Photos by Lindsey Johnson
Tofu is a rather misunderstood ingredient in the culinary world. There are tofu lovers, and there are plenty of tofu haters. But what’s interesting about tofu, versus other foods that divide, is that many haters eventually make leap to lovers. Really! Don’t believe me? Go ask some of your most devoted tofu fans how they felt about it on first taste. For most, myself included, the key to loving your tofu is all in getting to know it – what it is, how to prepare it and how to eat it.
So let’s first talk a bit about what tofu is. At some point around my first tofu experience (you know, the one where I decided I didn’t like it), I was informed that tofu is soy curds. Yeah, not really the type of description that might entice one to fall in love with the stuff. But in essence, tofu is a lot like cheese, and cheese is easy to love.
- Saturate some soybeans with water.
- Blend until smooth.
- Strain out the soybean pulp – what you end up with is soymilk.
- Add a coagulant – i.e., curdling agent, hence “soy curds.” This could be something as simple as lemon juice. The more coagulant you use, the more separation you get, and in turn, the firmer your tofu.
- Strain out the liquid and keep the solids.
- Press solids to remove excess liquid and achieve desired firmness. Again, more pressing removes more water to yield a firmer ‘fu.
If you’ve ever made ricotta cheese or paneer, these steps probably sound pretty familiar. After step 3, which results in soy milk, it’s essentially the same process as cheese-making, and just as easy to execute. If you’d like to give this a try, we’ve even got a tofu-making tutorial!
More important than the basic process and ingredients that go into making tofu, are the different types of tofu. Choosing the right type and knowing what to do with it is key. That first bad tofu experience of mine that I mentioned above? It involved (on poor advice) putting extra firm tofu into a strawberry milkshake. Don’t do that.
Silken or Japanese Tofu
As the name implies, silken tofu has a silky-smooth texture that’s less, uh…curdy than other varieties. This is because silken tofu has the highest moisture content. Unlike other varieties, silken tofu isn’t pressed. When you open a package of silken tofu, you’ll find a semi-solid, somewhat gelatinous, custardy material that fills the entire container and needs to be scooped out. Because of the high moisture content, it’s the most delicate and least sturdy of your tofu types. In fact, if you tried to pick up a chunk of silken tofu with a fork, it would probably fall to pieces, so it’s not the type of tofu that you’d want to pan-fry or bake. Instead, silken tofu works much better when blended to a creamy desserts and dressings. Silken tofu is the type you’d want to blend into a smoothie.
If you dine on tofu at a Japanese restaurant, there’s a good chance you’ll get this type of tofu. Because it doesn’t stand up to common tofu cooking methods, it’s usually served as uncooked cubes in sauce or sometimes deep fried.
You’ll sometimes hear the “soft tofu” used interchangeably with “silken tofu,” but when you’re out shopping you’ll want to pay attention to these labels, as they mean different things. Soft tofu undergoes some pressing to remove water – just not a whole lot. Unlike silken tofu, soft tofu is sold as a block and is packed in water. Even though it’s soft and has a high moisture content, soft tofu doesn’t have the creamy-smooth texture of silken tofu. Something of a hybrid between silken and firmer varieties in that respect, soft tofu is probably the variety that is called for least often in recipes, though it can work as a substitute for silken tofu where a thicker texture is desired. A whole lot of blending will yield a smoother texture that’s still a bit denser than silken varieties, which I actually sometimes prefer.
Firm and Extra-Firm Tofu
These are the types of tofu you’re most likely to eat for dinner and are probably the most widely used types. These varieties have the lowest moisture contents, with extra-firm having less mositure than firm. This is because they undergo the most pressing and separation (meaning they are prepared using more coagulant). You can eliminate even more water by pressing your tofu before cooking – you can follow our tutorial, or buy a tofu press, which we highly recommend if you use tofu often! It’s less messier, more convenient, and gives better results. Less water is a good thing when you’re looking for a crispy outside texture. You’ll even hear tofu enthusiasts sometimes discuss their favorite hacks for removing water beyond the initial pressing. Pre-baking, microwaving and soaking in salt water have all been claimed to yield that perfect crispy outer surface. I generally just plan ahead and let my tofu press for an extended period when I’m going for crispy perfection. Pan frying, baking, and scrambling are all great uses for firm and extra-firm tofu.
Firm and extra-firm tofu can go even a step further. Tofu with names like “super-firm” or “extra-extra firm” are popping up on store shelves. These varieties seem to work best when pan-fried, as they’re a bit too dense to crumble well. One advantage to using these is that the water content is so low to begin with that usually no additional pressing is needed. Just pat dry with a paper towel and you’re good to go.
Specialty Tofu Types
Some more exotic tofu varieties are popping up on store shelves and across the web as of late. Some are made with soybeans, in accordance with the strict definition of “tofu,” while others use some other type of curd.
Black tofu, which is actually purple in color, is one variety you might have seen in the refrigerator case of a health food or specialty store. This is the same as regular old tofu, just made with black soybeans, whereas conventional tofu is made from yellow soybeans. It’s a bit smoother and higher in protein than yellow soybean tofu, but otherwise very similar and can be used in the same ways. Same goes for sprouted tofu—it’s the same as regular old tofu, but made with sprouted soybeans.
Tips for Tofu Newbies
If you’re trying tofu for the first time, you might not want to prepare it yourself. Head out to a good vegetarian or Asian restaurant, as both are likely to have lots of tasty tofu options. This will give you an idea of what tofu should taste like, so you have something to shoot for when you give it a try on your own. There are also lots of packaged tofu options that require little or no preparation. Scope out the tofu section of your local health food store and you’ll likely find varieties that are cooked and seasoned for you. These are great for throwing on sandwiches and into salads and should help to give you an idea of what flavors you like in your tofu.
When you do decide it’s time to venture out and make your first home-cooked tofu dinner, follow a trusted recipe (we’ve got tons!) and follow it closely. I know this seems like common sense, but seasoned cooks in particular are often guilty of assuming they’ve got things figured out and winging it. As an ingredient, tofu is in a class by itself, so best to start by playing it safe. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on all the tofu love that’s out there to be had.