A delicacy in Asian cuisine for over 2,000 years, tofu is now a go-to staple of vegan and health-conscious diets here in the 21st century.
Widely regarded as a super-food, tofu is popping up in everything from street-food dishes to the menus of Michelin-starred restaurants. However, it’s still misunderstood as an ingredient and is often labeled bland and boring.
In this article, we’ll discover that tofu is anything but bland and, as an ingredient, it can form the basis of all manner of exciting and delicious recipes.
Like many of the soy foods that are trending in vegan diets, tofu originated in China. According to legend, its invention was a complete accident.
The story goes that over 2,000 years ago, a Chinese cook mistakenly added nigari seaweed to the soybean dish they were preparing, which curdled the soybean milk. The resulting curds were then pressed together, and low and behold, tofu – or doufu – was invented.
While the Chinese kept their tofu secret for a few hundred years, it was eventually introduced in Japan in the eighth century. From then on, its popularity across East Asia skyrocketed, with tofu becoming a central ingredient in countless recipes.
Here in the West, we’ve been slow to cotton on to the wonders of tofu. It only started to gain popularity in the US and Europe in the late 1960s as interest in healthy eating surged. Fast forward four decades, and tofu is enjoying quite the renaissance here in 2021.
How Tofu’s Made
The tofu that we know today is still prepared in the same traditional way as it once was in Ancient China, albeit on a much larger scale to meet the demands of mass consumption.
The product is made from ground soybeans that have been soaked in water to create milk. This soybean milk is then heated and combined with a coagulant like magnesium, calcium, or good old nigari seaweed to form curds and whey.
At this stage, the curds are either separated from the whey and pressed to form block tofu, or both the curds and whey are solidified to form silken tofu, aka kinugoshi-dofu.
Since tofu is such a pure foodstuff, being prepared with just a few healthy ingredients, with a bit of patience, tofu can easily be made at home too.
How Many Types of Tofu are there?
There are actually a number of different types of tofu available today, especially if you class tofu skins and flavored pre-packaged tofu as different types. In this article, though, we’ll just be focusing on the two types that you’ll most likely encounter as a home cook: Block Tofu and Silken Tofu.
As the name suggests, this kind of tofu is the type you’ll find packaged in blocks in the grocery store’s refrigerated section. Block tofu is pressed soybean curds, and it’s most commonly used to make high-temperature recipes.
Block tofu is available in different levels of firmness:
- Soft to Medium, which has been pressed to form a block but still has a high to medium moisture content. Its smoother texture means that it doesn’t hold up well when cooked at a high temperature, so it’s better suited to noodle and soup dishes, like miso soup.
- Firm and Extra Firm, which is pressed for a longer time during the preparation stage. The difference between firm and extra firm is sometimes non-existent, but extra firm tofu is generally pressed for the longest. This is the tofu that’s used as a meat substitute, and its denser texture makes it suitable for baking, grilling, frying, and even deep-frying.
Silken tofu is a more delicate tofu, and it’s the type that you’ll find on the shelves of the grocery store. As mentioned above, silken tofu isn’t pressed in the way that block tofu is, so it has a lighter and creamier texture that can easily be spooned or whipped.
Somewhat confusingly, silken tofu is also available in different firmness levels, from soft to firm. However, even firm silken tofu has a completely different texture to block tofu, so it won’t work as a substitute.
Soft silken tofu is best used raw in pasta sauces and mayonnaise, while firm silken tofu can handle light frying and fermenting.
Cooking with Tofu
There are several reasons why you would try cooking with tofu. First of all, it’s a very healthful ingredient, with just 73 calories and a substantial 8.1g of protein per 100g serving. Secondly, it’s wonderfully versatile, not just as a meat substitute in vegetarian and vegan dishes but also as a stand-alone ingredient.
The success of any tofu dish is all in the preparation. Let’s review some of the steps to take to get your tofu ready for cooking:
- Draining – All tofu blocks come packaged with water, so you will need to drain them before you begin. The easiest way to drain tofu is to slit the packet along the side to get the water out.
- Salt-Soaking – If you’re planning to bake, grill, or fry your block tofu, soaking it for 15 minutes in saltwater will result in a much crispier crust when it’s cooked.
- Pressing – Due to tofu’s high moisture content, even the most extra-firm blocks need to be pressed before you can start to cook with them. Using a Tofubud tofu press will significantly reduce pressing time; otherwise, you can go the old fashioned route and press your tofu with a weight and paper towels.
A Kitchen Staple
Now that you’re a bit more clued up about the different types of tofu and how you can prepare and cook them, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to whip up all sorts of tasty tofu dishes. Once you start cooking with tofu, you’ll realize just how versatile this soybean curd is, and it will quickly become a kitchen staple!