Can't Find Bread Flour? Vital Wheat Gluten Can Help

While it's not a perfect fix in all cases, vital wheat gluten can help all-purpose flour perform more like bread flour by boosting its protein levels.

A bag of Gold Medal all-purpose flour next to a bag of Bob's Red mill vital wheat gluten
Photograph: Vicky Wasik

From the dawn of civilization to "in these uncertain times," bread has been a staple of the human diet, and cultures the world over have discovered the culinary magic of applying heat to a dough made from ground wheat and water. But one lesson that all of us have had reinforced by the coronavirus pandemic is there's bread, and then there's good bread. Whether you can no longer patronize your favorite local bakery, or whether you, like millions of others, have gotten on the sourdough bread train, or even if you've taken this extended period at home as an opportunity to undertake a few baking projects, you know that not all breads are equal.

And if you've found your homemade bread to be less chewy and crusty than some of the boules you're used to buying from good bakeries, particularly if you've found yourself unable to buy bread flour, which many recipes call for, there's a commonly used ingredient that might improve the bread you're making at home: vital wheat gluten.

What Is Vital Wheat Gluten?


Vital wheat gluten comes in more than one form. Many people probably know it better as seitan, the mock-meat that is widely used in many East Asian cuisines and has been adopted by many vegetarians and vegans in the West as a versatile source of protein. But in the context of baking bread, vital wheat gluten is a dry, flour-like powder. It is considered a "dough conditioner," an ingredient that can be added to bread recipes to encourage specific characteristics in the dough.

Vital wheat gluten is essentially wheat flour that's been stripped of almost all of its starch, leaving behind a substance that is almost entirely made up of wheat proteins. Wheat proteins, when combined with water, form gluten, which, as Harold McGee notes in On Food and Cooking, is "a complex, semisolid structure...which is both plastic and elastic: That is, it can stretch under pressure and yet tends to resist that pressure." These properties are the reason why yeast-raised breads made from wheat flour can expand to contain carbon dioxide produced by yeast without breaking.

Vital wheat gluten is produced by mixing wheat flour with water to form a dough, after which the dough is repeatedly washed in water to dissolve and strip away the starches in the dough*. According to Bakerpedia, the resulting mass of close-to-pure gluten is then wet-milled—extruded into pellets—and dried at controlled temperatures, since excessively high temperatures can damage gluten's functionality, a phenomenon that should be familiar to anyone who has made a hot-water dough, like the one in scallion pancakes. The process yields a powder that is about 73% wheat protein.

*If you've ever made seitan at home, in which you massage a wheat flour dough in a large bowl of water to produce a rubbery mass that looks like a skeleton of a loaf of bread, you may be familiar with this process. Relatedly, as Fuchsia Dunlop notes in The Land of Fish and Rice, the starchy water that is a byproduct of the process can be used to produce liang pi, or "cold-skin" noodles.

How Does Vital Wheat Gluten Improve Bread Doughs?

Gluten is what provides structure to bread. When sufficiently hydrated, gluten becomes a cohesive network that's viscoelastic, meaning it becomes both extensible (it can be stretched and formed) and also elastic (it will at least partially return to its initial form when deformed by external pressure, as when it's stretched).

These two, contradictory properties are the reason why gluten is so important for yeast-raised breads. As yeast organisms produce carbon dioxide in the dough, gluten's extensible nature means it can inflate to accommodate the production of the gas, whereas its elastic nature means it's strong enough to trap and retain that gas without breaking, resulting in a risen loaf that's light and chewy, not hard and dense.

Since gluten is produced by hydrating wheat proteins, specifically the proteins glutenin and gliadin, the amount of protein in a given wheat flour will determine how strong the gluten network becomes when made into a dough. Different wheat flours contain different amounts of protein: Cake flour, for example, has a relatively low amount of protein (typically about 8%), which leads to tender and soft pastries and cakes. Bread flour, on the other hand, has a higher protein percentage (up around 13%), allowing it to make extra chewy and elastic loaves.

This is where vital wheat gluten comes in. Say, for example, that you can only find all-purpose flour, which has more protein than cake flour but less than bread flour. It can be used to bake good breads, though they won't have quite the same structure and texture as bread made from higher-protein bread flour. Add vital wheat gluten, which is primarily made up of wheat proteins, and you can bump your all-purpose flour's protein percentage.

Of course, while adding vital wheat gluten to something like all-purpose flour pushes its protein percentage up into bread-flour territory, that doesn't magically turn AP flour into bread flour in all respects, since their differences are not protein percentage alone. As a practical matter, then, the question is, how well adding vital wheat gluten works as a stopgap when you can't get the flour you want? Can you otherwise follow a recipe as written and get good results?

Yes, according to Francisco Migoya, the head chef at Modernist Cuisine and the co-author of Modernist Bread. "Short answer is, you can do that," Migoya said. "If you have a low-protein flour or something not quite as strong as bread flour, you can compensate for that lack of strength by adding vital wheat gluten." When I asked specifically about all-purpose flour, Migoya said, "Typically, all-purpose flour is around 10% protein, but the majority of that, probably 9%, is gliadin and glutanin, which will be what can form gluten. Doing a little bit of math, you can add vital wheat gluten to approximate bread flour, which should have at least about 11.5% protein."

There are, Migoya notes, some caveats to doing this. "One of the things to keep in mind is all it adds is strength." He was quick to note that there are many, many variables that go into making bread, and although a stronger gluten network will lead to a chewier crust and a large crumb in some bread recipes, neither of those enhanced characteristics necessarily translates to better bread; while a large, open crumb might be good for some breads (or your Instagram feed), it isn't always desirable. He also cautioned that adding large amounts of vital wheat gluten—"large," in this instance, meaning anything over about 2% of the total flour weight in a recipe—will require some additional changes, particularly with respect to the amount of water you'd have to add to the dough.

Testing Vital Wheat Gluten

Seeing as one of the challenges so many of us have faced during quarantine is to find bread flour (and sometimes, any flour), we thought it would be useful to our readers to test how well it works to substitute vital wheat gluten for some of the total flour in a few of our recipes that call for bread flour. And since we aren't able to work in our test kitchen, I enlisted the help of Kristina Razon, our office manager (who also happens to be an accomplished baker), and Vicky Wasik, our visual director, to do side-by-side tests of specific recipes; I also conducted a test of my own.

Vicky tackled Kenji's no-knead focaccia using Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour, which has a protein content of 10.5%; Kristina took on Stella's dinner rolls using Gold Medal Blue Label; and I tested Sasha's focaccia recipe using Hecker's all-purpose flour, which has a protein content of 11.5%.

Despite the fact that commercial vital wheat gluten is typically about 73% protein, Migoya suggested that you can treat vital wheat gluten as effectively being 100% protein in the context of approximating bread flour's strength with all-purpose flour, so we adopted that assumption for these tests.

Each of us made two batches of each recipe: one with all-purpose flour alone, using the recipe as written; the other with all-purpose flour plus a set amount of vital wheat gluten to increase the protein content and approximate bread flour. The added vital wheat gluten necessitated including a whisking step to fully distribute the vital wheat gluten in the flour, but otherwise the recipes were made as written. While both focaccia recipes say you can use either all-purpose or bread flour, the dinner roll recipe specifically calls for bread flour for best results.

Focaccia Test 1

Comparison of focaccia interiors baked using only ap flour vs ap flour + vital wheat gluten

After assessing the tools Vicky had on hand at home, we decided to halve Kenji's no-knead focaccia recipe so that we could use two 8-inch cake pans to do a side-by-side test. After halving the quantities (and omitting any extraneous extras, like the garlic and garlic oil), here was the formula she used for the all-purpose flour part of the test:

  • 250g Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour
  • 7g kosher salt
  • 2g instant yeast
  • 163g water

And here is the formula for the test in which a small amount of vital wheat gluten (2% of total flour weight) was blended with all-purpose flour:

  • 245g Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour
  • 5g vital wheat gluten
  • 7g salt
  • 2g instant yeast
  • 163g water

Thus, the protein content in the first formula is about 10.5%—as listed by Gold Medal. The protein content in the second formula is 2% higher, due to the addition of the vital wheat gluten, and should be around 12.5%.

