What Is Tofu, Exactly? A Brief Introduction to the Basics of Tofu

Tofu Basics

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Some may think of tofu as the domain of vegetarians and health conscious folks, but it has a long history as a staple in Asian cuisine. Invented in China about 2000 years ago, tofu then spread to Korea, Japan, and other parts of Asia. In such cultures it is a distinct and nuanced ingredient, not simply a bland meat substitute. Tofu is also high in protein, low in calories, and low in fat.

But what is tofu, exactly?

What Is Tofu?

Made from soybeans, tofu is also known as bean curd. When making tofu, the first step is when dried soybeans are ground with water and turned into milk. Then, in a process similar to cheesemaking, the hot milk is curdled, in this case with coagulants like salts, acids, or enzymes. The curds are then pressed into cakes or blocks and the liquid whey is drained out.

→ See how tofu is made: Hodo Soy Beanery in Oakland, California

Where Do I Find It and How Do I Store It?

Found in the refrigerated section of your grocery store, blocks of tofu are usually packed in tubs of water or sometimes vacuum-sealed. Silken tofu may be packed in aseptic boxes that do not require refrigeration.

Check the best-by date when purchasing tofu. Once opened, you'll want to use it within a few days or freeze it.

In addition to fresh block tofu, there are other forms such as fermented tofu, fried tofu, frozen tofu, tofu skin, and tofu pudding. Tofu can even be shredded and turned into noodles.

If you love tofu, especially handmade or artisanal tofu, it can taste far from boring. That said, one of tofu's great qualities is its subtlety and versatility as it takes on the flavors of whatever you cook it with.

In the next installment of this series we will look at the different textures of tofu and how to use them.

More posts in this series

Tofu Basics

(Image credits: Jiri Hera/Shutterstock; Dana Velden)

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Emily Han (formerly Emily Ho) is a writer, recipe developer and educator on topics such as food preservation, wild food and herbalism. She is author of Wild Drinks and Cocktails (Fall 2015), co-founder of Food Swap Network and creator of Miss Chiffonade