One question we get a lot from clients looking to transition to a meat-free diet or just to eat a little less meat is about meat analogues, plant-based foods that are generally thought of as analogous (comparable) to meat in the plant-based diet. Some of our clients have never tasted tofu, tempeh or seitan and don’t know what they’re made of. Many have heard of them from friends or perhaps have had them in a restaurant meal but aren’t sure how to prepare them at home. We’re here, as always, to provide some clarity in what we hope is a simple, straightforward way.
Previously, we discussed tofu and tempeh, which are both made primarily of soy. Today’s topic, seitan (pronounced say-TAHN), is a whole other…well, plant. Seitan is made by rinsing all the starch from wheat flour dough. What’s left is a firm blob of gluten (the protein) that can be cut, shaped, colored, flavored and cooked in an endless variety of ways. That’s the attraction of seitan: it’s the most flexible of the three we’ve discussed in mimicking animal-based products. It can be made to look like shaved meat, strips, chunks, a ham, a turkey breast, burger patties, meatballs, cutlets…okay, you get the idea!
Actually, only certain preparations of wheat gluten are properly called “seitan,” but we Westerners tend to have access to fewer of these products and lump them all together as “seitan,” so we won’t split hairs.
Prepared seitan would most likely be found in the refrigerator case alongside the tofu and tempeh, either packed in water or vacuum-sealed or both. The most common forms are pre-cooked strips or chunks, but large markets will have access to a wider variety.
Prepared, packaged, uncooked seitan tends to have a bit of a rubbery texture that takes on more structure as it’s cooked, not unlike chicken. Some people actually stop eating meat because they’re not fans of that texture, so they may not be fans of this type of seitan either. Others are big fans of that “meaty” texture, and so may like seitan as well. This kind of packaged seitan also has a noticeable wheat flavor that mostly dissipates as it’s cooked. We’ve found that homemade seitan (more on this later) has less of that rubbery texture. This is, of course, all a matter of opinion; you may want to do some experimentation to identify your preferences.
So, let’s talk nutrition. Last post, we called seitan the “sinful not-meat” for a reason. It’s the most processed of the three we’ve discussed so far. As a wheat gluten product, it’s not something that someone with any kind of gluten sensitivity would want to eat. It does have the least fat (tofu wins for lowest calories) of the three, but it also has less of the good stuff like fiber, calcium, iron (almost equal to tofu, but about half that of tempeh), potassium and so on. Also, prepared seitan usually has way more sodium.
You can make your own seitan at home as a means of controlling the sodium level and what ingredients are added. As a matter of fact, you can make your own tofu and tempeh at home too, if you’re so inclined. If you do want to DIY, seitan is pretty easy because there’s a shortcut available. Just make sure you purchase “vital wheat gluten” as your raw ingredient, as there are a few different glutens, proteins and flours out there that won’t give you the same results.
Because of its nutritional profile, we don’t tend to use seitan in the TOA test kitchen. We usually save it for eating-out situations where it’s either the best vegan option on the menu or the one that sounds most intriguing, so the only TOA seitan dish we’ve got a photo of is this stir-fry where the seitan chunks have been coated in organic cornstarch and lightly fried.
There’s a fantastic vegetarian restaurant in Athens, Georgia, called The Grit. Their Deluxe Grilled “Steak” sandwich and Seitan Gyro really demonstrate the variety of textures and tastes you can achieve with seitan. This shaved and seasoned version is almost indistinguishable from beef and looks and tastes nothing like the chicken-style seitan chunks in the stir-fry above.
And with that, we’ve come to the end of the mock-meat trilogy! Before we wrap up, though, a reader sent in a question about TVP, wondering if it was the same thing as seitan and, if not, what it was. TVP and seitan are, indeed, quite different. Seitan is made out of wheat gluten, whereas textured vegetable protein, or TVP, is made of soy (soy protein isolates, to be specific).
Seitan has more protein, but is not a complete protein in and of itself, whereas TVP is. That doesn’t mean it’s better for you though. TVP is even more processed than seitan, and most of the nutrients are cooked out of it. It also has a high sodium count and contains naturally forming MSG. So, if forced to choose one or the other, we’d go with the seitan.
In the interest of bringing things full circle, we’d like to remind readers again, especially those who are celebrating their participation in No Meat March, marveling at how much better they feel and, perhaps, contemplating going meat-free for good, that you don’t have to eat these meat analogues as part of your plant-based diet. You can get along perfectly fine with beans, nuts, legumes, fresh vegetables, rice and so on. Conversely, even if you don’t end up eschewing meat, putting a tempeh steak instead of a beef steak on your plate every now and then will do your body, the planet and the cow a whole lotta good.
If you’d like to know more about meat substitutes, a plant-based diet, or…well, anything else that affects our planet (and, therefore, your health and wallet) contact us! We’re here to help.