Q: What is seitan? How healthy is it?
A: Also called wheat gluten, seitan (pronounced “say-tahn”) is a meat substitute that does a better job of resembling real meat than others. A staple in Asian cuisine, wheat gluten made its way to the West with the rise of macrobiotic diets several decades ago under the name seitan, which loosely translates into “made of protein.” Another name for it is “wheat meat.”
Seitan is traditionally made by mixing whole-wheat flour with water and kneading the dough under water until the starch dissolves away. The stretchy gluten (protein) that remains is cut into strips and cooked in broth, resulting in a product that has the chewy and stringy texture of meat. It can be flavored to taste like meat, too.
Seitan is low in calories (90 to 140 in three ounces) and has no saturated fat or cholesterol. It has as much protein as chicken, beef and other meat—and more than tofu. Seitan also provides a little calcium and iron, but doesn’t have the fiber of whole grains. Watch out for sodium, though—some products have more than 400 milligrams per serving.
You can find seitan, refrigerated, at health food stores, Asian markets and some mainstream supermarkets, in various forms and flavors. You can eat it straight from the package. Or add it to stir-fries, stews, soups, fajitas and other dishes. It’s often an ingredient in other meat substitutes, too, listed as wheat gluten. Some people make their own seitan from gluten flour (“vital wheat gluten“) or commercial mixes.
Seitan is often on the menu at vegetarian restaurants; it may be described as wheat gluten or mock duck, among other names. But if you have a gluten intolerance, keep seitan (and anything that lists wheat gluten as an ingredient) off your own menu.