Real Food Encyclopedia | Tofu
Many Americans think of tofu as the original vegetarian meat replacement, but its role in cuisines around the world is far wider than that. Made from just soy milk (itself just soybeans and water) and a coagulant (usually an acid, salt or enzyme), tofu making is similar to making mozzarella, paneer, and other cheeses. Depending on how it’s produced, the final product can be creamy, firm or anywhere in between. Across Asia, tofu stars in both savory and sweet dishes, and often appears alongside meat rather than replacing it.
Soybeans (Glycine max) are in the Fabaceae (legume) family, along with peas, beans, alfalfa and peanuts. Soybeans grown to make tofu are harvested when mature and dry, instead of harvested green, like edamame. While soy production worldwide is associated with a number of environmental problems — deforestation, soil erosion and fertilizer runoff, for example — most soybeans go to animal feed and industrial uses. The soybeans used to make tofu account for only a tiny fraction of that production and have a lower impact. Still, choosing organic and non-GMO varieties whenever possible can lower the foodprint of your tofu even further.
Fun Facts about Tofu:
- Tofu originated in China, according to “The Oxford Companion to Food,” where it first appeared in Chinese literature in the 10th century. There is unsubstantiated speculation that tofu-making was an adaptation of Mongol cheese-making; and indeed, the methods of making fresh cheeses, like ricotta, and tofu are very similar.
- In Japanese cuisine, it is formed using a box traditionally made from Japanese cypress (hinoki), called a tsukuriki. You may not have access to Japanese cypress, but you can still make your own wooden tofu press.
- Flavor and texture vary slightly depending on how it is pressed and the type of coagulant used. In Chinese cuisine, calcium salts are common.
What to Look for When Buying Tofu
Tofu comes in a wide range of textures and flavors, depending on how it was processed, how long it was pressed and a number of other variables. Some of the most common include:
- 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.).
- Silken tofu: Silken or soft tofu is soft and scoop-able, with a silky texture. It’s used most often in desserts, smoothies and salad dressings, but it also shines in savory dishes.
- Frozen tofu: Freezing tofu changes its texture, making it spongier. This, of course, allows it to soak up sauces in a most delectable way. You can freeze tofu yourself; it’s best to slice or cut into the sizes you desire first.
- 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 stinky (like a good blue cheese!).
- Other tofu products: You can find tofu noodles, tofu balls, tofu pouches and more in many Asian markets.
Sustainability of Tofu
Soy, just following corn, is the second-largest cash crop grown in the US, with more than 83 million acres planted in 2020. Most of this soy is grown in giant, industrial monocultures – huge tracts of a single crop that rely on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to be productive. Industrial monocultures like this are destructive to soil and water. To make matters worse, nearly 94 percent of the soy grown in the US is genetically modified to be tolerant of herbicides like Monsanto’s Roundup, which enables even more chemical usage. Outside of the United States, the global demand for soybeans is one of the top drivers of deforestation in the Amazon and other tropical rainforests.
But does this mean that tofu is an unsustainable food? In short, no — most of these GMO soybeans are used for animal feed and industrial uses. The soybeans that are used for direct human consumption — like tofu and soy milk — are less likely to be GMO because they use higher quality, food-grade beans. Only about 6% of all soybeans grown worldwide end up as food products, making tofu a very small part of the global soy footprint.
Even with GMO beans being less common in tofu, there are still sustainability concerns. Chemical use for growing conventional, food-grade soybeans can still be high – with this in mind, try to choose organic varieties to further minimize your impact. Buying organic tofu also ensures you’re not eating GMO beans. When organic tofu isn’t available, look for a non-GMO product: many tofu producers offer a non-GMO line of tofu.
Tofu can be stored in a covered container of water in the refrigerator for one to two weeks. Change the water daily to maintain freshness.
Tofu is as versatile a foodstuff as you can get, and in many cultures, it is a protein-loaded staple food with a deep culinary history. In Japan, China and Korea, tofu’s culinary importance is reflected in the many forms of the food, and the many products it is made with, from deep-fried tofu to tofu “puddings,” to many varieties of fermented or pickled tofu. In spite of its reputation as a meat replacement in the US, not all traditional tofu dishes are vegetarian: mapo tofu, one of the most popular Sichuan dishes, combines tofu with pork and spices in a delicious braise.
In its various forms, tofu can be stir-fried, deep-fried, braised, boiled, pureed (into tofu puddings, custards and smoothies), steamed and baked. When crumbled, it makes a great addition to veggie burgers and a nice substitute for scrambled eggs.
For baking and frying, it helps to reduce the water content in the tofu by patting thoroughly with paper towels. To make even firmer tofu with even less water content, you can press it by wrapping it in paper towels and weighing it down (put a plate on top of it, and something heavy, like a 28 ounce can of tomatoes) for 15-20 minutes.
Making your own tofu is fairly easy; you just need plain, unsweetened soy milk and whatever coagulant you have on hand, from lemon juice to vinegar to nigari.
Serious Eats has a great guide to cooking with tofu, with recipe suggestions, if you want a deeper dive.
Tofu in general is very high in protein and low in fat. “The Oxford Companion to Food” notes that turning soybeans into tofu makes the protein in the beans more bio-available. The types of minerals in tofu vary depending upon the type of coagulant used, but most commercial varieties are high in calcium, iron, magnesium and manganese.
Tofu and other soy products are sometimes the subject of sensationalist media stories claiming that they contain feminizing” hormones like estrogen. While it is true that soy products contain compounds called phytoestrogens that resemble these hormones, research has shown that the levels of these compounds in these foods don’t negatively impact health or other hormone levels — in fact, frequent tofu consumption has shown a protective effect against several hormone-related conditions in many studies.