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Tofu For Beginners 

 February 16, 2021

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When I first became vegan, I had no idea how to cook tofu even though I had been vegetarian for many years.  I really was a complete beginner.  Throughout the past 12 years, I have cooked many different types of tofu in so many different ways.  It really is a versatile ingredient.   In this blog post, you will learn everything a beginner needs to know about tofu.

What is tofu?

Tofu is a food product high in protein that is commonly used by vegans and vegetarians as a substitute for meat. The main ingredient is soybeans, a member of the legume family.

Tofu is an ancient food that has been used for thousands of years.  Sometimes called soy bean curd or bean curd, this nearly white coloured square block is made from soy milk that has been coagulated and pressed to remove a little or a lot of the water. There are different types of tofu that are classified by the amount of water content.  Extra firm tofu has a lower water content than medium firm tofu which in turn has a lower water content than silken or soft tofu. It can be consumed straight out of the packet or cooked. 

tofu and soy milk

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

Is tofu vegan?

Yes, nearly all tofu is vegan as the ingredients are only soy beans, water and a coagulating agent that is also vegan.

In some rare cases, tofu might contain eggs. This is a unique kind of soft tofu and usually only found in Asian grocery stores and used in certain dishes.  Egg tofu is easily identified by its yellow color (from the egg yolks). It is often packaged in a plastic tube.  A simple glance at the ingredients will confirm whether it is vegan or not if you are in any doubt.

Who invented tofu?

Tofu originated in China and is thought to have been used in Chinese cooking for 2000 years. While the exact origins are not known for sure, one legend has it that it was discovered accidentally when an impure salt was added to ground soybeans.

 The impurities in the salt coagulated the tofu and would have made a gel like consistency. Over the next 1500 years, tofu spread throughout Asia and was used in local cuisine. Tofu eventually reached the west in the 19th century, although it only started to become more commonly used from the middle of the 20th century.

Which cuisines traditionally use tofu?

As tofu originated in the far east, it is eaten by many people as an ingredient in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, Singaporean and Malaysian cooking.

Tofu’s popularity has soared around the world in the past 50 years as these cuisines have become more popular. This ingredient can be integrated into many dishes to replace meat in nearly every cuisine.

How is tofu made?

Tofu is a very simple food and is only minimally processed. It’s made by boiling soaked and blended soy beans in water for 5 minutes or so. After the soybeans are cooked the mixture needs to be strained through a cloth. A coagulate is added which separates the curds from the whey. The curds are placed into moulds and pressed to make them into a cake.  When made on a large scale, it is cut into blocks and packaged for sale.

What are the different kinds of tofu?

There are many different types of tofu. In China there are more than 100 types, however, most tofu beginners only need to know about the four main ones, silken which is often known as soft tofu, medium firm, firm and extra firm. You can identify these different types of tofu easily. The name of the tofu is written clearly on the packaging. The recipe you are using will advise you which tofu you will need.

Different types of tofu in packaging

What is silken (or soft) tofu?

Silken tofu has a very soft, almost jelly like texture. It has a water content of between 87-90%. In Asian cooking it is often used cubed in miso soups and in some desserts. In western cuisine it is often blended into smoothies or made into vegan quiches or mayonnaise. It is purchased in a plastic container and kept in water. It is quite fragile and will break easily when handled.

tofu GIF

What is medium firm tofu?

Medium firm tofu has a lower water content of between 81-85%. It is denser than silken tofu but it is quite delicate and the texture is still crumbly.  It is also purchased in a plastic container and kept in water. It is cubed and used in soups. It holds up well to frying if cut in to thick slices.

What is firm tofu?

Firm tofu has an even lower water content. At only 76-81% water, this tofu stands up well to being tossed, flipped and turned. It absorbs flavor readily and can be crumbled to make a tofu scramble or blended to make a vegan ricotta. This tofu is also usually purchased in a plastic container in water.

What is extra firm tofu?

