Vital wheat gluten is like a super-powered flour that is all gluten and very little starch. It's not technically flour itself, but it's made from wheat flour that has been hydrated to activate the gluten and then processed to remove everything but that gluten. It's then dried and ground back into a powder.
Similarly, if a recipe requires seitan, you can't use vital wheat gluten in its place (but you can first make seitan from vital wheat gluten). Vital wheat gluten can also be used as a binding agent, for instance in helping things like mushroom or chickpea burgers hold their shape (and not crumble all over the place).
Professional bakers add vital wheat gluten to strengthen dough so it retains more gas, which results in greater volume and a lighter crumb. Extra gluten is beneficial in "gluten-challenged" dough containing lower gluten flours (like whole wheat or rye) or sharp or bulky components (nuts, seeds, or bran) that can sever gluten strands. It can also enhance the chewiness of breads like bagels.
Vital wheat gluten has been used in vegetarian Japanese, Chinese, and other Asian cuisines for centuries. However, seitan (vital wheat gluten specifically seasoned and prepared as a meat substitute) sprung out of the Japanese macrobiotic food movement in the early 1960s, and first was imported to the United States in the late 1960s.
Vital wheat gluten is a boon to your diet if you take the low-carb, high-protein approach to eating, but not so much if you have gluten intolerance. Vital wheat gluten boosts the structural and elastic properties of nonwheat flour and gives it some of the important properties of wheat flour, but it isn't the only supplementary ingredient that does.
Omit vital wheat gluten and the flour from a recipe and replace both with bread flour in an equal amount. Bread flour naturally contains gluten. When used in yeast bread recipes, it does not require the addition of vital wheat gluten to the bread dough mixture.
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