What The Heck Is It? Seitan

I'm a big fan of Friday Night Lights. The show is in its last season on NBC, and it'll be over soon and gone forever, leaving its cult audience devoid of some of their favorite characters. One of mine is Buddy, the always optimistic Texas car salesman and high school football devotee who is a man's man: he likes football, whiskey, and more football.

In a recent episode, Buddy's son is sent back to Texas to live with his dad after running afoul of his mother and her new husband Kevin, who have moved away. Buddy and Buddy Jr. are driving together and getting re-acquainted when Buddy asks Jr. if he wants something to eat.

Buddy: We'll just stop by the store, get some groceries, whatever you like to eat.

Jr.: Sounds good, as long as you don't make me eat seitan.

Buddy: Say-tan? What the hell's that?

Jr.: It's like wheat gluten. I dunno, Kevin is obsessed with it.

Buddy: Why?

Jr.: He says it's like nature's meat.

Buddy: Well nature already has meat. It's called a cow.

That line cracked me up, and I'm a guy who's actually gotten used to the taste of seitan, which is indeed pronounced like the name for the devil (though some people soften the a and pronounce it say-tahn), and is in fact wheat gluten.

So what is wheat gluten? It's essentially what's left after you wash all the starch out of wheat. The result, called seitan, is a spongy mass that holds marinades surprisingly well, which is why it's often used as a meat substitute. If you've ever been to a vegan or vegetarian restaurant and seen the word duck written in quotation marks, chances are it's seitan marinated in soy sauce and other ingredients to achieve the taste of duck.

On its own, seitan is not terribly appetizing. Mixed in with mushrooms and soy sauce and maybe a little tofu for texture, it makes a decent stroganoff. I had a veggie roommate for years who eventually got me eating seitan stir-frys, and more originally, seitan reubens: That's cooked seitan marinated with a bit of soy, then served on toasted wheat bread with sauerkraut, cheese, and Russian dressing (of course, it's soy cheese and some variation on Russian with eggless mayo if you're one of those vegan types).

Is it nature's meat? If you ask me, I'd go with portobello mushrooms. But if you're looking for a meat alternative, seitan is worth a try. Just make sure you have some sauces ready for marinating and vegetables, because it's not going to offer a lot of flavor on its own.

Ever cooked with seitan? Share any thoughts or recipes in the comments.