Tofu is a traditional Asian food made from coagulated soy milk pressed into blocks. Tofu has numerous virtues: it’s inexpensive, easy to prepare, nutrient-rich, and incredibly versatile.
Every Asian country features tofu prominently in its cuisine. It’s especially popular in parts of Asia where Buddhism has a strong presence, since many Buddhists are vegetarian and rely on tofu as a primary protein source. Across Asia, many people treat tofu the same way the French treat bread—as a food purchased fresh every morning to be eaten later during the day.
If you have trouble digesting beans, you really must give tofu a shot. It’ll give you all the protein and nutrition as any other bean product, but it’s much easier to digest.
Tofu is inexpensive everywhere, and especially when sold fresh at Asian groceries. This tofu doesn’t come packaged; you’ll use tongs to grab a block out of a shallow tub filled with water.
If you’re visiting Asia, tofu is ridiculously cheap. Even in Japan, which is among the most expensive countries in Asia, you can buy high-quality tofu for less than one-fourth the price as in Western countries. I’m guessing that since tofu is so popular there, Japanese groceries sell it as a loss-leader to get customers in the store.
Soybeans are one of the most common genetically modified foods, but it’s easy to find organic tofu. Organic certification bars the use of GMO crops, so if your tofu is made with organic soybeans it’ll be GMO-free. Typically every brand sold at natural food stores will be made with organic soybeans.
Some packaged tofu is processed at high temperatures and has an expiration date about two months after packaging. But whenever possible, I like to follow the Asian practice of buying freshly-made tofu and eating it the same day.
After opening the package, any tofu you won’t use immediately ought to be kept refrigerated in fresh water in a covered container. Change the water once or twice a day and try to finish the tofu within a few days.
Firm, Soft, and Medium Varieties
Most brands of tofu are available in soft or firm versions. Some brands also come in medium and extra-firm varieties.
Try them all and see which texture you prefer—any type works fine in most recipes. But if you’re going to cube your tofu for stir-fries, go with a firm or extra-firm variety since soft tofu falls apart if stirred frequently during cooking.
All tofu has a smooth texture, but there’s a special variety called “silken tofu” with a silky custard-like texture. Use it in place of regular tofu in almost any dish, and your favorite tofu meals will gain a terrific variation. Silken tofu is ideally suited for certain baked recipes, and it also makes a wonderful dessert pudding. Plus, you can add a little silken tofu to smoothies for a nice protein boost.
Unlike regular tofu, you generally won’t find silken tofu in your grocery’s refrigerated section. It’s usually a shelf-stable product packaged in aseptic “juice box” style cartons. Every good natural food store carries it, and because it’s imperishable you can also purchase it from Amazon.com and other online retailers.
I’ve seen fresh silken-style tofu sold in the refrigerated section in Japan, but I’ve never seen fresh silken tofu sold in Western countries apart from offerings made in small batches by artisan tofu makers.
After opening, submerge any unused silken tofu in a covered dish of water and refrigerate, just like you would store regular tofu. Change the water daily and use within a few days.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have an artisan soy-foods shop in your city. These shops produce a number of tofu varieties that are nothing like the standard white blocks sold elsewhere. These businesses are often inspired by Japan’s traditional tofu shops that make special varieties of tofu in small batches. The varieties of artisan tofu you buy will each have their own recommended method of preparation, so be sure to inquire when making your purchase.
One variety of Japanese tofu you must try is, “tofu no miso zuke.” This fermented soy food—which is basically a cross between tofu and miso—is delicious when spread on crackers. It’s also sensational when mixed into some marinara sauce, spiced up with hot peppers, and served over pasta with some nutritional yeast.
Dehydrated tofu skins aren’t widely available in Western countries, but all Asian markets carry this style of tofu. It comes in brittle dried sheets. Tofu skins are a key ingredient of Chinese hot and sour soup. You will probably only be able to find tofu skins at Asian groceries and online.
At most salad bars you can find regular tofu cut into cubes. I can’t think of a less appetizing way to serve tofu. But take heart, since there is a fantastic way to add tofu to salads.
Most natural food stores sell baked tofu, sometimes in a different part of the refrigerated section than the regular tofu. Unlike regular tofu, which is packed in water-filled tubs, baked tofu comes laminated in plastic sheets. You can usually find it near the hummus. The stuff is denser and chewier than most tofu, and is marinated in either tamari or teriyaki sauce prior to baking. Slice it thinly and add it to your salads or savory sandwiches. Either way, it provides a nice dose of protein and increases satiety.
Baked tofu might be one of the easiest things you can cook at home, and doing so will save you a lot of money over buying the prepared version. Measured by weight, baked tofu usually costs at least triple the price of regular tofu. That’s a lot of extra money for something you can easily prepare yourself.
