Tofu. The very word instills disgust in the mouths of many omnivores, and even in some who abstain from meat products. And with good reason! Since the 1960s, the idea of “tofu” has been used in U.S. media to conjure up images of gross, weird, vegetarian and vegan food – in the collective psyche, it’s almost a four-letter word, one that’s practically synonymous with vegetarianism itself. In the 1980s, USA Today ran a poll that found tofu was America’s most loathsome food. And if you’ve ever had tofu prepared in an unappealing way, well, you know – it’s easy to make it unappetizing. From its cold, moist texture to its lack of strong taste, it’s clear why some people dismiss tofu so quickly.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
I assure you: tofu can be delicious. The key is to know three things: which texture of tofu works best for your dish, how to properly flavor the tofu, and how to prepare the tofu. Giving these three topics consideration will ensure that your tofu is the star of the dish instead of the punch line.
What is tofu?
Tofu is bean curd created from soybeans: the beans are made into soymilk, which is then coagulated, and the resulting curds are pressed into blocks and cooled. The process is actually similar to making cheese (hence the term curds) – in fact, in 1770 Ben Franklin wrote a letter to a botanist friend about a “special cheese” made from soybeans “called Tau Fu.” But tofu has been around for an even longer time – at least 2,000 years, which is when the first instance of tofu-making was recorded in China. It then spread throughout Asia and, eventually, the rest of the world. Tofu is still more common in daily cuisine in Asia than in the rest of the world, but these days (some kind of) tofu can be found in almost every grocery store in the U.S.
Tofu comes in two kinds: silken and regular. Regular tofu is pressed; silken tofu is not pressed, so it has a lot more moisture in it. The soymilk isn’t curdled during coagulation in silken tofu, either, giving it a smoother, creamier mouth feel. Both silken and regular tofu come in a variety of textures: extra soft, soft, medium, medium firm, firm, extra firm, and super firm. The texture is manipulated by pressing different amounts of water out of the tofu; firmer tofu has more water pressed out of it than soft. Consequently, firmer tofu also has more fat and protein than soft (because soft tofu has more water in it). Soft tofu can be used like silken tofu, but the texture will be slightly less creamy – both soft tofu and silken tofu are too soft to be sliced or crumbled, though; you’ll need a spoon instead. Don’t substitute silken tofu for a recipe that calls for firm, or you’ll end up with a watery mess.
Most stores won’t carry every single variety, but most recipes that call for medium also work ok with medium firm; super firm and extra firm are similar, too. There’s also some variation between brands (one brand’s firm is another brand’s medium, for example). If you don’t like the first brand or texture you try, give another one a taste – you might be surprised how different the texture can be.
For more information about each kind of tofu, see below.
On its own, tofu doesn’t have much flavor. And remember: softer tofu has more water in it, so its flavor is even more diluted. For the most part, tofu’s flavor is imparted to it by other ingredients in the dish. This is why it’s crucial to flavor your tofu or ensure it’s mixed with other flavorful ingredients. You can marinate tofu, or coat it in spices. You can cover it in sauces or mix it in with other things. The important thing is that you’re doing something to give the tofu flavor, lest you end up with something bland.
How to Prepare Tofu
There are so many ways to prepare tofu; this is not meant to be a comprehensive discussion. But there are some common methods of preparation that can get you more comfortable with tofu and introduce you to some new dishes, too.
- Puree it: Silken tofu is a common ingredient in puddings, sauces, and smoothies, and you can even use it as a substitute for eggs in baking. In other words, silken tofu usually gets pureed or blended into dishes. (Can substitute extra soft or soft with slightly different results.)
- Fry it: Firm (including extra firm and super firm) tofu is often pan-fried, stir-fried, or deep-fried. Make sure to glaze it with some sauce towards the end of pan- or stir-frying for additional flavor. Some cooks swear by coating cubes of tofu in cornstarch before pan-frying to get them crispy on the outside.
- Bake it: Firm, extra firm, and super firm tofu have a great texture when cut into bite-sized cubes and baked. The tofu gets slightly chewy, and because it dries out as it bakes, it can absorb more marinade.
- Crumble it: Firm and extra firm tofu can be crumbled into pieces (use your hands!) to mimic ground beef, scrambled eggs, or hardboiled eggs.
- Grill it: Firm, extra firm, and super firm tofu can also be grilled. You’ll want to make sure to give it some flavor, first!
- Cube it: You don’t even have to “cook” tofu – you can simply cube it and add it to a miso broth soup.
- Press it: You may want to drain and press the tofu before any of the above methods to get more water out (not for silken or soft tofu). To do so, layer some towels over the block of tofu, and then place a few heavy books (or other heavy items, like large cans) on top. Let water drain off for about 20-30 minutes, changing towels if needed. (Directions here.)