After trying the breads side by side, she said the loaf with added vital wheat gluten was crispier and more moist, whereas the loaf made solely from AP flour was gummier and drier.

From a visual standpoint, you can see the bread made with vital wheat gluten has a more open crumb structure with larger air pockets, which is about what you'd expect in light of vital wheat gluten's role as a dough conditioner: The gluten network is stronger, and thus is able to trap larger carbon dioxide pockets and sustain them through the baking process.

Vicky also noted that some of the differences between the breads could have been the result of user error, and that's helpful to keep in mind for all of these tests: doughs are complicated beasts, and there are always other factors contributed to the observed differences.

That being said, my focaccia test, for which I used Sasha's recipe, had similar results.

Focaccia Test 2

Comparison of focaccia interiors baked using only ap flour vs ap flour + vital wheat gluten

Since this recipe was tested and written for a 10-inch cast iron pan, I didn't have to halve it or anything, and I used the two 10-inch cast iron pans I own, which, while not identical, were close enough for the purposes of this test (especially given that, as Daniel has found, they performed identically in more extensive tests of cast iron pans).

Here's the formula for the all-purpose flour dough (it's the same as in the recipe, but with the type of all-purpose flour specified):

  • 500 grams Hecker's all-purpose flour
  • 10 grams Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 4 grams instant dry yeast
  • 400 grams room temperature water
  • 20 grams extra-virgin olive oil

And here, again, is the formula adjusted to substitute 1% of the total flour weight with vital wheat gluten.

  • 495 grams Hecker's all-purpose flour
  • 5 grams vital wheat gluten
  • 10 grams Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 4 grams instant dry yeast
  • 400 grams room temperature water
  • 20 grams extra-virgin olive oil

Note that the olive oil amount listed is solely what's incorporated into the dough; the recipe calls for 68 grams total, but the excess is to grease the pan and cook the focaccia.

Hecker's, as I noted above, has a listed protein content of about 11.5%, so the addition of vital wheat gluten brings the protein content to about 12.5%. I made both doughs as instructed in the recipe and baked them at the same time, rotating the positions of the cast iron pans halfway through baking.

In terms of handling, it was clearly evident that the dough made with the vital wheat gluten was easier to work with. The dough made from just all-purpose flour was quite a bit more delicate, and led to some unwanted tearing as I was shaping the bread prior to baking. Another observation: The flour with the vital wheat gluten appeared to absorb the addition of water much more readily, and was easier to mix.

Tasting the two breads side-by-side, the crust on the vital wheat gluten loaf was crispier, almost harder, and the bread itself was noticeably chewier. While I preferred the chewier loaf, my wife, despite also noticing the difference, was more partial to the softer focaccia.

From a visual standpoint, you can see that the vital wheat gluten focaccia has several larger air pockets, and that the size of the air pockets throughout are generally larger. You can also see evidence of another characteristic that a stronger flour mix produces when you compare the shape of the two loaves: The vital wheat gluten focaccia experienced a more pronounced oven spring.

Dinner Rolls Test

Comparison of rolls interiors baked using only ap flour vs ap flour + vital wheat gluten: the roll with vital wheat gluten has swelled slightly larger during baking
At left, a roll made from AP flour with vital wheat gluten added; at right, a roll made from AP flour alone.

For the final test, I asked Kristina to do a side-by-side of two batches of Stella's dinner rolls, a useful foil to the focaccia recipes for two reasons. The first is that, unlike the focaccia recipes, which were both tested and designed to work with either all-purpose flour and bread flour, this recipe specifically calls for bread flour. The second is that these rolls, unlike the focaccia, aren't enriched doughs—basically, no fat is added to the dough, which is an added variable in the dough-making process.

Kristina also opted to do half-batches for each formula, so here are the quantities for the all-purpose version:

For the Yukone (a cooked flour paste):

  • 3 ounces cold water (85g)
  • 1 1/4 ounces Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour (35g)

For the Dough:

  • 6 7/8 ounces Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour (190g)
  • 1/4 ounce sugar (7.5g)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons (4.5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3g) instant dry yeast
  • 3 ounces cold water (85g)

And here are the quantities for the vital wheat gluten version. Note that for this test, we opted to bump up the vital wheat gluten quantity to 2% of the total flour weight, yielding a protein content of about 13% for the yukone and 12.3% for the dry flour mix.

