Ingredient Spotlight: Tofu

So you've decided to open up to tofu. Often mistaken for a bland, unexciting substitution for meat, tofu is more than just a placeholder. It can make soups, sauces, and smoothies creamier and add new flavor to stir fries and even sandwiches. But do you know which type to buy?

Tofu is made by coagulating soymilk (heating it and causing it to curdle, with the use of salts, acids, or enzymes) and pressing the resulting solids (the curds) into blocks. Much like making cheese, the type of tofu dictates how much liquid (if any) is strained from the solids, and the texture of the final product. If you've ever made ricotta, you can understand the basic process of making tofu.

In Japan, restaurants and food vendors make their tofu by hand and each region is known for their own variety. In the U.S., you'll find at least one variety of tofu in grocery stores, and sometimes many more than that. Each has its own ideal uses and while it may not ruin your stir fry to use soft tofu instead of firm, your tofu appreciation will grow as you discover each type's secrets.

Silken tofu
This tofu has a lot of moisture. It's best used in dishes where the tofu will be blended with other ingredients or used as a thickener. It won't hold shape well on its own and has a creamy, soft texture. To make things extra confusing, silken tofu can be found in several consistencies, but don't confuse this with the regular, or Chinese-style tofu below.
DIY Chocolate Pudding - See the comments on this recipe for adapting it using silken tofu.
Silken Tofu and Carrot with Soy Ginger Sauce - This simple preparation has big flavors.
Raspberry, Pineapple, and Vanilla Smoothie - Silken tofu makes this fruit-filled smoothie extra creamy.

Regular or Chinese-style tofu
So-called regular tofu is the solid white block sold in liquid-filled containers you've seen next to the dairy case. Much of the liquid has been pressed out and the solids have been molded into a block. It's sold in liquid to help preserve freshness. Available in soft to firm consistencies, this tofu is best cooked in ways it can stand on its own.
Tofu and Vegetable Pot Pies - A vegan take on traditional pot pie, this recipe uses extra-firm tofu to add to the delicious vegetarian filling.
Bánh Mì with Lemongrass Tofu - Extra-firm marinated and pan fried tofu takes the place of pork in this Vietnamese sandwich.
Ma Po Tofu - A classic Szechuan dish using soft (not silken) tofu.

What kind of tofu do you like to use?

Related: Tofu Tour: Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, California

(Images: Flickr user House Of Sims licensed for use under Creative Commons)