- Freeze it: You can also freeze the tofu first to get some of the water out. If you freeze it, you don’t need to press it (not recommended for soft and silken tofu).
Health Benefits of Tofu
Tofu is an excellent source of both calcium and protein – with all eight essential amino acids -- and it’s a very good source of iron, too. All three of these nutrients are frequent concerns to those eating a plant-based diet, so it’s easy to see why tofu is a popular entrée choice for vegetarians and vegans both. It has other benefits, too: minerals like manganese, selenium, and phosphorous. And it’s a good source of magnesium, copper, zinc, and vitamin B1. In addition to essential vitamins and minerals our body needs, tofu provides a wide array of phytonutrients, like isoflavonoids, phenolic acids, saponins, and peptides, and other healthful goodies like omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid.
Due to variations in moisture content and compression of curds, it’s hard to give exact nutritional data on tofu: a cup of silken tofu will be different from a cup of regular firm tofu, for example, and there will be variation between different brands. That said, the USDA gives the following nutritional information for 100 grams of raw, firm tofu:
The soy protein found in tofu can help lower levels of bad cholesterol (LDL), which reduces risk of high blood pressure and atherosclerosis and contributes to overall heart health. In fact, replacing meat and dairy in the U.S. diet with tofu and other soy products would decrease total cholesterol intake per person by about 125 milligrams per day and saturated fat by about 2.4 grams per day.
In addition to being a healthy, low-fat source of lots of basic nutrients our body needs, the calcium and magnesium in tofu can help alleviate symptoms of PMS and migraine headaches, and soy protein has been shown to help with weight loss.
When it comes to cancer, soy (and therefore tofu) is a controversial topic. Tofu contains phytoestrogens known as isoflavones, which mimic estrogen in the body. Consequently, they can bind to estrogen receptors in the body – many of which are found in breast cells. As a result, some studies show evidence that soy foods can help prevent cancer and suppress tumors; other studies suggest that large doses of soy can increase risk of certain cancers, most notably breast cancer. On the other hand, the most recent and ethnically-diverse study (published in March 2017) suggests that higher soy consumption leads to reduced all-cause mortality in breast cancer survivors. Earlier, less diverse studies done in China and California show similar results. Furthermore, some women find the phytoestrogen in tofu and other soy products provides some relief from menopausal symptoms by boosting estrogen levels slightly. Soy isoflavones can also decrease bone loss and increase bone density, helping prevent osteoporosis, so if breast cancer isn’t a concern, tofu can be a great option for aging women. If breast or prostate cancer runs in your family, or you have a past history of either, you should consult with your healthcare provider to determine the right amount of soy for your diet.
Silken Tofu Recipes
Silken tofu gives desserts and sauces a creamy, smooth texture in a healthy way. It can also be used as a replacement for eggs in baking and quiche-like dishes. The result won’t be exactly the same as using eggs, but it’s fun to experiment and see what you like best! These recipes are great for getting tofu-haters on board. More than likely, they won’t even know there’s tofu in the dish. Hey – if you don’t tell, we won’t tell!
- Use silken tofu, bananas, and other healthy ingredients to make an egg-like coating for Vegan French Toast. Top with fresh fruit or maple syrup (or both!).
- Silken tofu can replace cream or milk in soups and drinks alike, with a creaminess that can’t compare to nut milks or other nondairy milks. With this Vegan Eggnog recipe, no one at your holiday party will be left out.
- Another beverage recipe that uses tofu for both its creaminess and its protein boost, this Healthy Vegan Chocolate Smoothie recipe uses cocoa powder and maple syrup to give it an indulgent flavor.
- This dish relies on chocolate too, and you should really splurge on the best chocolate you can: if you withhold the name, no one will guess tofu is the star of Mark Bittman’s Mexican Chocolate Tofu Pudding.
- Mixing silken tofu into pies can be a surprising treat – tofu can replace non-vegan gelatin and eggs in custardy pies like pumpkin, and it can be added to fun icebox-style pies like this Tofu Peanut Butter Pie (no oven required!).
Firm and Extra Firm Tofu Recipes
Firm tofu is my favorite for crumbling into scrambles or hash (like this one with roasted winter vegetables) and for using as a substitute for cheese in filled pasta dishes. It’s also a great choice for stir-frying or pan-frying, and you can add cubes of tofu to soups and curries, as well as noodle dishes. Pressing firm tofu is really important – especially if the brand tends to be a watery one. Honestly, you can use firm, extra firm, and super firm tofu in a lot of the same recipes – the softer tofu will have a silkier creaminess inside, whereas the firmer tofu will have a chewier, spongier texture.
