What is Tofu?
After all the fun we had learning about soy sauce, we decided to dive deep on another common but easily overlooked ingredient: tofu!
Tofu is also known as “bean curd” and is essentially solid white blocks of coagulated and pressed soy milk of varying softness that ranges from silken to extra firm. Sounds delicious I know! It has a very subtle flavor, leaning more towards a light bean flavor for the Eastern brands and more bland for the Western targeted brands. While that also doesn’t sound that appealing, that makes it a versatile ingredient that can be used in both savory and sweet dishes!
The English word “tofu” comes from the Japanese tōfu (豆腐), which borrows from the Chinese, dòufu which means ‘bean curd, bean ferment’.
Speaking of, tofu-making was first noted during the Chinese Han dynasty 2,000 years ago. Tofu made its way to Japan via Zen monks and spread throughout the Southeast Asia with the spread of Buddhism. Since then, it’s become a staple for many and is known similarly as tahu in Indonesia or taho in Philippines. The first American to mention tofu was Benjamin Franklin who encountered it during a trip to London and referred to it as “cheese” from China.
How is Tofu Made?
Production of tofu is similar to that of cheese and essentially consists of:
- Making of soy milk: cleaning, soaking, grinding beans in water, filtering, and boiling
- Coagulation to form curds: typically either salt or acid coagulants are used like calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, or nigari (brine)
- Pressing of the curds to form cakes
Speaking of, let’s get into the different types of tofu!
Types of Tofu
Starting on the softest end of the tofu spectrum, we have the silken tofu. It’s the least processed as its made with uncurdled milk, is not pressed and no curds are formed. Apparently it can be used as a substitute for dairy products and eggs for smoothies and baked desserts! Essentially a silken tofu, dòuhuā/dòufuhuā (豆花/豆腐花) is typically served a few hours after it is made, usually for breakfast or dessert.
The Korean unpressed soft tofu is called sun-dubu (순두부) and is sold in tubes. If you’ve been to a Korean restaurant in the Bay Area, chances are you’ve come across it in a “soft tofu stew”.
Moving onto the firmer tofus, we have either medium, firm, and extra firm, depending on the amount of water that is extracted from the cut and pressed curds. If you’ve ever wondered why the skin of this tofu looks weird and wrinkly, it’s because it retains the pattern of the muslin used to drain it. The “drier” the tofu, the firmer it gets and the texture reaches closer to that of cooked meat, which is why some of them are marketed as vegetarian meat. Tofu skin is an especially popular option, we like a version that’s sold as “vegan duck”.
Tofu threads look like noodles and are used for a refreshing Chinese side dish, tofu salad. Some folks substitute it for noodles but let’s be real, it’s totally not even close to noods, so don’t even bother!
You can find a bunch of fried and cooked marinated tofu, which we love throwing in soups and hot pot for different textures. Some other special tofu varieties are “Thousand-layer tofu” qiānyè dòufu (千葉豆腐). It’s a frozen tofu with lots of holes created by the ice, hence the name. Then there are pickled tofus and the infamous stinky tofu which is fermented in a vegetable and fish brine. Yum, right? That’s what alota folks will say~
And fun fact, soy pulp, a by-product of tofu (and of miso!) can be used as another ingredient. It’s often used as animal feed, in vegetarian burgers, and even in ice cream in Japan!
Tempeh is another soy-based protein, but unlike tofu, tempeh is made from compressed whole fermented soybeans instead of soy milk. It is higher in protein and fiber than tofu and has a firmer, chewier texture.
Of course there are non-soy tofu options like almond tofu which is commonly used for desserts. Chickpea tofu is common in Burma. There’s also peanut and sesame tofu. One of our favorite faux tofu is egg tofu – where egg is steamed to a similar texture as silken tofu. It’s popular in Chinese, Japanese and Korean cuisines. Another tofu we love that’s technically not tofu is fish tofu. It’s really more of a fish cake, but they’re often marketed and called fish tofu, so we thought we’d just mention it here.
Benefits of Eating Tofu
Tofu is low in calories while high in protein and contains all of the essential amino acids your body needs. It also provides healthy Omega-3 fat which are anti-inflammatory and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals, like iron. Basically it’s a highly nutrient-dense food! The micronutrient content of tofu varies depending on the coagulant used to make it. Nigari or magnesium sulfate adds magnesium and calcium sulfate increases the calcium content. As a soy product, you’ll find lots of isoflavones, known to have antioxidant effects.
Remember that a healthy diet is a balanced one. Tofu does contain antinutrients, but this is no cause for concern unless you’re relying only on tofu!
How to Store Tofu
Unfortunately tofu doesn’t hold well, so don’t open packaged tofu until you’re ready to use it. Keep an eye on the Best-By-Date, but prioritize your eyes and nose – if the tofu starts to turn color or smell funny, don’t use it. Both cooked and opened uncooked tofu should be consumed within a few days. Refrigerate any unused portion in water and change the water daily to prolong the tofu’s freshness.
You can freeze firmer varieties for up to three months. Freezing softer varieties will change their texture. Pre-cut the tofu into slabs or cubes sized for cooking, freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then store them in a plastic zip-top freezer bag or other airtight container. Defrost before using it.
How to Cook Tofu
There’s so much you can do with tofu! Sweet or salty, or even both – anything from soup to stir fries. Tofu is one of the easiest ingredients to use, especially when it comes to adding protein to your dish. For those that don’t like handling raw meat or having to deal with remembering to defrost meat, tofu is really convenient to add and cooks so much faster than meats. Tofu literally acts like a sponge and soaks up all the flavors, so you also don’t have to bother marinading.
As a general guide, the texture of the tofu will probably dictate how to cook it. For example, the softer tofu lends itself to soups and desserts as they don’t hold up well to the rough handling during frying. While we’re on frying, tofu also tends to stick to the pan, so opt for a nonstick or make sure your pan is hot and oiled properly. But seriously, anything you ever make, you can probably add tofu to it! Give it a try and let us know what you make in the comments below! If you’re still in doubt about the wonders of tofu, start with one of our recipes: