What is gluten, and how does it work? Find out in this flour-powered activity.
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Use masking tape and marker to label 1 small bowl “Wheat Flour” and second small bowl “Rice Flour.”
In bowl labeled “Wheat Flour,” use spoon to stir and press together all-purpose flour and 5 teaspoons water until shaggy dough forms, about 1 minute.
Sprinkle counter with extra all-purpose flour. Transfer dough to counter. Use your hands to gather dough into loose ball and knead dough until smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Shape dough into ball and wrap with plastic wrap. Return wrapped dough to bowl labeled “Wheat Flour.”
Repeat steps 2 and 3 with rice flour and water in bowl labeled “Rice Flour.” Let both doughs rest for 10 minutes.
Make a prediction: Do you think the wheat flour dough and the rice flour dough will behave the same or differently when you try to pull them apart? Why?
After 10 minutes, unwrap ball of wheat flour dough. Use your hands to gently pull dough apart until it breaks (see photo, below). Repeat with rice flour dough.
(Don’t read until you’ve completed the experiment!)
In our Recipe Lab, we found that stretching the dough made from all-purpose (wheat) flour was very different from stretching the dough made from rice flour. The wheat dough stretched nearly 8 inches before breaking, while the rice dough didn’t stretch at all. Gluten is what makes wheat doughs stretchy and elastic and gives baked goods much of their texture and their shape.
Gluten starts to form when wheat flour and water mix. Proteins in the flour link up and form long, stretchy chains of gluten. Stirring and kneading helps the gluten become a strong network. The more you stir a batter or knead a dough, the stronger the gluten network becomes. After kneading, you often let dough rest for a while. This lets the gluten network relax, so it’s easier to stretch.
A strong, stretchy gluten network is what lets dough rise. As leaveners create gas bubbles in the dough, gluten traps the gas inside—like lots of tiny balloons in the dough. The pockets of trapped gas become the air bubbles inside the finished product. Without gluten, that gas would escape and the bread wouldn’t rise.
But what if you want to make something soft and tender, such as a cake, cookies, or Crepes? Then you want only a little bit of gluten to form. Stirring the ingredients just enough to combine them creates a small amount of gluten. That means your finished product will be soft and easy to bite into.
Rice flour, made from ground-up rice, doesn’t create gluten when it’s mixed with water. The proteins in rice flour are different than those in wheat flour, so they make a different, nonstretchy dough. Rice flour is typically used to make things like rice noodles and a sweet Japanese dessert called mochi. It’s also in many gluten-free flour blends.