- This Vegan Tofu Scramble calls for extra firm, but you can make it with firm tofu that’s well-pressed, too. Add your favorite veggies – or whatever’s left in the fridge. If your diet allows, add cheese for more flavor. I like mine with plenty of hot sauce, too – and pesto is delectable on top.
- A warm, nourishing soup is the perfect vehicle for cubes of tofu. The peanut butter, chili sauce, miso, and soy sauce give this Peanut Miso Soup plenty of flavor, and the greens in it are a nice veggie boost.
- Packaged convenience food doesn’t have to be the enemy. Use packages of ramen and jazz them up with veggies (use what you have) and cubes of tofu for Healthy Weeknight Ramen. The recipe calls for kale, mushrooms, and carrots, but I like adding broccoli, spinach, and snow peas, too, for a “green” theme.
- If you’ve got a delicious tomato sauce on top, tofu ricotta is the perfect filling for stuffed shells – with much less fat than regular ricotta. Give the tofu plenty of flavor with fresh herbs and spices, and then crumble it with your fingers, mash it with a fork, or spin it in a food processor. I don’t use celery when I make this Jumbo Stuffed Shells recipe, but I bet it would give the tofu even more flavor.
- Crumble or gently mash a block of tofu, and then add your favorite ingredients to make Tofu ‘Egg’ Salad (or Eggless Salad, as I call it). Add capers, relish, diced celery, or diced jalapeno for an extra pop of flavor. Eat with crackers or scoop in a sandwich roll.
Extra Firm and Super Firm Tofu Recipes
Often, when you use extra firm (or super firm) tofu you’re using it as a meat substitute – and perhaps for this reason it can be a tough way to get meat-eaters to (try and) enjoy tofu. You won’t confuse these recipes for a chicken nugget or a slab of salmon, but if you let go of that expectation you can enjoy a healthy, sustainable alternative. If you press the tofu first and then cut it into quarter-inch slices, and don’t be afraid of cooking longer than the recipe says, the outcome is pretty dang delicious. You can also crumble extra firm tofu to give it a meat-like texture.
- I’ve made this Crispy Breaded Tofu recipe more times than I can count. Dip the nuggets in barbecue sauce, honey mustard, or wing sauce and enjoy the crispy outside and soft inside. I slice into quarter-inch slabs and then (depending on size of tofu block) in half again to create something between a “strip” and a “nugget” – I like lots of crispy surface area.
- If you like spiciness, I highly recommend this Crispy Blackened Tofu recipe. Adjust the cayenne and black pepper for more or less heat, but don’t skip the paprika. I use a cast iron skillet, although any skillet will work – high heat is what’s important in order to create a nice crust on the tofu. I cook this a little longer than the recipe states, and I slice into smaller pieces – 8 triangles per block of tofu, maybe.
- If you like tofu (and aren’t trying to win over a ‘fu-hater), extra firm tofu is great tossed in a stir-fry. Feel free to skip the pre-bake step of the tofu if you’re short on time – it makes the tofu a little more firm and less moist, but it’s totally not necessary, especially if your tofu is extra/super firm or lacks moisture.
- Crumbled tofu takes the place of meat in this Vegan Gyoza Dumplings recipe, and the tofu gets tons of flavor from the onion, garlic, and crushed chili pepper. This dish can really impress guests and makes a great finger food appetizer.
- Crumble and brown extra firm tofu and add it to roasted winter vegetables to make a hearty, warming Vegan Breakfast Hash. Adapt it to incorporate the veggies you have on hand, and serve it with a dollop of pesto.
Other Types of Tofu
There are lots of other types of tofu, too – black tofu, which actually looks purple, is made from black soybeans instead of yellow, and sprouted tofu is made from sprouted soybeans. These other types may be higher in protein – check the nutritional info. You can also find tofu made with ingredients besides soybeans – like hemp, almonds, or chickpeas. There is also fresh silken tofu (sometimes called custard tofu), which is very delicate and soft and best purchased fresh from a local provider as they go bad very quickly (as quick as a day or two). Fresh tofu is usually eaten raw in delicate miso broths or desserts. Dry tofu is on the other end of the spectrum – it’s ultra-dense and requires no cooking to provide a chewy texture to dishes. Smoked tofu is similar – no cooking required and very dense, but with a mild smoky flavor. There’s also fermented tofu, which has been fermented using bacteria and has been shown to have more cancer preventive benefits than other types of tofu. As with any products, organic and non-GMO is preferable, and usually available if you look around – so check a few different stores to see what the tofu options in your area are.
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