What Is Seitan and How Do You Cook with It?

updated Jun 10, 2022
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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

If you’re looking to eat less meat — either cutting back, or cutting it out entirely — you may be exploring the world of meat alternatives. It’s a good time to do so, because there are more meatless options than ever for those looking to widen their protein-sources — and seitan is chief among them.

Pronounced sei-tan, this wheat-based alt-meat can be found plain or seasoned in most grocery and natural food stores. Here’s everything you need to know about how to cook with seitan, where to find it, and everything in between.

What Is Seitan?

Seitan is wheat gluten that has been shaped and cooked. Seitan goes back at least 2,000 years as a staple food in China and other Asian communities.

It was originally made by mixing wheat flour with water, kneading the mixture to activate and strengthen the gluten, then rinsing the starches out of the dough by kneading it in plenty of water until nothing remained but a stringy, spongy, high-protein dough.

This creates the base ingredient, which must be cooked before it can be eaten. It is often formed into meat-like shapes, then seasoned, and braised, simmered, or steamed.

If you’ve ever ordered mock duck at an Asian restaurant, it was most likely made out of seitan.

What Is Seitan Made From?

Somewhere along the way, manufacturers figured out how to make a mixture of wheat flour and water, rinse out the starches, and then dry it and grind it into flour called vital wheat gluten or gluten flour. It is what most seitan is made with now, allowing home cooks to skip the laborious steps of kneading and rinsing. 

You can make seitan at home by mixing together gluten flour, water, and seasonings, then simmering, braising, or pressure-cooking the dough. Creative cooks have been creating many exciting variations by adding other ingredients to change the texture and mimic specific meats.

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Where Did Seitan Originate?

Seitan originated in China in the 6th century, as a food for Buddhists and other vegetarians.

Throughout China, Japan, Vietnam, and other East Asian countries, the same wheat flour and water technique was used to make seitan in many forms.

If you take a deep dive into a big pan-Asian market, you’ll find a wide variety of canned and frozen seitan mock meats, as well as dried slices of seitan and more. 

Is Seitan Healthy?

Because seitan is made entirely from wheat gluten (typically, but not always seasoned with soy sauce), it is a good alternative if you’re avoiding highly processed mock meats.

  • Most varieties have only three or four very basic ingredients with few additives, if any.
  • Gluten is the main form of protein in wheat, which means seitan is a good source of protein. A 3-ounce serving of seitan has 16 grams of protein, about the same amount found in 2 1/2 eggs.
  • Those with gluten allergies or aversions should avoid it, of course.

Where Can I Find Seitan?

Plain seitan is sold in natural foods stores and well-stocked grocery stores, often near the tofu in a refrigerated case.

Some stores keep it in the freezer so it will last longer, and it freezes and thaws well. You can also find mock duck and other canned, dried, and frozen seitan mock meats available in Asian markets. Of course you can order them online, too.

How to Cook with Seitan

Seitan is often sold plain, in chunks, or packed in a flavorful broth to keep it moist. Because it is primarily protein, it has no fat unless it is marinating in a broth with some oil in it.

For a more meaty look, you can tear seitan into smaller chunks, which show off the fibrous texture. Cubed seitan looks similar to beef stew meat. It can also be ground in a food processor to resemble ground meat.

Tips for Cooking Seitan

  • Keep it moist. It’s already cooked, so it only needs to be heated until it’s the same temperature as the rest of your dish.
  • As long as you are using a moist cooking method, you can take your time to infuse flavors into the seitan.
  • With dry cooking methods you’ll want to be quick. Searing or stir-frying work if you are brief, but if it dries out, it will become tough and chewy. 
Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

What Does Seitan Taste Like?

Seitan absorbs the flavors it’s cooked with, making it a versatile addition to a variety of meals. When seasoned with soy sauce it has a meaty presence, thanks to umami flavors in both the wheat protein and the soy.

A big part of seitan’s appeal is the texture. Because it’s essentially pure protein, it has a chewiness that’s similar to (but less dense than) beef.

How Do You Eat Seitan?

Think of seitan as a pre-cooked meat in need of a little browning, or a sauce. Seitan is easy to cut in chunks and add to stir-fries, stews, and casseroles.

  • Tossed in a marinade with some oil in it, seitan can be grilled on a skewer or roasted in a hot oven to crisp the edges.
  • Cut into bite-sized chunks, minced with a knife, or ground in a food processor to mimic ground beef, seitan excels in absorbing flavorful broths and sauces in stews.
  • Chili, spaghetti, and tacos are classic recipes for using ground seitan to please a crowd.
  • Mock duck and other canned versions of seitan are pre-seasoned and are easy to simply drain, tear into bite-sized chunks, and throw into stir-fries or soups. 
Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Seitan Recipes to Satisfy Every Craving

Pick up a package of seitan at the store and try out a new recipe. Dig in with vegan sloppy joes, a tasty stir-fry, or a comforting bowl of pho.