Extra firm tofu is also known as dry tofu. This has the lowest amount of water at under 76%. This tofu has a very chewy texture. It can be cut into thin slices and grilled, fried and baked and it holds its shape well. Extra firm tofu is not purchased in a rigid plastic container, rather it is usually packaged in a soft plastic unlike the other kinds of tofu which has a rigid plastic bottom to protect the tofu.

There are other kinds of tofu that can be purchased at the supermarket including smoked tofu, deep fried tofu and flavored tofus. These are usually on the firmer side.

Where to buy tofu?

Firm and silken (or soft) tofu is usually found in the chilled section of nearly all supermarkets with other vegan meats. Asian grocery stores also sell tofu. You can often buy it in bulk and it can be cheaper than in the supermarkets. The Asian grocery store is often a place to find more unusual tofu varieties. Health food stores often stock tofu. There are some shelf stable ones that are found on the shelf.

where to buy tofu

What does tofu taste like?

Tofu by itself has a very bland taste.  Soft or silken tofu has a very texture and can be very soft and smooth almost like jelly. The texture of raw firmer tofu can be a lot firmer and chewier. The tofu’s flavor is enhanced by marinating or coating in herbs spices. The texture can be altered by freezing and thawing and also through cooking.

Is tofu healthy?

Tofu is considered to be a healthy food for everyone to include in their diet. Tofu is made from a legume so it contains a high amount of protein per serving. Those with a soy allergy should avoid tofu. There is a lot of research to suggest that eating soy products can be beneficial at certain stages of life or can reduce the risks of some disease. Soybeans are often genetically modified. For this reason, many people prefer to choose GMO free or organic tofu.

How many calories are in tofu?

The amount of calories depends on the firmness of the tofu. This is because the water content is lower in firm tofu and it has been more compressed.

How much protein does tofu have?

Tofu is considered to be a high protein food. Protein amount  also depends on the firmness of the tofu. The firmer the tofu, the higher the protein content per serving. This is because there is a lower water content in firmer tofus.

How much fat does tofu have?

Generally tofu is considered a low fat food. The softer the tofu, the lower fat content per serving.

TYPE OF TOFU

CALORIES

PROTEIN

FAT

Silken or soft tofu

60 calories per 3 oz (85g) serving

5 grams of protein per 3 oz (85g) serving

3 grams of fat per 3 oz (85g) serving

Medium firm

60 calories per 3 oz (85g) serving

6 grams of protein per 3 oz (85g) serving

3 grams of fat per 3 oz (85g) serving

Firm

70 calories per 3 oz (85g) serving

7 grams of protein per 3 oz (85g) serving

4 grams of fat per 3 oz (85g) serving

Extra Firm

80 calories per 3 oz (85g) serving

8 grams of protein per 3 oz (85g) serving

4.5 grams of fat per 3 oz (85g) serving

Is tofu considered a low carb food?

A low carb or carbohydrate diet  is usually defined as a diet that contains less than 100-150 grams of carbohydrate a day. Tofu is considered a low carbohydrate food as there is approximately 2 grams of carbohydrate per 100 grams.

Other nutrients in tofu

Tofu is high in manganese, calcium, selenium and phosphorus.  It also contains copper, magnesium, iron and zinc. 

Zero waste tofu

Many people are concerned with the amount of plastic for each package of tofu. One way around this is to buy it in bulk. Many Asian grocery stores have blocks of tofu in a bucket full of water. The alternative is to make your own. When you make your own tofu, you can use the okara or the tofu skins and fiber for other dishes.

What is okara? 

When you are making your own tofu, you will be left with okara. Okara is the solid residue that remains after straining the blended up soybeans. It can be used in many recipes like patties, vegan crab cake, homemade burgers and even in baked goods. It has a high amount of protein and makes use of a byproduct of tofu making that might otherwise be thrown away.

How to make your own tofu

The principles of making your own tofu are simple however, making your own tofu requires a few tools and some good instruction.

Tools and ingredients you need to make your own firm tofu

A blender

This is a very important tool used to blend up the soybeans and the water. If you can, a high-powered blender is better.

Large pot with lid

A large pot with a lid is used to cook the soybeans and the water.

