(Approx. reading time 3 mins 50 secs)
Tofu is a staple of Asian cuisines, and it’s used in all sorts of vegetarian and vegan dishes. Your average meat-eating Westerner usually things of tofu as bland and a bad meat replacement. But tofu is so much more than that.
Tofu is incredibly versatile and can be used in savoury or sweet dishes, it comes in a variety of textures and even flavours. And it can easily and cheaply be made at home.
What is tofu?
Tofu is basically cheese made with soya milk. The milk is curdled, the curdles are pressed together so they liqued (whey) comes out, and the result is a block of tofu.
The process of making tofu, or bean curd, is very similar to that of ricotta, cottage cheese, paneer, or requeson. All you need is some soya milk and a coagulant. Two different kinds of coagulants can be used: salts or acids.
Salts are more commonly used commercially and they can be either gypsum (that makes a crumbly and high in calcium tofu) or nigari (that makes a smooth and high in magnesium tofu). Both of them can be used to make firm or extra firm tofu and they are sometimes combined to make different textures. Both salts can easily be bought online, from places like Amazon. And if you’re feeling a bit experimental, epsom salts or sea water can also be used to make tofu. You can buy tofu made with them but only from small producers.
The other coagulant is acids. The one used by commercial manufacturers is GDL or food additive E575. GDL is used to make soft tofu. GDL, or glucono delta-lactone, is harder to get hold of, but there are some specialist places that sell it online.
The other acids that can be used are vinegar or juices from citrus fruits. These are the easiest for home cooks to start experimenting with as they are readily available and they are cheap, but the tofu will be a bit grainier and sometimes with a slight acid flavour.
The different kinds of tofu?
Tofu comes in 3 different textures: extra firm, firm and soft. The extra firm and firm are good for slicing, the soft one has a pudding-like consistency.
These textures depend on how the tofu is processed after the coagulant is added. If the curds that form are strained from the whey, then firm tofus can be done. The less whey a tofu has, the more firm it will be. If the curds and the whey are all pressed together, then a soft tofu is produced.
Silken is another word that is usually used with tofu and usually confused with soft, but silken means that the tofu is smooth and jelly-like. Silken tofus can be anything from extra-firm to soft.
Combining different coagulants and processing methods allows for a massive variety of tofu, and different ones will usually have different names and they can be confusing for Westerners who didn’t grow up with them. When you’re just getting started with tofu stick to extra-firm, firm, soft and silken and you’ll be good to go. After a while, you will start learning when to use each and what you prefer.
Other tofu products
Besides basic tofu, a whole other range of tofu products can be found. In the West is hard to come across most of them unless you go to a large Chinese or Japanese shop.
- Aburaage or fried tofu: deep fried tofu, usually comes in cubes or strips.
- Marinated tofu: can be bought marinated or made at home.
- Flavoured tofu: tofu with different ingredients mixed in.
- Smoked tofu
- Thousand-layer tofu: frozen and thawed before cooking, easy to make at home by freezing a regular block.
- Pickled tofu
- Stinky tofu: fermented soft tofu.
- Tofu ‘meats’: processed products that resemble meats and are made with tofu.
- Tofu skin: not technically tofu, but a tofu by-product. Just like dairy milk, soya milk produces a skin when boiled. This skin left to dry becomes tofu skin.
If you don’t need to use all the tofu you have, you can store the leftovers in a plastic or glass container with water for 3 to 5 days. Leftover cooked tofu will last the same time, and can be stored with the meal it was prepared in.
Tofu can also be frozen and can last up to 6 months before developing freezer burn.
Cooking with tofu
Tofu has very little flavour, but its texture allows it to soak up in sauces and marinades. It can be used in sweet and savoury dishes, as a textural ingredient, or as a binder.
Tofu usually comes in liquid. If you want the tofu to be able to absorb a lot of flavour, you should press it before using it. You can use a tofu press or wrap the tofu with kitchen cloths and put something heavy on top (a baking tray with some cans works perfect).
Tofu can be eaten:
- Raw: tofu has already been cooked, so no further cooking process is required.
- Stir-fry: only firm and extra firm.
- Deep-fry: only firm and extra firm.
- Boiled (stews, soups, and sauces): tofu of all firmness levels can be stewed. Firmer tofus will retain their shape, while softer tofus will break down (and resemble egg drop soup).
Soy-free tofu alternatives
Tofu made with anything other than soy are not really tofu. However, it’s not uncommon to come across products that use the word tofu to refer to bland versatile tofu-like products, much like the word milk is used to talk about a lot of non-dairy plant-based drinks.
- Almond tofu: almond milk that’s been hardened with agar agar or sometimes gelatin. It looks like a white jelly and is often sweetened.
- Sesame and peanut tofu: both are made by grinding or blending the nuts or seeds with water and adding a starch so that the liquid hardens. Peanut tofu is usually made with sweet potato starch, and sesame tofu is usually done with kudzu (Japanese arrowroot) starch.
- Egg tofu: steamed eggs flavoured with dashi. It often looks like a short thick pale yellow sausage.
- Chickpea tofu or Burmese tofu: a block made using chickpea flour. It is very similar in flavour to the Italian farinada or Argentinian faina, but in block shape rather than flat.
- Rice tofu: same as chickpea tofu but made with rice flour instead.