Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Tofu

updated Jan 22, 2020
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Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

Okay, chances are you know what tofu is. It’s that white stuff that you often find in stir-fries, or that vegetarians put on sandwiches. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Tofu has been around for a while. It may be the original meat substitute. And it’s incredibly versatile — there are all kinds of tofu out there, and it can be used in all sorts of ways. If you haven’t really cared for tofu in the past, chances are that you just didn’t find the kind for you! So if you’re looking to cut back on your meat intake, and want to make sure you’re getting protein, here’s everything you need to know about one of the most popular meat substitutes.

What is Tofu?

Tofu is an ancient food that turns soybeans into a convenient, easy-to-digest meat alternative. The familiar white block of tofu is beloved in its countries of origin, but has been making inroads in the American lifestyle since the 70’s. To make tofu, whole soybeans are cooked in water, then ground up and strained. This makes soymilk. Tofu is then made by “coagulating” the solids back out of the milk, much like a fresh cheese is made from milk. There are a few methods for making tofu, each originating in a different place and creating a different result. 

To make Chinese-style, “cotton” tofu, the soymilk is coagulated with Nigari — made from the minerals left over after sea water has been evaporated. Other coagulants, like gypsum, Epsom salts, and even vinegar or lemon juice are also used. Many manufacturers create their own distinctive products by formulating their own combination of coagulants for their recipe.

Curds of tofu form and are scooped into a square mold, leaving behind much of the water from the milk. To make Japanese-style silken tofu, a coagulant is added that thickens the milk like a firm pudding, instead of separating the tofu from the water. Chinese style, cotton tofu has a spongy, porous texture, and comes in several levels of firmness, from soft to extra firm, depending on how much water has been pressed out of the block.

Tofu-making has spread to all corners of the world, as more people discover the benefits of cooking and eating this enigmatic white cube-like food. Tofu is a versatile and inexpensive source of protein. Four ounces firm tofu has nine grams protein and only 80 calories. 

Where did tofu originate?

The earliest record of a form of tofu (called Doufu) is in 950 AD China. Like many ancient foods, tofu-making goes back beyond written history. There are several theories about its origins, a long-held one is that it was a lucky discovery when soymilk was mixed with sea water, and the mineral salts caused the proteins to coagulate and form curds. Some scholars suggest another theory, that the method of curdling soy milk was inspired by the process used by nomads to make dairy cheese from milk. 

What’s the difference between tofu and other meat alternatives?

Tofu has long been described as “the meat with no bone,” not because it resembles meat but because of its high protein content. Tofu is often used to make meat alternatives, like hot dogs or a ground-beef substitute, but that requires some manipulation of the tofu by the cook. Because tofu is made from strained soymilk, it has no fiber and has a relatively smooth texture. And because tofu has been around for so long, it has a long history of recipes and dishes specifically for it — something that more recently developed meat alternatives lack. 

What does tofu taste like?

Tofu is mild, slightly beany, with a consistency ranging from custard to a semi-firm cheese. However, each  type of tofu has subtle nuances of flavor. The coagulant makes a difference, and nigari tofu has a hint of bitterness, while tofu coagulated with calcium sulfate tastes sweeter. While Westerners often think of tofu as bland, people who grow up eating tofu often appreciate the slight sweetness, the hint of flavor from the coagulant, and the texture of their favorite freshly made tofu. 

Where can I find tofu?

Most US grocery stores carry at least one kind of tofu in a refrigerated case, often near the dairy products, or in the produce section by the Asian vegetables. Boxes of silken tofu floating in a small amount of water can be found on the shelf in the Asian foods section. Additionally a drier form of firm, pre-marinated baked tofu is also widely sold in US grocery stores.

Visit an Asian market, and the options are much wider. You’ll find pressed and baked slices of tofu, seasoned or unseasoned, pre-fried cubes and slabs of tofu, tofu noodles, tofu “skin” or sheets, and more. Small jars of fermented tofu are also available, usually in red or white varieties, which are intensely flavored and usually used more as a condiment. You can even make fermented tofu at home

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

How do you prepare tofu?

You can approach tofu in two ways. The first is to honor the long tradition of tofu cookery and explore Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and other cuisines that have been preparing tofu for centuries. Try Japanese miso soup with silken tofu, fried Agedashi tofu with grated ginger and dipping sauce, or Teriyaki tofu. Chinese favorites like ma po tofu, stir fried tofu dishes of infinite variety, and hot and sour soup always work. Vietnamese, Thai, Indonesian, and other Asian cuisines offer distinctive and tasty specialties, and you can’t miss with old-school tofu dishes.

The second way to approach tofu is to use it as a malleable, blank canvas. Tofu can be puréed and formed into hot dogs, transformed into “cheesecake,” or seasoned for a salad dressing. Crumbled firm tofu can transform into taco “meat,” or used as a breakfast scramble. Or it can be simmered in spaghetti sauce. Marinate and bake it, and you can slap it in a sandwich or put it on pizza. You can even cube or slice extra firm tofu and put it on the grill, for a smoky flavor. Crumble it and make burgers or “meatballs” from it, or season it with vinaigrette for a salad topping or sandwich filling.

Credit: Ghazalle Badiozamani; Food Styling: Jesse Szewczyk

The Best First Recipe to Make with Tofu

Robin Asbell is an author, educator and natural foods chef who creates luscious, feel-good food, blogs at her website, and posts luscious food photos on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. She writes for newspapers and magazines and is the author of 11 cookbooks, most recently Plant Based Meats.

Your turn: Do you eat tofu regularly? What’s your favorite way to prepare it? Tell us in the comments, below.