I love tofu, but I haven’t always felt this way. I had to fail at tofu many times before I learned to prepare it in many tasty ways and appreciate its versatility.
Lance always liked tofu in miso soup, but I give credit to Scrambled Tofu for fully recruiting him to Team Tofu. Dave will eat it too, usually with seitan chorizo in a burrito. If you are skeptical about the taste, texture, or mere idea of tofu, try the scramble. The texture and taste are very similar to (and in my opinion, better than) scrambled eggs. If you don’t like it, we’ll help you eat it.
This 4-pound block of tofu is from Common Ground Co-Op.
It is extra-firm, fresh, and huggable.
Tofu can be used in a lot of ways. It can take on a “meaty” when grilled or fried. As a nutritious, low-fat, and cholesterol-free source of complete plant-based protein, it can stand in for meat in sandwiches, stir fries, kebabs, soups, stews, casseroles, or just eaten on its own.
One of my favorite tofu preparations is to simply slice and grill extra-firm tofu on my Breville Panini Press. I marinate the slices on a cutting board with a simple mixture like tamari, sesame oil, and a few drops of liquid smoke. The oil isn’t necessary for my press because it’s nonstick, but if you’re grilling this outdoors, you will want to start with a very clean and well-oiled grill grate and use some oil in your marinade. It’s fun to skewer larger chunks of marinated tofu and grill them kebab-style.
I like to let Lance blend his own spices and use them on his food. He gets to know flavor and spice, and a sprinkle of “Lance’s Special Seasoning” works like magic to get him to eat all sorts of vegetables. Tofu is the perfect “blank canvas” to let him test new flavors. Getting your kids used to a wide range of flavors at an early age is likely to make them more adventurous eaters. They might even turn into better cooks – and be more likely to eat a larger variety of healthy foods throughout their lives.
You might end up with a kid like Lance who asks for the Frank’s Red Hot, sriracha, Cholula, and Tabasco. But I digress! Back to tofu. Wanna try some?
It can be intimidating to crack open that odd little watery plastic tub and pull out a wiggly block of… whatever it is. Tofu is simply coagulated soy milk that forms a curd – a bean curd.
If you’re new to tofu, it helps to have some bean curd background.
Tofu comes in two types: “regular” and silken. Regular tofu is just soy milk that’s coagulated (like cheese) to form curds, which are then pressed into blocks. It’s firm and slightly brittle, almost like cheese. This type of tofu is most suitable for slicing, crumbling, or cubing. This is the variety you want for frying, baking, grilling, skewering, stuffing, simmering, or scrambling. Regular tofu comes in varying degrees of firmness, from medium to super-firm. I have found that the extra-firm is the most versatile, but use what your recipe suggests.
“Silken” tofu is made with a different process, resulting in a smooth and more gelatinous texture. Silken tofu is more suited for dishes in which the tofu is pureed to a creamy consistency. I use silken tofu in recipes, and it’s a key ingredient salad dressings, sauces, and yummy vegan desserts like Maple Pecan Pie and Vegan Chocolate Mousse.
Silken tofu is usually packaged in aseptic cartons which do not require refrigeration, so it might be located in a different section of the store than regular tofu.
Tofu must be drained and (usually) pressed. If you’re using regular tofu (not silken) the first thing you want to do is pour off the water in which the block of tofu was stored. Then you need to press out some of the water that is still in the block. Pressing helps the tofu absorb more of your marinade and gives it a firmer texture when cooked.
A simple pressing technique is to slice the block into pieces about 1/2 inch thick (or however thickly you want it sliced to grill, fry, or bake). Place the slices on a clean white dishtowel (not terry cloth) or paper towels, and press the slices firmly but gently with another towel to blot out the excess water. I’ve found that my favorite kind of tofu from Common Ground Co-op (pictured above) doesn’t contain a lot of water, so I can get by pressing it in this manner.
You can also set the block of tofu on a cutting board, and slice it in half so you have two flat rectangles. Place a clean dishtowel (or several paper towels) on top of the tofu and top with another cutting board of flat plate. Weight the plate down with a few books or heavy cans, and place it in a sink or area where the water can drain off. You can press it for as long as you’d like, but it should usually be pressed for at least a half hour if you really want to remove a lot of water.
Regular tofu can also be frozen, right in its little pack of water. Freezing will change the texture of the tofu, making it more spongy and crumbly. I’ve made tofu taco filling with frozen tofu, and it looks just like ground beef taco filling.