Thinly-sliced baked tofu is also outstanding in sandwiches and wraps.
Not all tofu is equally nutritious, at least where calcium is concerned.
Soy milk is solidified into tofu through one of two coagulants: magnesium sulfate, or calcium sulfate. Sometimes, rather than either of these substances, the label will instead list “nigari,” which is the Japanese term for minerals rich in magnesium sulfate. If you’re looking to add a substantial source of calcium to your diet, opt for tofu made with calcium sulfate. This variety of tofu is remarkably rich in calcium. It’s an especially good choice if you have sworn off dairy products, since it’ll enable you to get a big dose of calcium with every serving.
Tofu can add tremendous variety to your diet, and you can cook it in dozens of satisfying ways. One reason tofu is so versatile is that it can take on a variety of textures—everything from extra firm and chewy to silken smooth. One little-known preparation technique you ought to try is to slice firm tofu into thin strips and then freeze it overnight. Doing so will impart a chewy, meaty texture that works wonderfully in dishes like a spicy Mexican chili.
Many recipes suggest pressing some of the liquid out of the tofu prior to cooking. To accomplish this, put the tofu between two dinner plates and place a half kilogram weight on top for a few minutes. If you cook with tofu daily you may wish to invest in a special press designed to squeeze the water out of tofu.
Your First Tofu Meal
Given the thousands of recipes that feature tofu, where’s the best place to start if you’ve never before cooked with tofu? For your first time, consider either adding tofu to a stir-fry, or making scrambled tofu.
Tofu is practically a must-add ingredient for stir-fries. It brings a big dose of added protein. Plus, it’ll make the meal much more satisfying. A stir-fry made with nothing but veggies is likely to leave you feeling hungry thirty minutes later. Adding in some cubed tofu gives your stir-fry a lot more substance.
When preparing your stir-fry, press your tofu and cut it into cubes. Then stir-fry it and set it aside before moving on to cooking your vegetables. Make sure you’re using either firm or extra-firm tofu, since softer varieties fall apart when stir-fried. Use an oil with a high scorching point, since you’ll want to be frying your tofu cubes on medium-high heat. Keep the cubes turning and moving during cooking, but be gentle so they stay intact. Sauté until they begin to develop a golden color. Next, set aside your cooked tofu in a separate bowl and cook the remainder of your stir-fry. You can add the tofu back at the end, just before adding any sauces and seasonings.
Stir-fries are so versatile, healthy, and delicious that they’re something every cook ought to learn how to make. Check out extensive instructions to making a fantastic stir-fry.
This is one of the world’s best vegan brunch entrees, and it’s so easy to make that it’s ideal for your first attempt cooking tofu. There are countless online recipes and cooking videos for scrambled tofu. This recipe is so easy and forgiving that it’ll probably turn out perfectly no matter what recipe you choose. But whichever recipe you try, you can’t go wrong by following these three rules:
- Use plenty of vegetables, especially onion and garlic
- Whenever possible, mix in a few thinly-sliced canned chipotles just before serving
- Always mix in plenty of nutritional yeast just before serving!
The least healthful way to prepare tofu is nevertheless delicious. Cut it into cubes two or three centimeters on a side and immerse in hot oil for a few minutes until golden.
Deep frying doesn’t add much flavor but it’ll render your tofu chewy on the outside and soft and tender on the inside. Serve it in stir-fries, or impale with toothpicks and accompany with a flavorful dipping sauce.
More Cooking Variations
Despite its Asian origin, nothing goes better with Mexican cooking than tofu. For any savory Mexican food—like burritos, enchiladas, or tamales—sliced sautéed tofu invariably adds an extra dimension to your meal. The subtle flavor of tofu blends perfectly with classic Mexican sauces and spices.
As with Mexican food, tofu also lends itself perfectly to American soul food, and Caribbean island meals. Vegan cookbooks devoted to these cuisines invariably feature tofu in a wide assortment of dishes.
Other popular dishes featuring tofu include:
- Indian Curries (in place of meat)
- Barbecued Tofu—sauté, bake, or deep fry tofu and add a little barbecue sauce
- Fruit Smoothies
- Spicy Taco or Burrito Filling
Like tofu, tempeh is a soy product, but it’s a less processed food since the beans are intact. You can use tempeh in place of tofu in many recipes, especially stir-fries.
Seitan is even meatier than tofu, and has a wonderfully chewy consistency. People with gluten sensitivity should steer clear, though, since seitan doesn’t just contain gluten, it is gluten! This also makes seitan about the most protein-rich food going, since seitan is essentially 100 percent protein. A little seitan goes a long way, and there may be no vegan food that can fill you up as quickly as a seitan-based dish.