A Beginner’s Guide to Buying and Cooking Tofu
Tofu is a versatile, protein-loaded staple food that has a deep culinary history in cultures throughout the world. In East and Southeast Asian countries, tofu’s culinary importance is reflected in the many forms it takes and the variety of tofu products available. Cooking tofu was first recorded during China’s Han Dynasty more than 2,000 years ago; today it’s one of China’s most consumed ingredients. In Japan, where the food is steeped both in the diet and psyche, tofu making is a high art; in Korea it’s the food historically eaten when prisoners are released, and has developed into somewhat of a nutritious symbol of freedom.
But among those unfamiliar with it, tofu often gets a bad rap, described as bland, rubbery and tasteless. The Internet is rife with articles teaching “How to Cook Tofu That Actually Tastes Good” or “Why the Tofu You’re Eating Is Bland (It’s Not Your Fault),” so it’s not surprising that a beginner wanting to start cooking tofu might assume the worst, or at the least, feel a little intimidated.
These negative ideas about tofu come in part from Westerners general lack of knowledge about cooking tofu, but also because most of what has been on the market for years has been a commodity product, produced to look and taste the same, no matter the brand. Thanks to increasing availability of higher quality tofu, along with the fact that soybean protein is a healthier and less expensive option than both meat and popular meat-alternatives, tofu’s popularity is on the rise. From 2017 to 2019, the US tofu (and tempeh) market saw an increase of nearly 15 percent in sales, and, as Bloomberg recently reported, national grocers like Kroger and Wegmans saw big increases in tofu sales from mid-March to late May 2020, thanks in part to the traditional meat industry struggling with food chain supply problems due to COVID-19.
Whether you are interested in eating tofu for health reasons, as a way to eat less meat or to appreciate it as a standalone ingredient instead of a meat-replacement, this guide can help you learn how to purchase the best quality, most sustainable tofu, the best ways to store it, and how to cook the many different types of tofu.
The Different Types of Tofu
Tofu is made using a process very similar to cheese making: ground soybeans are cooked in water, then strained to create soymilk. That liquid is combined with a coagulant (an acid or salt), which separates the soy milk into curds. The curds are pressed to create tofu. The type of coagulant used and the length of time the curds are pressed determines the type or texture of tofu that results, although there is no standard, so the firmness can vary between brands.
Plain (or block) tofu: Snowy white or off-white, plain tofu is usually cut into large blocks and stored or packaged in water. Plain tofu is usually fairly firm in texture and can be used in a number of different ways, from stir-frying to soups to noodle dishes. You can often find plain tofu labeled by how firm it is (medium, firm, extra firm, etc.).
- Soft: Soft tofu has a texture like yogurt or pudding, and works well in soups and served raw.
- Medium: Medium firm tofu holds up, but is porous enough to absorb flavors and sauces. This texture is great for curries and saucy dishes like mapo tofu.
- Firm/extra-firm: The firmer the tofu is, the less porous it will be, which means less flavor can absorb into it. It also means it has less water content, making this tofu great for stir-frying, pan cooking and grilling.
- Super firm: Like firm tofu, but even more firm and less porous, this is the perfect tofu to pan- or deep-fry.
Silken tofu: Silken tofu is made using a thicker soymilk than block tofu and rather than being pressed, it is left to coagulate and thicken into a soft, silky, scoop-able tofu. It can be used to make smoothies, sauces, and salad dressings, and is often used as an egg replacement in vegan baking.
Fermented and pickled tofu: Tofu can be fermented and pickled using soy sauce, miso, rice wine, vinegar and more. It ranges from mild to super pungent.
Other tofu products: You can find tofu noodles, tofu balls, tofu pouches and more tofu items in many Asian markets.
Tofu Sustainability and How to Buy Quality Tofu
Soybeans are one of the US’s main industrial crops — in 2014 farmers planted 83.3 million acres across the country, 94 percent of which were genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant. The continued use of GM seeds and herbicides has led to “superweeds” resistant to the herbicide, requiring additional pesticides and other damaging farming methods.
