some of these processed vegan proteins–sounds like between that and the salt, what they really did was dump in Vegemite or Marmite. Bleagh (my husband’s sister is kind of an Anglophile, but that doesn’t excuse either version to me).

On the other hand, some of the vegan cookbooks out now have do-it-yourself recipes for seitan, and so do Ellen’s Kitchen and FatFree Vegan Kitchen.

Seitan is basically wheat gluten dough cooked in stock. If you do it yourself at home, it may take an hour to simmer but really isn’t very expensive compared with the commercially prepared versions. A 5-lb bag of flour at about $2-3 or a few ounces out of a 22-oz bag of vital wheat gluten (about $6-8, depending where you buy it, and worth it for getting 100% gluten out of the bag and not having to wash the starches out of the dough since it’s already done for you) produces something like a pound or two of seitan at a go. That’s enough for a larger meal, maybe even for that elusive home-made vegetarian centerpiece dish

Why is this worth doing if you don’t eat vegan and aren’t actually having vegan guests in the house after all? (and now that I’ve schlepped the last of the moving boxes out of the living room, I’m really wondering).

I think back to my favorite Chinese restaurant back east, the Hunan Manor in Columbia, MD. Every time we fly back east we try to make a stop there.

One of the things that makes the Hunan Manor great is their willingness to experiment and invent. They serve a wide variety of vegetarian versions of standard banquet dishes using “vegetarian chicken”–basically seitan cut and fried as for meat. These dishes complement their masterful use of tofu with textures from nearly silken to deep-fried to pressed and diced for the vegetarian jao tse, which I’ve always thought looked better and probably tasted better than the pork-based meatball filling our nonkosher friends would get (though they raved about them, and I’ll take their word for it).

The last time we came east, the restaurant had added several new dishes using a different form of seitan with very finely layered rolls that were cut in bite sized pieces, coated and fried–a pretty close simulation for the layered flesh of chicken. It was really delicious in their orange “chicken” with perfectly cooked bright green broccoli. It was unexpectedly unsalty as well, so I don’t know whether they made it in-house or had bought the prepared seitan in an unflavored form.

Either way, the dish was a great argument for using seitan creatively, and I don’t think my sisters-in-law, competent cooks though they are, have eaten any seitan dishes that good using anything from a little Gardein package.

So I decided I’d like to try my hand at seitan at home and see if I can’t come up with something flavorful, chewy, satisfying and nutritious, without having it scream salt. After all, once you’ve got the finished loaf or pieces, you’re probably going to do something with them–bread and fry, put them in a sauce, something–that involves added salt one way or another. So I want to avoid starting off salty and compounding the problem, but I don’t want the stuff to be utterly flavorless when you bite into it either.

There are three other challenges here:

1. Attractiveness–and you’d best believe I’m thinking I don’t want gray-looking lumps in my food. Nor do I want to slice everything into cubes. So I’m looking at a variety of sites to see what looks nice.

2. Nutrition–wheat gluten by itself has protein, but it’s not complete protein, so it needs some help from beans, other grains, and so on to be used effectively when you eat it. Some recipes cover the territory by mixing in soy flour (relatively inexpensive, actually) or chickpea flour before cooking the seitan. I might do that too.

3. Time. It takes an hour or more to simmer wheat gluten fully, and the one answer I found on the web for “Can you microwave seitan?” was “Not unless you want wheat gluten shoe leather”.

I wonder, though–does the person who answered that know how to microwave something doughy like gluten correctly? Does this bear revisiting? Would a cut in time down to 5 minutes from an hour or more make me happy?

Answers–possibly not, probably so, and absolutely. Yes. It would.

Bear with me here. You’ve been warned.

I made up a basic seitan recipe based on FatFree Vegan Kitchen’s and several other websites’ notes. The final mix included a dollop of tehina and a small chunk of tofu I had sitting in the fridge, but I did without the nutritional yeast, since I have none in the house and am not sure I’d buy it. I also added about a teaspoon of low-sodium soy sauce instead of either liquid aminos or salt (or larger amounts of regular soy sauce–saw one recipe with a quarter cup in the dough and another quarter cup in the broth!) I used water instead of prepared vegetable broth, which I also didn’t have and which tends to be a high-sodium item (~700 mg/serving) unless you specifically go for low-sodium. And I added fresh garlic and onion–both grated.

I made the gluten mixture a little looser and moister than it should have been, I think, and when I boiled half of it in hot (homemade) vegetable broth in the microwave for a few minutes to test the standard idea, the pieces expanded and cooked through but were kind of fluffy–more like stretchy matzah balls than seitan.

