Friday, September 01, 2006

Tofu can be tasty

Yes, tofu can be tasty. Unfortunately, it has a rather bad reputation, mostly from people who have tried to cook it on their own, and failed. I hope that this post and the ones that follow help you to figure out how to cook, bake, and do just about anything culinary with these blocks of wonder. Just read on and see what you're missing!
Crunchy Chocolate Truffle Pie, from Vegetarian Times magazine, October 2005 issue (Oh wow! This is possibly the best tofu dessert I have ever had. All of the people I tested this on (including in-laws, family, and co-workers) raved about it. Of course, I got the usual reaction when I mentioned that it had tofu in it... but at least they tried it!).

Pronunciation: "toe-foo"

What is it? (How it's made): Tofu is a bean curd made from what else - soybeans! The process, much like making cheese, involves curdling soymilk (with nigari or a type of salt).

It usually comes in a square, water-packed box. Traditional, or Chinese tofu must be refrigerated. It can range from extra-firm to soft. Japanese tofu, or silken, comes in a box that can sit on the shelf and requires no refrigeration. It too can range from firm to soft, but its texture makes it useful in different recipes than the traditional kind.

Here are some photos of different types of tofu (The first photos are two of the "silken" Japanese type that don't need refrigerating. The second photo is the firm Chinese style that does.)

History: Like many of these ancient foods, tofu's history is somewhat muddled. There are three theories as to its first creation, the most popular of which seems to be that tofu was accidentally created when a salt was added in an attempt to flavor soybeans. Writings of tofu appear as early as 900 A.D., but one theory has it created as early as 100 A.D. Another theory suggests that the Chinese attempted to make the bean curd after learning about cheese making processes from the nearby Mongols.

At any rate, we do know that tofu was popular in ancient China over 2,000 years ago. It was popularized further by the Buddhists' vegetarian lifestyle and spread throughout Asia and Japan. Westerners did not become familiar with tofu until the mid 20th century when, much like tempeh and other soy foods, tofu was brought into mainstream knowledge by the Adventists and other vegetarians. (Information from:,, and (Soyfoods Center).

Health benefits: High in protein, iron and calcium. Zero cholesterol! A good answer to the question of, "But what about your dairy?"

Myths and tips: My favorite quote comes from cookbook author, Sarah Kramer, in, "La Dolce Vegan!" (2005) She states, (in response to the statement: 'I hate the taste of tofu')- "That's ridiculous. Tofu on its own is bland but has the ability to take on the flavor of whatever ingredients it's cooked with. I think that what you're really saying is that you're afraid of trying new things. Get over it."

Sarah is correct. Every good cookbook will tell you that tofu is like raw chicken or flour. It doesn't taste good until you do something with it, because it's not meant to be eaten on its own! Its whole virtue is that it lacks an overwhelming flavor and takes on the flavors that you put it in. (On that note, I have always loved eating raw tofu- the firm kind only. I guess I am weird!)

Tips- Pressing/Draining: While the smooth, soft kind typically doesn't get "pressed," firm tofu is usually pressed to release the extra liquid. This helps it retain its shape while cooking and make the recipe less "mushy." I place a heavy can on top of the tofu (see photo below) and let it drain onto a paper towel and plate for about 30 minutes. You can also slice it horizontally and drain it this way more quickly.

Browning: When browning tofu cubes such as for a stir fry, turn them very gently. I often use a long-handled fork to turn each individual piece, to insure they brown on every side. If your tofu cubes crumble, then you either didn't drain it enough or you're turning it too frequently or too rough (See photos below).

Refrigeration: Once tofu is opened (either kind) it must be refrigerated for a max of five days. It must be kept submerged in water during this time, and it's recommended that the water be changed daily.

Common uses: You name it, you can make it with tofu! From sauces to stir-fries, from smoothies to lasagnas, tofu can do it. You can even make desserts with tofu! It can act like a binding agent, replacing eggs in vegan recipes, as a filler as in stuffed vegetables or as a meat-replacement as in stir fries. The possibilities are endless!