Along with the widespread industry use of GM seeds and herbicides, recent British research suggests that processed soy foods like tofu might have a similar carbon footprint to some meat products. This is in part because of the energy required to process tofu, and also because tofu isn’t as digestible as traditional meats, so more tofu is needed to provide the same amount of protein. A 2009 study of the environmental effects of vegetarian “meat substitutes” in the Netherlands found similar results, showing that tofu has a carbon impact similar to chicken — better than beef, but the same or even worse than some sustainable seafood options. As there has been no research done specific to American tofu, it’s difficult to say where US-produced tofu lands on the spectrum of environmental impact, but a helpful barometer would be to look at what you’d be eating instead. Choosing tofu over beef or pork makes a large difference when it comes to your foodprint;in the case of a diet primarily focused on sustainable fish and mollusks, the impact of instead choosing tofu would be smaller.
When shopping for tofu, look for white, fresh-smelling tofu. Any discoloration or sour odor means that tofu has undergone temperature fluctuations or has been on the shelf too long. While shelf-stable tofu cartons have longer shelf lives, they are made with GM soybeans and generally have poor flavor. If possible, find tofu made from organic or non-GMO soybeans. Independent brands such as California’s Meiji Tofu, Portland’s Ota Tofu, and Chicago’s Phoenix Bean use non-GMO beans to create their small-batch, no preservative tofu. Oakland-based Hodo Foods, whose tofu and other soy products are available nationwide, sources organic locally grown soybeans.
How to Store Tofu
Tofu is a fresh, perishable item that should be stored in the refrigerator and used within a week of its sell-by date. If you find some older tofu hiding in the fridge, open it and give it a smell. You will know if tofu has turned — it will have a funky, pungent smell — and also look for any signs of mold. If it looks and smells good to go, rinse the tofu in cold water before using. Once open, store unused tofu submerged in water in an airtight container in the refrigerator; it should keep 3 to 5 five days and water should be changed daily for maximum freshness.
Tofu can also be frozen, a method originally used to preserve tofu in the winter in China and Japan. Freezing tofu changes its texture, giving it a distinctive sponginess, which allows it to soak up more sauce and adds a unique texture to dishes. To freeze, cut extra-firm tofu into 1/2- to 3/4-inch-thick slabs or blocks, place in a single layer on a parchment-lined sheet tray and freeze until solid. Store in an airtight container in the freezer for up to a month. To use, thaw to room temperature, gently squeeze to remove excess liquid and pat dry before cooking. Frozen tofu is particularly delicious when fried; try it out with this recipe from Fuchsia Dunlop’s “Land of Plenty” cookbook.
One reason tofu is popular among so many cuisines is because it can be used in so many ways: stir-fried, deep-fried, pureed, steamed, baked, crumbled and marinated. While many Westerners cooking tofu think of it as a meat replacement, the ingredient has a traditional role in many cuisines with dishes like Japanese agedashi fried tofu, Korean braised tofu and Szechuan mapo tofu, all of which should be tasted on your journey to discover tofu’s true culinary delights.
One question that continually comes up when discussing tofu cooking is whether you need to press it first to get some of the water out. While many Western recipes will tell you to weigh it down, wrapping it in paper towels and placing a plate and something heavy on top, many traditional Asian recipes don’t include this step. “Asian people don’t do that,” Andrea Nguyen, author of “Asian Tofu” told Epicurious. “We just cut the tofu.” Tofu will release water, however, when you cut it, so drain it on paper towels and pat it dry.
That being said, when frying tofu it is a good idea to push out some of the water if using firm or extra-firm tofu. While you can press it (and there are plenty of guides on how to do that online), Ngyuyen instead suggests pouring boiling salted water over tofu (put it in a strainer first), causing the tofu to squeeze out moisture and seasoning it at the same time. Blot to dry before using it.
