A Guide to Tofu
Meet the multi-talented powerful plant protein that’s anything but a suppertime stand-in.
What is tofu?
Tofu is coagulated soy milk that comes in a variety of forms, which is dependent on where and how the tofu is produced. Silken tofu is set directly in the container it’s packaged in, whereas block tofu is pressed to extract moisture—the longer it’s pressed, the firmer it becomes.
Where does tofu come from?
Tofu originated in China thousands of years ago and is an integral ingredient in many of the cuisines of East and Southeast Asia, from Japan to Korea to Taiwan to Vietnam.
What does tofu taste like?
The base flavour of all grades of tofu is very mild. Often described as reminiscent of soya beans, or slightly sour or nutty. The fact it’s stored in water further dilutes its subtle flavour. Tofu’s high water percentage gives it its spongy, absorbent properties, which means it easily absorbs the flavour of sauces it’s cooked or served with.
Types of tofu
Silken, or Japanese-style tofu, will fall apart if over-handled due to its delicate properties. More delicate than block tofu, silken tofu requires delicate handling so it doesn’t fall apart. It’s often whizzed up with the flavouring and then drizzled on the dish, used in sauces, smoothies and desserts, or simply sliced and served on a bed of rice or noodles.
Regular, or Chinese-style tofu, is often used in place of ricotta cheese or as a substitute for scrambled egg, crumbled or mashed and is great for stir-fries, battered or baked.
Firm is the standard for tofu, and is purchased in a solid block without too much water or give. Its texture means it can be handled without falling apart and it can be baked, boiled, fried, battered, stir-fried or deep fried, whatever the recipe dictates.
Extra-firm and super-firm tofu are pressed longer to compact the curds and remove more of the water. Prepare however the mood takes you when you want the protein element of your dish to be able to stand its ground.
How to use tofu
Tofu is a very versatile and easy-going ingredient that will gladly take on the personality of the dish it’s destined for. It can be enjoyed raw or cooked, warm or cold, whole, sliced, crumbled or grated and cooked however you decide to prepare the rest of its plate-mates.
Throw it in a casserole, frying pan, wok or saucepan, put it on the griddle, in a blender or under the grill to provide the protein portion of your meal.
How to prepare tofu
The preparation of tofu generally depends on the meal, but there are certain considerations to be made regardless of your plans.
First, select the right firmness and then assess whether you need to remove any of the water content. Tofu is 85% water, which makes it very healthy, low fat and flexible, but also resistant to some techniques like marinating, and it can dilute your dinner by releasing water on heating up.
Use cans, weights, a recipe book, brute force or a dedicated tofu press to squeeze excess moisture from the block to make it firmer and also more absorbent. Knowing how to make Tofu is also a skill that can give you greater control over what ends up on your plate.
Where to buy tofu
Tofu has long been sourced in Chinese or Japanese supermarkets and whole foods stores, but, due to the surge in popularity for plant-based diets, tofu is now widely available in most supermarkets. Head for the refrigerated shelves in the produce section or find it with the natural, “free from”, fresh vegetarian meals, dairy, world or Asian foods.
How to store tofu
Tofu usually comes in water, so once opened it should be immersed in fresh, preferably filtered water, which is changed regularly. If left to dry out, your tofu will soon curdle.
If purchased from the refrigerated section, the tofu must be kept chilled, but if bought in aseptic packaging from the grocery aisles, it can be kept in the store cupboard until opened.
Once opened, and as long as it’s refrigerated and covered in fresh water, tofu will last three-to-five days. The leftovers of a tofu-based dish will keep in the fridge for several days as long as it’s stored in an airtight container.
Can you freeze tofu?
Tofu can be frozen, and will last three-to-four months in the freezer. However, due to its high water content and the ice particles that develop within the protein on freezing, it will not defrost to the same texture.
Frozen tofu is, however, great for stir-frying, as it really crisps up and increases in absorbency, which also makes it great in marinades and stews.
Freezing tofu as a whole block will take longer to thaw, so we suggest slicing it into chunks and storing in a container or plastic bag.
When not to use tofu
Soy is one of the most common allergies, with symptoms ranging from itching and wheezing to abdominal pain, so steer clear of tofu if soy products are a no-no.
Complimentary herbs and spices
Tofu’s chilled-out nature means it tastes great with a multitude of ingredients. But, in general, the better seasoned or spiced, the more flavourful your tofu protein will be, so concentrate on your plans for the dish and your tofu will tow the line.
It’s particularly receptive to pungent spices like cayenne, curry and garlic, fresh ginger, lemongrass and oregano. Another way to infuse those flavours is to marinate in a spice or herb oil, or coat in cornflour and dry-fry in a spiced pan.
Substitutions for tofu
Tofu’s versatility means if you’re not enjoying it, a quick fix is to flavour or cook it more to your taste. But there are other protein-rich plant-based ingredients with all the benefits of tofu if you want to explore another option.
Why not try tempeh – it’s got a similar constitution to tofu and absorbs flavours just as well – or seitan is another protein that’s formed from the wheat gluten removed from dough by rinsing, before cooking to form low-calorie protein pieces.