For some, like myself and my family, tofu is a great addition or substitute in a huge variety of dishes, but for others (you tofu- haters know who you are) tofu is simply a tasteless, unnecessary addition to a meal. True, tofu doesn't have much flavor, and can be challenging to prepare if you don't know how or are afraid of it, but there are so many benefits to tofu. First off, it is a fantastic source of protein (and substance that helps fill you up) for those of us who eat little or no meat. Additionally, tofu has this amazing ability to take on flavors added to it, and can be used in almost any kind of preparation based on the type of tofu you select.
Before I sing the praises of tofu too much, I do want to point out that yes tofu is somewhat processed and I am always saying that we should look for foods that are minimally processed. So, I want to clarify. Not all tofus are created equally and depending on the tofu you purchase, some are "better" than others, making it much easier to purchase when you have some base knowledge. I strongly suggest non-GMO or organic tofu. Soybeans are the second most genetically modified crop in the US- a staggering 94% of the soybean crops in the US are GMO. GMO soybeans have been linked to liver issues, fertility issues, the huge increase in allergies or sensitivities to soy, and most importantly the danger of being exposed to large quantities of herbicides. So with that said, for me paying a tiny faction more for organic or non-GMO tofu is a worthwhile investment in my family's health.
Now for the fun stuff.
Let's start with what tofu actually is: tofu, which is also know as bean curd, is made when the curds of coagulated soy milk are pressed into blocks. Tofu dates back to at least 2000 years ago in China and is an important staple in Asian and Southeast Asian foods, which are known for their healthiness. Tofu is low calorie, yet extremely high in protein and is a great source of iron, calcium and magnesium. Thus a great meat alternative.
Shopping for tofu can be daunting however- have you noticed how many different kinds of tofu there are now? Which do choose- soft or silken? Does organic or non-GMO really make a difference? What is the difference between traditional or sprouted? Does it really need to be pressed? You are not alone in having all of these questions and feeling insecure. I will try to simplify it here, by breaking tofu down into the 6 most common categories.
Ultra-smooth (some might even say silky-smooth) and jiggly soft, silken tofu is ideal for pureeing as a base for soups, dressings, dips and sauces. It also makes excellent dessert puddings and pie fillings. Silken tofu whips up well and will feel light, airy and mousse like when you use a hand or stand mixer. I also often use silken tofu as a substitute for plain yogurt in smoothies or desserts.
Whenever you want curds or crumbles for scrambles or egg-like salads, soft tofu should be your go-to. I often use soft tofu as a substitute for ricotta when preparing lasagna (see recipe for eggplant lasagna) and spinach-artichoke dips. Soft tofu can also be pureed, but will be thicker and heavier than silken tofu
Firm or Extra-Firm Tofu
This is the most versatile choice and one that is a staple in my fridge. It crumbles well for scrambles or eggless salads, or when blotted or press it holds its shape in slabs or cubes. I often sauté cubes of extra-firm tofu in miso and broth to give it great flavor and then use in tacos, wraps, summer rolls, or just eat as is. Slabs cut thicker can be marinated in almost anything and will even stand up well to grilling- just be sure to oil the grill or pan well so that it doesn't stick. Honestly, I have purchased both firm and extra-firm form different brands and can't really tell the difference, so I use them interchangeably.
Dense and dry, super-firm tofu is an especially good stand in for feta cheese. It absorbs flavors and adds texture well when crumbled into stews. Super-firm tofu is hearty and stands on its own. I often crumble super-firm tofu and mix with beans for vegetarian chili. I also like to marinate super-firm tofu in lemon juice. dried oregano, salt & pepper before crumbling over a greek salad and topping with excellent olive oil.
This simply means that the tofu was created from sprouted soybeans. It will be packed with more nutrients, but also slightly more calories and fat, a worthwhile trade-off in my opinion. It comes in most textures including silken, soft, firm and extra-firm however it can be difficult to find and slightly more expensive. But as said, if I see it at the supermarket, sprouted will be the one I buy.
This is a prepared, convenience food, that is better for you than the alternative, though like any pre-prepared food should be eaten in moderation. Chewy, dense baked tofu is the most straightforward substitute for meat in stir-fries, casseroles, fajitas, sandwiches, etc. As it comes pre-seasoned and in a wide variety of flavors, you may want to taste a few different ones until you find one that your family likes. One great benefit is that you can slice it thin and mimic bacon for a vegan BLT, one of my absolute favorite sandwiches.
Tofu often comes packed in water, similar to fresh mozzarella. To use the tofu, just drain and gently wrap in a paper towel for a few minutes- simple. For some reason when you talk to people about tofu, they make the "pressing" part sound daunting. It really isn't. Just wrap it in a paper towel, leave it on a corner of your cutting board while you are prepping or chopping something else and you are done. You can store unused tofu in your fridge in a container for up to a few days.
I hope that this article has taken some of the fear and confusion out of tofu for you, and has given you the courage to try some new preparations. Several recipes utilizing tofu in different ways will be added for you to try out. Have fun!