For the Yukone:

  • 3 ounces cold water (85g)
  • 34g all-purpose flour
  • 1g vital wheat gluten

For the Dough:

  • 186g all-purpose flour
  • 4g vital wheat gluten
  • 1/4 ounce sugar (7.5g)
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons (4.5g) Diamond Crystal kosher salt
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3g) instant dry yeast
  • 3 ounces cold water (85g)

Kristina reported that both doughs handled the same. In terms of how they tasted, she said the all-purpose version was a bit softer and more tender, whereas the vital wheat gluten one was more "bready, crusty, chewy." And while she couldn't really say which ones she preferred, she offered that the difference in taste was pretty subtle. Equally subtle, it appears, were the effects on appearance; it isn't immediately evident when looking at those crumb shots that one bread has a higher protein content than the other, although a close examination of the photo reveals that the vital wheat gluten roll seems to have experienced a slightly stronger oven spring.

How to Use Vital Wheat Gluten to Mimic Bread Flour

Keeping in mind the skills of the bakers (mine and Vicky's are middling, at best; Kristina is a practiced baker) and the limited scope of these tests, should you run out and buy a bag of vital wheat gluten to make immediately more wonderful bread than you've ever produced in your life? Not necessarily.

It's clear that vital wheat gluten can produce some beneficial characteristics in bread, both from the information available out there from experts like Migoya and from these limited tests. The protein boost provided by vital wheat gluten produces a stronger gluten network, which means the dough becomes more elastic, which in turn results in crispier crusts, chewier bread, a larger crumb, and more pronounced oven spring. But while we tend to think of "crispy" and "chewy" as positive attributes to bread, that isn't always the case, and taste preferences vary considerably.

Another thing to keep in mind is that not all all-purpose flour is the same. All-purpose flours produced by brands like Hecker's and King Arthur have a relatively high protein content (about 11.5%), and even accounting for the fact that not all of that protein content is made up of glutenin and gliadin, those flours are sufficiently strong that they'd be suitable for making bread, but consequently unsuitable for some pastry recipes, like, for example, Stella's pie dough, which relies on the way lower protein all-purpose flour behaves. On the other hand, with all-purpose flour like Gold Medal Blue Label, the protein content is relatively low, but it can still be used in bread recipes to produce a passable loaf or roll.

So should you use vital wheat gluten? If you have been unable to find bread flour and have been making do with all-purpose flour and believe you'd like a crispier crust, a chewier crumb, or if you've been dissatisfied with the amount of oven spring you're getting with a recipe, or even if you love to take photos of gluten networks with larger air holes than small ones and post them on Instagram, then, yes, you should. If you do, remember that you want to boost the protein content in the flour mix to somewhere in the range of 11.5 to 12.5%, and that adding more than 2% of the recipe's total flour weight in vital wheat gluten could necessitate changing the amount of liquid you use in the dough.

To do that, you can use this formula:

([Target protein content percentage] - [All-purpose flour protein content percentage]) x [Total flour weight] = [Amount of vital wheat gluten to substitute for all-purpose flour]

To spell that out: First determine the protein content of your all-purpose flour, which should be somewhere around 10-12%. Then decide on how high you'd like the protein content of your flour mix to be; as noted above, Migoya suggests shooting for 11.5% on the low end, but bread flour can contain as much as 13% protein or more. For this example, let's say I am using Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose flour (10.5% protein) in a recipe that calls for 500 grams of bread flour, and I'd like a relatively strong flour mix to bake with, one that has 12.5% protein. I'd subtract the 10.5% from the 12.5%, which leaves me with 2%.

I then would multiply the 500g of flour by 2%, which gives me 10g. To make the stronger flour mix, I'd substitute 10g of the 500g of flour with vital wheat gluten. The final flour mix would then be made up of 490g Gold Medal Blue Label all-purpose and 10g of vital wheat gluten.

Keep in mind that it's best to whisk the vital wheat gluten into the flour mix thoroughly, to ensure it's evenly distributed.

In the end, remember that adding vital wheat gluten isn't some hack to make "better bread." It's but one tool in the vast baker's arsenal.