Fine mesh strainer

A strainer is used with the cheesecloth to separate the soy bean skins and fiber from the soy milk.

Cheesecloth

A cheesecloth is used to line the strainer so that you are able to sieve out as much of the soybean skins as possible. You will also need it to line your tofu mold.

Tofu mold

A tofu mold is a small container with holes in the bottom. The tofu curds are spooned into the mold lined with the cheesecloth. The lid is placed on the top and a weight is placed on the top of that. The weight pushes down on the tofu curds and the water drains through the holes in the bottom. This is not required for soft tofu.

Coagulate

This vital ingredient is added to the soy milk to help make the curds and whey. There are a number of different types. Choose the right one for the recipe you are following. Nigari and gypsum are common coagulants in tofu making.

Can tofu be frozen?

Firm tofus can be frozen, but you should be aware that this will change the texture of the tofu considerably. This is not necessarily a bad thing. When you freeze tofu, the water expands which increases the size of the pores within the tofu. Once the tofu is thawed, the tofu pores have enlarged to such a size that the water is no longer contained in the tofu. All of this water can be squeezed out. The texture is completely different and much spongier and chewier. The air pockets that remain in the tofu can now absorb marinades and flavor.

freezing tofu

Why press tofu?

Many recipes call for pressing firm tofu.  Getting rid of some of the water in the tofu allows for space to soak up marinades while still maintaining the texture of the tofu. The purpose for pressing tofu is to extract water out of the tofu. You can simply squeeze the tofu carefully with your hands over the sink. This is not the most effective way.

A better way is to wrap the block of tofu in a clean tea towel and place something heavy on it for at least 30 minutes. You can also slice the tofu and do the same thing. For those people who cook a lot of tofu, invest in a tofu press. The benefits of a tofu press is that it presses the tofu more quickly. There are many tofu presses available, but this one is especially good because it can manage tofu blocks of any size.

pressing tofu

How can firm tofu be used?

Firm tofu is extremely versatile and can be used in thousands of different ways. Here are some of the most common.

Marinating tofu

As discussed above, tofu has a very bland taste. You can easily flavor it up by marinating it. You will find hundreds of recipes online for different marinades which can give your tofu any type of flavor for any type of cuisine just like you would for meat . Once marinated, you can bake, fry or grill the tofu. Some even use raw marinated tofu as a feta replacement.

marinating tofu

Breading tofu

Tofu can be covered with bread crumbs, spices, flour and seasoning and friends or baked to make a crispy tofu fillet.

Tofu scramble

If tofu is crumbled up and fried with some other basic ingredients, it can be a good substitute for scrambled eggs.  Especially if you add kala namak, also known as Indian black salt at the end of cooking to give an egg-like flavor.

Tofu spread or dips

Firm tofu can be turned into a paste with other ingredients in the food processor to make a dip, spread or even a ricotta.

How is silken tofu used?

Silken or soft tofu is used in Asian desserts and cubed and added just before serving to some soups. It can also be added to smoothies to increase the amount of protein, and even blended up with some other ingredients to make dips, mayonnaise and sauces.

How is silken tofu used

What is tofu skin?

Tofu skin, or yuba as it is often called is not technically tofu as it has not been coagulated? Yuba is the skin that forms when the soymilk is cooking. This skin is carefully ladled off the saucepan, dried and used in some recipes.

How do you store tofu?

Tofu purchased in the refrigerated section of the supermarket will last for several weeks in the refrigerator unopened. Shelf stable tofu can be kept in the pantry until it is ready to use. Once opened it should be stored in a tightly sealed container and submerged in water for up to a week. The water should be changed at least every couple of days to maintain the texture and taste.

Is tofu expensive?

Tofu is slightly more expensive than beans and considerably cheaper than meat per gram of protein which means it is an excellent choice for those on a budget. One 14 oz pack of tofu is generally about $3.

Learn more about tofu

If this has inspired you to learn more about tofu, you might like to check out these highly rated cookbooks


Let's Discuss!

We'd love to hear from you!  Do you have any questions?   Want to share your favorite tofu tip, trick or recipe?  Write it down in the comments below!

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