An Ode to Gluten

 Technically, this is not an ode, which would be a lyrical stanza. Technically, as a writing in praise of a thing, it’s more of a eulogy, which is kind of funny if you think about it.

I’ve always been fascinated by bread dough. It starts off as a conglomeration of basic ingredients, but the more you push and poke and prod it, the springier and more resilient it gets. It goes from soft and goopy to more fun than playdough in the course of (several, very long) minutes.

I used to disdain bread makers and even stand mixers as getting in way of my ability to play with the bread dough. Now that I have a mixer I greatly appreciate the time and energy it saves me, but I have to be careful not to spend all the time I save on just watching it work. It starts by just swirling a twisted hook in a bowl of goop, but quickly the strands of gluten develop, stretching and bending as the dough thickens and swirls with the hook.

Then suddenly, like waiting for a plane to take off from the ground, knowing it will happen any second, but still being surprised when it tilts drastically toward the sky, the dough ceases to be a formless mass and becomes a cohesive ball contained by the bowl but no longer shaped by it.

After the dough has been twisted and thrown around for a while, it’s time to test it by stretching out a small piece as thin as it will go. If it’s not ready, it quickly tears into separate lumps, or even pulls fairly thin before developing large holes. But if it’s ready to rise, if the gluten has reached it’s peak of strength and resilience, it stretches to translucency  before it breaks . The heavy mass of dough, shortly to be a chewy loaf of bread, stretches to the gossamer delicacy of a dragonfly wing.

At this point, the gluten is strong and elastic enough to trap air bubbles, which, yes, means that it makes good, fluffy bread, but also means that when left alone for a while… it poofs up! The dough starts out sitting densely in the bottom of the bowl and grows until it’s nearly spilling out the sides in its expanding exuberance.

Then comes one of my favorite parts. I punch the dough. The air leaves again with a woosh and all the tiny bubble structures collapse down to density once again.

With some recipes, I get to do this twice.

Shaping the dough once again brings into stark contrast the springy dough and the formless goop it was not so long ago. In the oven, the gluten hardens, but not into a solid, dense mass, but into that exuberant expansion of poofing it displayed while rising earlier. Sometimes when it comes out of the oven, small strands of gluten are still distinct and visible on the surface, the thread that holds the loaf together.

I don’t really know how gluten does what it does, but I have to say, it’s pretty cool to watch it work.

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