Tofu has been a thing for over 2000 years now, starting in the Chinese Han dynasty and then making its way to Western culture much later. It was possibly brought to the US via Benjamin Franklin, and described as a cheese made out of kidney beans. That said, tofu didn’t gain popularity (or infamy) in the United States until the 1970s with a lot of progressivism in play.
What’s lovely about tofu is that it is not a cheese substitute or meat substitute; rather, it’s a thing all on its own. And, it’s wildly nutritious, providing high protein counts and all of the essential amino acids. It’s a wonderfully versatile ingredient that functions well as a scramble, a sandwich filling, and a featured protein in tons of dishes.
In short, tofu has played and continues to play an important role in vegan and vegetarian diets, and in the same breath, it’s something meat-eaters can enjoy as its own unique food with its own attributes. The question for all of us, do-it-yourselfers, is how to grow and produce our tofu at home.
Tofu as a Crop
Tofu begins as soybeans. Soybeans are a type of legume, and legumes are great contributors to the gardening scene. They are an awesome crop to grow because they often, and soybeans do, fix nitrogen into the soil which acts as fertility for plants.
Soybeans come in a multitude of varieties, but by and large, these are bush-style beans that grow in smallish pods with just a couple of beans. In other words, they don’t need stakes to climb. They do like a long, hot growing season and suffer greatly from frosts.
Otherwise, soybeans are relatively easy to grow, as is the case with most beans. They do have some diseases and pests to contend with; however, for the most part, soybeans can be planted in a bed with some compost and left to do their thing.
They are great companion plants for corn and squash, a la “the three sisters”. To make tofu, the beans need to mature on the plant. The right time to harvest them is when the soybean plant yellows and the pods turn brown.
Soybeans to Milk
Again, tofu starts as a collection of dry soybeans. To get from those beans to tofu, there are a few steps that have to happen. The first of those steps is to turn those soybeans into soy milk, something that we are all now very familiar with.
In essence, homemade soy milk (what we need for tofu) requires only soybeans (2 cups) and water (6 cups). The beans are soaked for at least 12 hours, changing the water along the way. Then, those soaked beans are blended into a smooth paste. The blend beans should be cooked in 6 cups of boiling water. (Less cups of H2O makes thicker liquid and more water makes it thinner.)
Ultimately, the soybeans and water should be poured through a nut milk bag, and the beans should be squeezed to get as much goodness out of them as possible. Now, we have soy milk and, with it, we can make tofu.
Soy Milk to Tofu
From soybeans and water, we get soy milk, and from soy milk, we only need to add a coagulant to create tofu. Nigari (Magnesium chloride) is a common coagulant made from removing salt from seawater. Gypsum (Calcium sulfate) is the other typical coagulant used in tofu production. Nigari is better for firm tofu and gypsum better for softer tofu.
Once the soy milk is there and the coagulant is chosen, it needs to be combined to convert the milk into something solid. This is cooked until the milk thickens into tofu. It needs to be stirred frequently, but not over-stirring.
The solid bits, aka curds, are then pressed together and left to form blocks of tofu. The curds are pressed a couple of times during the process. The tofu blocks can then be cut to size and stored until it’s time to use it.
Tofu as an Ingredient
Tofu is great fun to cook with because it absorbs flavor very well and can perform lots of roles in plant-based cuisine. Tofu scrambles are great for breakfast. Seared tofu is tasty on sandwiches, it’s a classic part of stir-fried dishes, and prepared tofu is delicious as is with a bit of organic soy sauce. Making it at home, as with anything, makes it taste all the better.
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