When your tofu has been pressed, you’re ready to…
Marinate it! Tofu is very bland. If you’ve tried it straight out of the box and said, “I don’t like tofu” then you need to try it again and add some flavor. Tofu takes on the flavors of the marinade or sauce in which it’s cooked. I will eat it plain because I like the taste if it’s very fresh and extra firm, but I usually marinate and cook it.
There are a ton of tofu marinades out there, if you search for them on the web. (Here: five basic marinades to get you started.) You don’t need to look for a marinade that’s specific to tofu either, you can use your favorite marinade meant for meat. I’ve marinated tofu with steak sauce, and it tastes great grilled on a sandwich. The longer you leave your tofu in the marinade, the stronger the flavor will be. And if you have leftover marinade, you can always throw it in a hot pan and reduce it to a thick sauce to top your tofu.
Cook it correctly. My favorite ways to cook tofu are scrambling, grilling, dry-frying, and simmering.
Scrambling tofu is quick and easy. There are lots of recipes for it on the web and in cookbooks, but the scrambled tofu recipe I follow most often is from Savvy Vegetarian. I vary the vegetables I toss into my scrambles, but they always contain tofu, onion powder, garlic powder, black pepper, white pepper, turmeric (for yellow color and “mustardy” flavor), tamari or soy sauce, and nutritional yeast. Sometimes I don’t even measure ingredients, I just eyeball and season to taste.
Grilling tofu is easy on an indoor or outdoor grill. I like to add a little liquid smoke to indoor grilled tofu, but it’s not necessary for outdoor grilling. As stated above, keep your outdoor grill clean and oiled to avoid sticking, or use a nonstick grill basket. You could also use one of those baskets meant for grilling fish, so you could turn all your tofu slices at once. I haven’t tried this, but it seems like it would work.
For the texture and flavor of tofu used in Chinese restaurant dishes, dry-fry your extra-firm tofu, then add a marinade. Dry-frying removes a lot of the water from the tofu as it cooks, and it results in a crispy, chewy exterior. It will really soak up the flavor of a marinade. And it’s a great low-fat way to prepare tofu, which is already a relatively low-fat food.
I like to simmer cubes of super-firm tofu in Indian dishes to simulate the texture and flavor of paneer. We eat a lot of Indian food that we make at home, and tofu is a good way to add protein to our dishes. I cut the tofu into 3/4 – 1 inch cubes and add it near the end of cooking. Stir the pot gently to avoid breaking up the tofu cubes. I’ve also had success placing tofu cubes in to-go containers when dividing the leftovers out into lunches for the week. I just ladle warm sauce over the tofu cubes, and they marinate in the refrigerator and during reheating. By the time I eat the dish later in the week, they’re infused with flavor.
Tofu cubes are also a great addition to curries and soups. We love miso soup made with small cubes of tofu, and curries with tofu cubes cut about the same size as the veggies.
But is tofu good for you? I’ve heard that soy is bad, causes cancer, will “turn you gay”, etc. There is a lot of conflicting information circulating around about the healthfulness of soy, but many of the arguments against soy consumption are based on sketchy evidence, or from studies hand-picked to show a desired conclusion. Many articles warning about the alleged dangers of soy are put forth by individuals or organizations who have economic interests in promoting a meat-centric diet. It’s important to scrutinize the scientific methods and funding sources behind all nutritional recommendations, especially for or against specific foods. I’m talking about animal products too. There’s plenty of research out there! For me, the most consistent and strongest conclusions point to the health of a vegan diet.
(I am not a doctor, so it’s important to talk to your doctor if you have specific questions of adverse reactions to soy, because there are some medical conditions like goiter in which soy should be avoided.)
Thankfully, most reputable studies show that whole soy foods can be a healthy, beneficial part of a well-balanced diet. The key is to consume soy in its less-processed forms – such as tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame, and soy milk. Fermented and sprouted soy products like miso, tempeh, and sprouted tofu are living foods with active enzymes which make them easy to digest.
I try to avoid highly-processed soy protein isolates. They are present in a lot of highly-processed vegan meats and cheese substitutes. And because soybeans are among the most highly-genetically-engineered food products, I always buy organic soy foods.
Some of the most long-lived people in the world, the Okinawans, eat soy every day in the form of miso and tofu, and not processed soy products. It can’t be said enough: eat real, whole, unprocessed foods whenever possible. (For more information on Okinawans and other long-lived populations, read The Blue Zones by Dan Buettner.)
I hope you’ve learned something about tofu. It’s nutritious, versatile and easy to keep on hand in your refrigerator (regular-type) or pantry (silken). I hope you also learn to love tofu, if you don’t already. It will love you back.