There is probably no food that causes as much debate and confusion as tofu. People seem to have a love it or hate it stance towards this block of soy. I completely understand. I used to think I hated tofu from the few times a spongy piece ended up in my Chinese food. But once I stopped eating meat, I had to re-evaluate my relationship with tofu. It took a lot of trial and error, but I not only came to love tofu, I also learned all the tips and tricks to make it incredible.
There are a lot of questions regarding tofu: how to buy it, what’s the difference between the types, and of course, how to cook it so it has lots of flavor and a pleasing texture. If you’ve got questions, I’ve got the answers. This is Tofu 101: your guide to all things tofu.
1. What is Tofu?
The first question you may have is what exactly is tofu? Is it the same as bean curd? Yes, it is. Tofu is made by coagulating soy milk into curds and then pressing it into the block we buy in the store. Some manufacturers make their own soy milk from scratch. The coagulation is done with salt, acid, and enzyme coagulants such as calcium chloride and magnesium sulfate. It may sound like a complicated process but it doesn’t have to be. Learn How to Make Your Own Tofu at home with just 2 ingredients plus water.
2. Nutritional Benefits
While it may be new to us, tofu has been a healthy part of people’s diets for two thousand years! Tofu is low in calories and high in nutrition. Tofu is a good source of protein and contains all eight essential amino acids. It is also an excellent source of iron and calcium and the minerals manganese, selenium, and phosphorous. In addition, tofu is a good source of magnesium, copper, zinc, and vitamin B1. Tofu is also packed with isoflavones which have been found to reduce the risk of osteoporosis and certain types of cancer, reduce menopausal symptoms, and help reduce cholesterol.
Some people may be concerned about consuming any or too much soy. People who suffer from soy allergies should stay away from tofu and all soy products. For more information about whether soy should be part of your diet, see Fact or Fiction? Soy is Bad for Your Health, Why is Everyone Hatin’ on Soy These Days and Soy in the Vegan Diet: A Practical Approach. If you choose to avoid soy, you can buy products like soy-free hemp tofu or make your own chickpea tofu.
When you head to the store to buy tofu, you’ll find you have lots of choices to make. First of all, not all brands are the same – some have more water than others and there are some that might say “extra-firm” on the package but they are soft and fall apart easily. On the other hand, there are brands that are so firm, they barely need to be pressed. Try several brands and see which you like best and then stick with those. Try to always buy tofu made from organic/non-GMO soybeans.
4. Types of Tofu
There are several kinds of tofu you can buy: silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra-firm. Which one do you buy? It depends on what you want to make. Personally, I buy the extra-firm type for most of my recipes. It holds up to whatever I’m trying to do. Firm and extra-firm tofu is good for stir-fries like this Black Sesame Vegetable and Tofu Stir-Fry, scrambles like this Mushroom Tofu Scramble, baked tofu like this Red Wine Vinegar Tofu with Quinoa, and kebabs like this Tofu Satay. It will also hold up in soups and stews like this Asian Greens Soup With Tofu and Enoki Mushrooms and this Cioppino. Soft and medium tofu is good for recipes where you will blend the tofu or if you like soft scrambles.
Silken tofu is undrained and unpressed tofu with a high water content. It has a creamy texture and also comes in soft, medium, firm, and extra-firm textures. Silken tofu is best used for sauces, creams, batters, and in baking. It’s perfect for tofu omelets and mousses. To learn more, see What is Silken Tofu, How is it Different and What Can You Do With It?
Many people don’t like the wet and spongy texture of tofu but it doesn’t have to be like that. Tofu is packed with water and then it’s packed in water. All that water is taking up space where flavor needs to be, meaning the water has to go. When you open a package of tofu, drain the water out of the package. Then you need to press the tofu. You can either buy a tofu press or do-it-yourself. Here’s how I press tofu: I place the tofu block on a plate and put another plate on top. Then I put a cutting board on top of the tofu and place several heavy books on top of the cutting board. Every half-hour or so, I drain the water that has been pressed out from the plate and resume pressing. After about an hour or two, most of the water will have been pressed out of the tofu. It will look like a smaller, firmer block.