How to Cook Soft Tofu
Because soft tofu is pressed the least amount of time, it has a smooth, creamy texture. It’s most commonly eaten in soups or pureed. Here are a few ways to use it:
- Stir it into Korean kimchi soup, Japanese Kimchi hot pot or Chinese hot and sour soup.
- Puree it into smoothies.
How to Cook Medium Tofu
While medium-firm tofu is rougher than soft, it still has a decent amount of moisture and will break up during vigorous cooking. This texture is great for baking, braising and boiling. Here are a few great medium tofu recipes:
- Steam medium tofu gently and serve with black sesame sauce in this classic Japanese preparation.
- Quickly boil tofu and serve with spicy kimchi for Korean kimchi tofu, a dish often served as side dish at bars along with drinks.
- Slather the classic Japanese miso dengaku glaze onto broiled or grilled medium tofu to enjoy a recipe that’s been around since the 1500s.
- Make the traditional Japanese hot pot soup using medium tofu. Extra points if you use a traditional Japanese stone pot, or donabe, to prepare it. Frozen, then deep-fried tofu can be used as a garnish in hot pot as well.
How to Cook Firm Tofu
Firm and extra-firm tofu are most commonly used in Western recipes, as the mostly solid texture is easy to cut, easy to fry, easy to grill and easy to eat. While this is the most versatile of the types of tofu, firm tofu also can take on a slightly rubbery texture during cooking, which might lead to some of the generalized disdain for the foodstuff. Make sure not to overcook it to avoid this from happening.
- Puree firm tofu into the classic Japanese sauce shiraae, a slightly sweet, umami-packed tofu-miso dressing that is usually served with greens such as green beans or steamed spinach and toasted sesame seeds.
- Scramble extra-firm tofu to make a dish similar to scrambled eggs, which can be eaten on its own, or stuffed into breakfast tacos or other breakfast dishes. In this Chinese preparation, silken tofu is used to create a looser, saucier scramble.
- Spear cubes of extra-firm tofu on veggie kebabs for grilling. This recipe from Bryant Terry’s “Afro Vegan” cookbook uses a pomegranate-peach barbecue sauce and the smokiness of the grill to enhance the flavor.
- Make a Japanese-style blended burger, combining minced meat and crumbled firm tofu. Tofu, Japanese writer Kaki Okumura explains, is not used as a meat substitute in Japanese cooking but a standalone ingredient. “When properly prepared, our favorite foods can actually taste better with a bit of tofu,” she writes in Heated. “It’s soft, absorbs spices really well, can char nicely, and adds a light and refreshing element to heavier, oily foods.” A similar Chinese preparation combines minced pork and firm tofu.
- Tofu is often sometimes used as a low-fat substitute for paneer in Indian recipes such as curries or soups. Try it in this version of palak tofu.
- Deep-fry firm tofu, then marinate it in a sweet-savory sauce of Sichuan peppercorns, star anise and fennel seeds for this classic Chinese snack, sometimes called tofu bacon.
How to Cook Silken Tofu
Silken tofu can be found in soft and firm varieties, both of which are softer, creamier and more dense than block tofu because of the different style in which silken tofu is made. Soft silken tofu is the most malleable, and particularly good for pureed applications such as dressings, sauces, smoothies and yogurt or egg substitutions. Firm silken tofu has a firmer body that can stand up to cutting, making it great for sauced dishes or soup. It’s rich dense texture also makes it great for desserts.
- For a refreshing dish, try hiya yakko, a cold Japanese salad which often features ingredients like soy sauce, grated fresh ginger, scallions, shiso and bonito flakes. Here is a similar Chinese preparation topped with spicy chili oil.
- Steam the tofu, then top with a spicy soy chili sauce for a traditional Korean comfort food dish.
- Make the Filipino dessert taho, a combination of soft silken tofu and sweet tapioca pearls.
- Use soft silken tofu to create dairy-free ice cream or try using firm silken tofu to create a rich vegan mocha mousse.
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