All About Silken Tofu: An Interview with Andrea Nguyen

Expert Interview

When reader babygrace requested a post about silken tofu, I knew we would have to consult Andrea Nguyen, author of the outstanding new cookbook Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home. Andrea happily obliged, explaining what makes silken tofu different from regular tofu and sharing plenty of tips for buying, storing, and cooking this versatile ingredient.
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7 Questions for Andrea

How is silken tofu different from regular tofu?

One difference is appearance. When you buy a regular block of tofu, it's typically sitting in a moat of water. Silken tofu generally is not. [Note: It's often sold in aseptic containers like the one pictured here.] When you cut it, you'll notice it's very soft and smooth.

Another difference is how it's made. Making regular tofu entails pressing the soy curds and separating them from the whey. For silken tofu, there is no separation or pressure exerted, and it's often solidified right in the container. The name silken tofu reflects the traditional Japanese process of molding the tofu in silk-lined fabric.

Finally, there's a taste and texture difference. Silken tofu has a pudding-like quality. It's very light in texture with a wonderful, creamy mouthfeel and fatty flavor that comes from making it with denser, richer soy milk. It's like the difference between using low-fat milk and cream.

What are some great uses for silken tofu?

Silken tofu can be served cold, room temperature, warm, or hot; used in simple, no-cooking-required recipes; cut up and dropped into cooked dishes; and manipulated into dressings.

Hiya yakko: In the warmer months, you can make hiya yakko, a classic Japanese, no-cook dish. Cut silken tofu into cubes and top with ingredients like soy sauce, grated fresh ginger, scallions, shiso, and bonito flakes.

Soups: Delicate silken tofu is wonderful in miso soup or Korean jigae (stew). You can cut the tofu into cubes or, for an arty and rustic presentation, scoop it with a shallow metal spoon and make a little mound in the center of the dish. In my book I have a recipe for green edamame soup with cubes of silken tofu in the middle; it can be served cold or warm [image above].

Purées: Silken tofu is a great ingredient for creamy dips, dressings, and puddings.

Desserts: In the book, I have a recipe for tofu blancmange, contributed by chef Pichet Ong. It's a chilled silken tofu-based dessert topped with slow-roasted chunks of pineapple and lime zest [image below].

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Can you use silken tofu in stir fries?

I generally don't like to use it in stir fries because it falls apart. You want tofu to suck up the flavor, and silken tofu is non-porous so it doesn't do that as well.

There are certain kinds of tofu labeled "soft tofu" that are more jello-like in texture, and they may be used in braises and dishes like ma po tofu.

What should you look for when buying silken tofu?

When buying commercial tofu, look for organic, non-GMO brands. Japanese brands like Nasoya tend to make more tender, creamier silken tofu.

Look at the coagulants listed in the ingredients. Silken tofu made with glucono delta lactone is sturdier with a more bouncy, jello-like texture. It doesn't taste as creamy but it can be easier to work with. I personally prefer tofu made with magnesium chloride (nigari) and/or calcium sulfate (gypsum), which is softer. I liken this difference to mozzarella: some is more rubbery, some is more tender and delicate. Go out and try what's available to you and see what you like!

Also, check the "best by" dates on the packages and choose the one furthest out.

Do you need to drain and press silken tofu before using it?

First, unmold the tofu by running a knife along the edge. Then carefully drain it. You can let it drain on a plate and pour off the water. You can also drain it on paper towels or dishtowels but avoid waffle weave, as the tofu can get trapped in the towel! No pressing is required – it would just turn to mush.

How should you store leftover silken tofu?

You'll want to use silken tofu within a day or two. You can transfer it to a small bowl or keep it in the tub it came in, perhaps with a little extra water, cover it with plastic wrap, and refrigerate.

Like other kinds of tofu, you can also freeze it. Cut it into rectangles, freeze on a parchment-lined tray, and then transfer the frozen chunks to a plastic bag. When you defrost it, you can squeeze it slightly to press out some of the water. This frozen tofu will have a studier texture – still delicate but with a little chew. You can't use it for silkier, creamier recipes, but it works very well in soups or even stir fries.

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In your book, you have a recipe for making your own silken tofu. What are some of the advantages to doing this?

Traditionally, in Asia, people would have a neighborhood tofu maker, just like a bread baker, and buy it on a daily basis. Unfortunately, there are now fewer and fewer of these family operations and artisanal shops. However, there is still lots of good stuff at the supermarket nowadays, so I want to emphasize that you don't have to make your own.

That said, making tofu at home can be a fun DIY experience. You know where the ingredients are coming from and you can control the richness, perhaps making something more fatty, flavorful, and creamy. I like flavoring silken tofu with Meyer lemon zest, for example, which I learned from a tofu maker in Tokyo.

I would probably just use store-bought silken tofu if I were mashing it up. If I made my own, it would be for a really special dish, one where I wanted to highlight the pure expression of what tofu can be.

For more of Andrea's tips and recipes, check out her site Viet World Kitchen and her book Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home, $18.99 at Amazon

Thanks, Andrea!

Related: Asian Dumplings by Andrea Nguyen

(Image: Maren Caruso © 2012. Reprinted with permission from Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home by Andrea Nguyen, copyright © 2012. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.)

It's Reader Request Week at The Kitchn! This post was requested by babygrace.

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