If you want the tofu to have an even denser, firmer, and chewier texture, try freezing it first. Just remove the tofu from its package, put it in a food storage bag or wrap it in plastic wrap and stick it in the freezer for a few hours. When you want to use it, thaw it out in the refrigerator and then press it. This is an especially good technique to use if you need the tofu to be really firm and allow you to handle it without it breaking like for these Vegan Tofu Scallops and these Sesame Ginger Tofu Skewers with Peanut Dipping Sauce.
So here is the running joke in my house: I’m watching a cooking show on TV or reading recipes in a magazine and tofu is an ingredient. It almost never fails that the tofu will be drained, cut up, and immediately cooked. Maybe some salt and pepper gets sprinkled on top but that’s it. No one would ever cook meat that way! Then people complain that tofu has no flavor!
After you get all the water out of the tofu, you need to fill it back up with flavor by marinating it and/or seasoning it. Marinades can be as simple as letting the tofu sit in tamari mixed with water for 15 minutes. Most marinades have some combination of soy sauce, water, oil, and some herbs and spices. Check out The Ultimate Guide to Making Flavor-Packed Marinades for Plant-Based Dishes and 6 Fantastic Marinades for Tofu That Will Make Your Taste Buds Dance for ideas and recipes like this Grilled Marinated Tofu Sandwich and this Crispy Baked Tofu with Shredded Veggie Quinoa. To make sure the marinade really gets into the tofu, use a paring knife to score it with a few superficial cuts on both sides. That will help the marinade to seep in all the way to the middle of the tofu. Be sure to pat the tofu dry before cooking it to ensure crispness.
Whether you marinate the tofu or not, a spice rub will help add flavor and texture when you cook it. Choose a mix of your favorite herbs and spices (mine are dried oregano, dried thyme, garlic, and paprika) and rub them over the surface of the tofu after you cut the block into your desired shapes. When you pan-fry the tofu, that rub will become a delicious crust like on this Chile-Rubbed Tofu and Onions Over Spanish Rice. See How to Make Your Own Spice Blends and Curry Pastes, The Ultimate Spice Guide to Vegan Cooking, and 10 Ways to Make Awesome BBQ Sauces, Dry Rubs and Marinades for tons of ideas. Take a look at 10 Ways to Cook Tofu with Global Flavors for a culinary trip around the world.
7. Cooking Methods
There are many ways to cook tofu and after all the work of draining, pressing, marinating, and seasoning, you want to cook it right. Baking is a healthy and easy way to cook tofu. See How to Make the Perfect Baked Tofu for more tips. Then make this Sweet and Spicy Baked Pineapple Tofu and this Baked Curried Tofu. Stir-fries are fast and flavorful and tofu makes them filling and delicious. Try this Eggplant and Tofu Stir-Fry and this Stir-fried Tofu With Veggies and Shiitake. Braising food in liquid is an easy way to get lots of flavor. Learn How to Braise Food and then make this Braised BBQ Tofu and this Braised Tofu With Baby King Oyster Mushrooms.
My favorite way to cook tofu is to pan-fry it like these Pan-Fried Tofu Steaks with Coriander Cream and Asparagus. If you want your tofu to be crispy and hold up under a hot sauce as in Chinese dishes, it’s a good idea to toss the tofu in seasoned arrowroot powder or cornstarch before pan-frying it. Get The Secret to Making the Crispiest Tofu for All Your Dishes and then make this “Chicken-Fried” Tofu Steaks with White Gravy, Crispy Curry Tofu Wrap With Homemade Tortillas and Avocado Mayo, and Crispy Tofu Nuggets. Once in a while, you may want to indulge in some deep-fried food and that’s when you make this Japanese Deep-Fried Agedashi Tofu. For more cooking ideas, check out these 10 Saucy and Flavorful Ways to Cook Tofu.
Once you know how to deal with and cook with tofu correctly, the number of dishes you can make is endless. Try these tips and any of these recipes and I guarantee that tofu will become one of your favorite foods too.
Lead image source: Red Wine Vinegar Tofu With Quinoa