It’s tough nowadays to speak about gluten without wincing, so demonized it has become in our collective consciousness. Admitting to having gluten in your home is like admitting to harbouring a paedophile, to the extent where even bacon now comes with a comforting “gluten free” label that reassures you the local constabulary won’t be issuing a public bulletin informing a pitchfork armed community of your deviant guest. How safe are we, knowing that gluten is still out there, lurking, waiting? And just what the heck is gluten, anyway? Let’s take a calming, deep breath and stay the hands of the tricoteuses for one minute while we do a thorough background check on this pastry pariah.
Gluten is the short form for a mixture of two specific types of proteins with water. How harmless does that sound? Within the seed of grains such as barley, wheat, and rye these two proteins normally lie dormant, awaiting their chance to nourish a young sprout, cannibalised by the growing plant as it sets its sight on a blue sky. But the dawn of agriculture forever altered the fate of these siblings, known as glutenin and gliadin, so that many of them would find their way into the various flours that would become the feedstock of bakeries worldwide. History was made and gluten was born.
If you have ever combined wheat or rye flour with water then there is probably one image that quickly pops into your head – that of a gummy, gooey mess. Gliadin and glutenin do not dissolve well in water, but they do absorb it and begin to undergo some startling changes. While in the seed they were tightly and irregularly packed together, they now begin to organise themselves. The new associations they form between one another can be described as weak bonds (non-covalent bonds) and strong bonds (covalent bonds). The combination of these two types of linkages provides both the stretch and strength to gluten-rich doughs.
Sometimes humans can be pretty clever. Global warming, the nuclear arms race, and American’s Funniest Home Videos may not be the best indicators of some radically evolved intelligence, but there is at least one thing that our beleaguered brains have tamed over time – kneading dough. At some point in the last thirty thousand or so years, some cowardly ancestor traded a spear for a rolling pin and without realising it, started to optimise the structure of the bonds holding the gluten proteins together, giving birth to a Cro-magnon progenitor of today’s Cronut. Pulling the gluten and exposing it to oxygen builds and rebuilds the gluten, gradually forming a network of sheets that provide the structural integrity for a baked bread. The gluten frame allows gases like carbon dioxide and water that expand as the dough bakes to be trapped, resulting in open and fluffy breads that are soft and spongy. Baked goods that are gluten free struggle to trap gases so thickening agents such as xanthan gum or vegetable starches are included to provide a bit of lift to an otherwise depressingly dense loaf.
Gluten free. So we have come full circle. It is estimated that as many as 1% of the population is genetically predisposed to coeliac disease, in which an autoimmune response provoked by gliadin proteins induces inflammation in the intestines. Along with other types of gluten intolerance or allergy that many suffer from, these have significantly dampened gluten’s reception in households worldwide and spurred invention of a wide range of alternative flours and foodstuffs that mimic or extend the ability of gluten in new and creative recipes.
So spare a thought for poor gluten. The two proteins that never desired any more than a life of sacrifice and service towards a new generation, but for whom destiny was irrevocably reforged by the hand of man.