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By the time you’ve arrived here as a Vegetarian Times reader, you’ve probably had your share of tofu. But if you’re new to your plant-based journey, you might be wondering what tofu is – and we’re here to help. Even an experienced tofu-consumer might wonder what to do with our favorite protein block, or curious about when to use which specific type. From silken to sprouted, here is what you need to know.
What Is Tofu?
Tofu, which you’ll also see referred to as bean curd, is a high-protein, low-calorie food made from soy beans. To make it, soy milk is coagulated with salt or acid and pressed until the curds hold together. How firmly pressed it is, among a couple of other factors, will determine what you see on the label (silken, firm, etc).
Unless you’re buying a flavored variety, tofu is general very mild in taste (though some versions sold in Asia are sometimes described as being more “beany” in taste). That quality is something cooks generally like about it, because it soaks up flavor from marinades, sauces, or during cooking.
Scholars believe tofu was first created about 2,000 years ago, during China’s Han dynasty. The most common story pegs Lord Liu An, member of the dynastic family, with its creation, but not everyone agrees. Custom of the time often credited any discovery made under a particular leader to that leader personally, so some say it could have been anyone living in Anhui province around 179 to 122 BCE. Another theory says Mongolians may have been the inventors, and yet another says it could have been an accidental discovery when salty sea water mixed with ground soybeans and spontaneously curdled into proto-tofu.
Eight Popular Types of Tofu to Know
Silken Ultra-smooth and jiggly soft, silken tofu is ideal for puréeing as a base for soups, dressings, dips, and sauces. It also makes excellent dessert puddings and pie fillings.
Soft Whenever you want curds or crumbles for scrambles, reach for soft tofu. Similarly, it can replace ricotta in lasagna or stuffed shells. Soft tofu can also be puréed, but the results will be thicker and heavier than what you’d get with silken tofu.
Firm The most versatile choice, firm tofu can go both ways. It crumbles well for scrambles or eggless salad, but blotted or pressed, it holds its shape as slabs or cubes.
Super-Firm or Extra-Firm Dense and dry, super-firm tofu is great in a variety of dishes. Try dropping cubes into into soups and stews, where it absorbs flavors without falling apart. Remember there’s no exact rules about what gets called firm, super, or extra, so you may have to experiment with brands to find your favorites.
Sprouted You won’t find chewy bits of sprouted soybeans in blocks of sprouted tofu, but you will find more nutrients, particularly calcium, iron, and vitamins D and K. It comes in an array of textures — silken, soft, firm, extra firm.
Baked Chewy, dense baked tofu is the most straightforward substitute for meat in stir-fries, casseroles, fajitas, sandwiches, and salads. It comes pre-seasoned in an array of flavors and doesn’t require pressing prior to use.
Skin Tofu skin is a bumpy, dense layer that forms during the production of soy milk. It gets skimmed off and dried to produce the product known as yuba. With a dense, chewy texture, it’s great for braising, wrapping, or using where you want to simulate the texture of shredded meat. If you have access to fresh skin, before drying, it can be used like noodles – or eaten just as it is.
Pudding Originating in China, where it’s referred to by a number of regional names including douhua, tofu pudding might be pretty similar to the earliest forms of tofu. And it’s still a tasty dish enjoyed around the world today. Loose clumps of jiggly, silky tofu are often served with sweet or savory condiments and preparations.
Does Soy Give You Cancer?
You may have heard of a link between soy and breast cancer. That concern has been largely cleared up in studies over the past decades. Soy isoflavone compounds are considered phytoestrogens; in the past there was concern high concentrations could increase cancer risk, but studies now show less cause for alarm. Some research has even suggested that consuming soy may decrease some cancer risks, but the findings are not yet conclusive.
“High isoflavone intake from soy foods in Asian countries (average range, 25 to 50 mg/day) has been suggested to contribute to reducing the risk of breast cancer,” states a report on soy from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. “In contrast, the incidence of breast cancer remains elevated in Europe, North America, and Australia/New Zealand where average isoflavone intakes in non-Asian women are generally less than 2 mg/day. Nevertheless, several hereditary and lifestyle factors likely also contribute to this difference.”
Ultimately, you should consult a health professional for guidance, particularly if you have thyroid health issues or have been diagnosed with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer.
In general, tofu and soy products are a perfectly safe and healthy food.
“Soy is an excellent source of plant-based protein and fiber. It’s low in saturated fat and can provide a more economical way to eat a balanced diet,” Amy K. Fischer, a registered dietitian, told Good Housekeeping. “It’s a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids, and is a rich source of B vitamins, fiber, potassium, and magnesium, among others.”
Do You Need a Tofu Press?
The first step of many tofu recipes involves pressing it – generally in paper towels or dish cloths – to squeeze out extra moisture that has soaked into the block. In recent years, there’s been a boom in kitchen gadgets designed to make this process easier. In our testing, the results aren’t dramatically different than pressing in towels, but the press does make the process somewhat tidier as all the liquid is captured in the device and there’s no single-use paper towel waste. Not a kitchen essential, but not bad if you’ve got the cabinet space and cook a lot of tofu or want to get into making your own. If you’re going to get one, we like the Tofuture brand, but there are a variety on the market.
Recipes to Try