Most people know that protein is an essential nutrient for building muscle, but they may not realize that this nutrient also plays a role in the structure and texture of food. Proteins provide foods with their characteristic shapes and textures and also help retain water. By better understanding how proteins work, we can appreciate the vital role they play in food and how influential they are in the kitchen.

How Does Protein Aid Food Structure and Texture?

Proteins are made up of long chains of amino acids, which can be coiled or folded into various shapes. This flexibility allows them to perform many different functions in the body, as well as in food. When we think of protein in food, one of the first things that comes to mind is meat. Meat contains a lot of protein, but it’s not the only food that does. In fact, all plant and animal cells contain some protein.

Proteins are important for food structure in two main ways: by providing structure themselves and by helping other ingredients hold onto water. For example, tofu is made by curdling soy milk and then pressing the curds into blocks. The curdling is done with a coagulant, which causes the proteins in the soy milk to intertwine and form a network. This network gives tofu its structure.

In baked goods, gluten proteins from flour give the dough its elasticity, while egg proteins help to bind all the ingredients together. When you bake a cake, protein denaturation occurs — proteins become damaged and can no longer perform their original functions. This is why a cake that is overcooked will be dry and crumbly, while one that is undercooked will be gummy.

How Does Protein Enact Water Retention?

Proteins also help other ingredients hold onto water. Water is attracted to protein molecules, binding to them and being drawn into the food. This is why meat that is cooked with a lot of protein will be juicier than meat that is cooked without it.

In baked goods, proteins can help to retain moisture and prevent them from drying out. When you make a cake, the proteins in the eggs and flour will bind to the water in the liquid ingredients and help to hold onto it as the cake bakes. Therefore, a cake that is too dry is often the result of not enough protein or of the proteins being denatured by too much heat.

Proteins are an important but often underappreciated ingredient in food. From providing structure and texture to retaining water, proteins are an essential ingredient.