A couple of vegan food writers note that you should start the seitan simmering in a cold pot of stock so it absorbs the liquid slowly and doesn’t get fluffy. Now they tell me…should have read further before starting?

That was a few days ago, and the microwave question kept poking at me. What do I know about wet doughs and egg mixtures? That you can in fact microwave them in a few minutes (at most; about 40 seconds is enough for a roll-sized piece of bread dough, though it won’t brown) if you put a lid on them, let them steam in their own liquid, and check on them periodically so you don’t overcook them.

The other half of the seitan mixture sat in a plastic bag in my fridge for 2 days until I decided to try again. This time I patted the dough into the bottom of a soup bowl, sprinkled on a spoonful of low-sodium soy sauce, put a saucer on top and hoped for the best–2 minutes on HIGH. The top was drying out slightly and looked cooked–but inside was still doughy. I flipped it with a spatula and added another minute–this was closer, but still doughy in the middle. Another minute and some time to steam on the counter with the lid on and–it worked. Still a little bit fluffier than I want, but denser than my first effort and not too bad tasting, though I think I could do better once I get the texture right.

Interestingly, FatFree Vegan Kitchen’s scallopine recipe calls for steaming the seitan 25 minutes in foil packets–so in my mind that’s not so far off what I was going for by microwaving the wet gluten dough in a close-fitting container without added broth.

So you can actually do this–the question is, can you make it the right density for a meat substitute and still steam-cook it in the microwave? Also, can it be made to taste actively good (and preferably “meaty”) without pouring on the liquid aminos, nutritional yeast, a lot of soy sauce, etc. ?

I don’t know, but I’m going to play with it further and find out. Seems worth trying for.

I may just attempt a straight copy of FatFree Vegan Kitchen’s recipe, only microwaving the scallopine, and maybe making the dough in a food processor to work the gluten more fully. I know someone said that’ll make it tougher but maybe that’s ok for microwaving as long as the dough’s not too stiff.

With luck, I’ll get to the point where it looks good, tastes good, and cooks quickly. Maybe I’ll even figure out how to do those layered mock chicken pieces? I could go for that.

4 Responses

  1. I’m fascinated by your microwave artistry. Will be good to see if you figure this out. As an unrepentant carnivore, seitan seems much closer to meat than anything else, even more than a really expert tofu (which I also like). I’ve looked at the packages of seitan in the store, but always put them back myself b/c of the cost and sodium. I look at it and think “I could get some beef much cheaper and not put salt on it!”

    But honestly — the things the Chinese do with pork are one of the glories of the universe. They truly understand how to get the most out of the oinkers, often with a small amount of meat. You give me a good pork bao and I’m happy all day.

    • A lot of people are with you on that (the Chinese pork thing that is)–not least the Chinese. It’s off my list now, obviously, and has been since college umpteen years ago, but I remember the spare ribs fondly (I do!).

      I was surprised that the first-run (or, ok, run 1-b) worked so well for this seitan. Especially as I kind of made it up as I went. Now that I’m on to it, I’m finding a lot more recipe variations that look worth trying out. But I’m not sure I’m goin’ with the newfangled Tempeh Bacon recipes (thin-sliced tempeh, liquid smoke and maple syrup, grilled or griddled somehow). I don’t like Spam! (Just picture me going after Terry Jones with my alligator purse.)

      • Liquid smoke. Ugh.

        Anyway, I can get all the glutens and flours in bulk so if you can come up with Microwave Seitan For Dummies (times! volts!), I’m all ears and teeth.

      • Thanks for the confidence–I’m afraid I’ll probably end up doing the exact thing I rail at everyone else for, not giving specific or tailored-enough microwave instructions, and someone will end up with Flaming Seitan in the Microwave (hey, would that be a good video segment for Vegan Black Metal Chef’s series on Youtube? Others have obviously thought of similar puns…)

        As for liquid smoke–you either like it or you don’t, depending on your sense of taste and degree of worry about nitrates, but obviously you shouldn’t use more than a drop at a time if you don’t want to gag. I’ve used it (very sparingly) for baba ghanouj, fake-smoked mozzarella, and fake-smoked whitefish salad and generally liked the results. Also the occasional honey-mustard barbecue sauce. Wright’s is a grand total of hickory smoke and water–pretty basic and kind of surprising that there’s nothing actually fake in it, considering the twisted uses I’ve put it to, and it lasts nearly forever (not necessarily a recommendation, just an observation). In my case adding a drop of it to something I want to taste smoky beats setting the house or yard or my sleeve on fire and testing whether our lone fire alarm really works.

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