Basic Breadmaking Part2: Gluten Formation
Gluten is the name for one of the two main structural components in any wheat dough or batter; the other being starch, something much more important in rye doughs.
It is a protein based material made from the bonding of two structural proteins in the wheat kernel, that I'll call G1 and G2.
In the presence of water G1 and G2 link up in a chemical bond that is both strong and stable, limited only by the amount of water available to G1 and G2.
In addition to water, the more a dough is agitated (mixed), the more links form between chains of G1-G2 (gluten), ultimately leading to a network, think power lines or traffic intersections
Knowing that gluten formation depends on water, leads us to a few conclusions
1.) Gluten formation can be prevented by greasing gluten with fats and oils
2.) Gluten formation can be maximized by giving gluten strands access to as much water as possible
Since fats and oils prevent gluten formation, you could conceivably make an extremely weak dough by preventing gluten formation. But, I have no idea why you'd want to do that.
Alternatively, recipes with lots of fat and oil in them like brioche (butter heavy to be sure), can produce strong gluten networks, all you have to do is develop the gluten first, then mix the butter in at the end.
On the flip side, removing all water-stealing ingredients from the mix (temporarily at least) can maximize the formation of gluten. This is the basis for the “autolyse” technique.
During an autolyse, flour and water are mixed and the flour is allowed to absorb the water fully (anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes). Despite limited agitation a strong network is formed due to the absorption of the water.
Similar to the autolyse and brioche methods of bread mixing is the concept of holding back sugar. Sugar, like salt, is a strongly water-stealing ingredient, and when added to a dough in large quantities will pull away water that might otherwise be used to help form gluten.
In any breads with these large quantities of sugar, some have taken to adding the sugar at the end of the mix, in the same manner as how butter is added at the end of the mix in a brioche dough.
Now my preferred mixing method is to hand mix to the short stage, where the dough just comes together, and is still very rough in texture. Then over the course of 3 or 4 hours of slow bulk fermentation, give the dough the requisite folds it needs to become strong.
Folding a dough involves first stretching it (agitation) then folding it in on itself, usually as one might fold a letter (in thirds). Over time, the necessary strength will be a result of the stretching as well as in some small part to the acidity in the dough from the fermentation that is happening simultaneous to the folds.
That's gluten. It is not a protein, exactly. But it is definitely protein-like, and can be manipulated as such. There exist ways of convincing the gluten to behave in the way you want, depending on whether you want a dough with great elasticity, extensibility, or tolerance.