Seitan (pronounced say-tan), aka wheat gluten, has been a common ingredient in Chinese vegetarian dishes for centuries, particularly for people who practice Buddhism and may abstain from meat for religious reasons. Having grown up in a Chinese family, I eat seitan (also known as mianjin in Mandarin and min gan in Cantonese) regularly—it is one of my favorite plant-based proteins.
Seitan has gained popularity in Western cuisines as a plant-based protein option, used as an alternative to tofu, edamame or tempeh in dishes like curries, stir-fries, salads and more. It’s also an ingredient used in making plant-based analogs to animal proteins—think meatless ground “beef,” deli slices and sausages. Scroll down to learn more about seitan, its nutritional value, flavor, texture and uses.
What Is Seitan?
What Is It Made Of?
For years, seitan was made by combining wheat flour with water and kneading it into a dough. Once the dough forms, the starch is washed away, leaving a mass of gluten behind. Then the seitan is cooked, often by poaching it in seasoned water or broth, before using it in a recipe.
Nowadays, if you want to make homemade seitan, you can purchase vital wheat gluten, also known as gluten flour, which allows you to skip the step of washing away the starch. You can also buy seitan at the supermarket, usually near the tofu in the refrigerated produce section.
What Does It Taste Like?
On its own, seitan has a neutral flavor. Some people say its taste resembles a piece of unseasoned chicken breast or a portobello mushroom. And because of its mild flavor, it can easily pick up flavors from herbs, spices, sauces and marinades, bringing out its hidden umami and savoriness.
Seitan is essentially wheat gluten, the protein that gives elasticity to wheat dough. It is this unique texture that makes seitan appealing to people seeking meat analogs that mimic meat’s texture, as tofu and tempeh don’t offer the meaty texture.
Seitan Nutrition Facts
According to the USDA, 2 ounces (57 grams) of crumbled seitan contains:
- Calories: 100
- Protein: 17 g
- Fat: 0.5 g
- Carbohydrate: 6 g
- Fiber: 1 g
- Iron: 1.5 mg (8% Daily Value)
- Sodium: 440 mg (19% DV)
Seitan is a low-calorie, low-saturated-fat and low-carb food that is a good source of iron.
Protein in Seitan
You may be surprised to learn that seitan rivals animal-based protein sources. For instance, 2 ounces of seitan has the same amount of protein as a 2-ounce serving of chicken breast.
Compared to plant-based protein options, a 2-ounce serving of seitan provides 4 grams more protein than 1 cup of edamame, 7 grams more than 2 ounces of firm tofu and 6 grams more than 2 ounces of tempeh.
While seitan is an excellent protein source for vegetarians and vegans, it is an incomplete protein, meaning it doesn’t provide all the essential amino acids like soy foods such as tempeh and tofu. According to a 2021 article in Food Chemistry, seitan is low in lysine, an essential amino acid for growth that’s commonly found in animal-based products. While combining plant-protein sources to make a complete protein is unnecessary, it’s important to vary those sources throughout your day to ensure you don’t miss out on essential amino acids.
Other Factors to Consider
Some research, such as a 2018 article in Sustainable Protein Sources, suggests that seitan is more easily digested than other protein sources. Still, not everyone can eat seitan, particularly those with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Store-bought flavored seitan may have added salt and sugar. If you are concerned, read the Nutrition Facts panel and the ingredients list to determine the sodium and added sugar. You can look for a product with lower added salt and sugar or make your own. Seitan can also be made with beans, lentils and chickpeas (in the form of flour), so the calories may differ among premade products depending on their composition.
How to Make Seitan
Traditionally, seitan is made by combining wheat flour and water to form a dough through kneading and mixing. The dough is then rinsed with water several times to remove the starch, leaving the gluten. Nowadays, though, many people use a product called vital wheat gluten to make homemade seitan. The dough is shaped into a loaf, noodles, “chicken” nuggets and more, then poached in water or broth, sometimes with seasonings added like nutritional yeast or soy sauce.
How to Use Seitan
How to Cook It
Whether you have store-bought, ready-made or homemade seitan, it must be cooked before serving.
I enjoy eating seitan as mock duck. In this traditional Chinese vegetarian dish, seitan is marinated in soy sauce, salt and mushroom powder that give the duck-ish flavor.
There are also many creative ways to enjoy wheat meat similarly to other animal and plant-based proteins—steamed, stir-fried, pan-fried or grilled. Simply season it with your favorite savory spices, sauces or marinades.
Seitan vs. Tempeh
Seitan and tempeh are two different foods—the former is a protein from wheat gluten, while the latter is made from fermented soybeans. Fermented foods like tempeh are packed with probiotics, aka good bacteria, that are essential for a healthy gut.
Both foods may have a similar white-to-beige-colored appearance. Still, when taken apart, seitan resembles the look of cooked meatloaf or sausage. In contrast, tempeh has layers of soybeans stacked on top of one another.
The two foods also have different flavor profiles—seitan is mild, while tempeh is nutty and earthy.
Nutritionally, seitan offers more protein per serving than tempeh; but seitan is not a complete protein like tempeh.
While seitan and tempeh can be healthy protein sources, not everyone should include them in their diet. People with an allergy or sensitivity to soy should avoid tempeh (and other soy-containing products), yet they could include seitan to diversify their protein choices. On the other hand, people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity should avoid seitan but could include tempeh. While soy is naturally gluten-free, its byproducts are often processed with wheat products, so make sure to check the label if you have a gluten dietary restriction.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is seitan good for your health?
Like any food, seitan can be a part of a balanced meal pattern. On its own, without any flavoring agents, seitan is a low-carb, low-fat, high-protein food. Store-bought seasoned seitan could have added fat, salt and sugar, which can change its nutritional profile. If you are mindful of how much added fat, sugar and salt you consume, consider choosing unseasoned seitan, enjoying a smaller portion of seasoned seitan or making your own.
What is seitan made of?
Seitan is made of wheat flour combined with water. If you make it yourself, you must knead and mix the wheat flour to form a dough, then wash out the starch. Alternatively, you can purchase vital wheat gluten, also known as gluten flour, to bypass the step of washing the starch away.
Is seitan healthier than tofu?
Both seitan and tofu are plant-based proteins. However, while seitan is an excellent plant-based protein alternative, tofu is a complete protein (seitan lacks the amino acid lysine).
Unseasoned tofu is typically lower in sodium than store-bought seitan, which can be processed with salt, sugar or other flavors added. To control the flavor and calories, consider making your own seitan, then seasoning it according to your preference.
Is seitan healthier than meat?
Seitan is considered a meat analog that offers a similar texture to meat. While seitan provides similar protein and iron content as meat, animal meat is a complete protein, and seitan is not. In addition, iron found in animal-based products is generally more easily absorbed than iron from plant-based foods. Meat typically also has more fat than seitan. Nonetheless, both foods can be a part of a balanced meal pattern—how they are prepared matters more.
Who should avoid seitan?
Seitan is essentially wheat gluten. So, people with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity should avoid eating seitan and choose alternate plant-based protein options like soy and other legumes.
Seitan is a protein-rich food you can consider adding to your weekly rotation of proteins, especially if you follow a vegetarian or vegan diet. Seitan is simple to make at home with vital wheat gluten. Alternatively, you can buy store-bought seitan, but remember that sugar, salt and fat could have been added during processing. Some seitan is not pure wheat gluten but could have other ingredients like beans, lentils and chickpeas. Always check the label and ingredient list if you are looking for pure seitan. Finally, if you have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, explore other plant-based protein options for your meals.