Kitchen Confidence

In Defense of Tofu

By • June 11, 2013 • 84 Comments

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Think you don't like tofu? Think again.

Tofu1

Let's take a minute to talk about why you're not eating tofu.

You've tried it, poorly prepared, unpleasantly chewy, and punishingly bland. Or you're not sure what to do with it, so it just sits in your fridge after a particularly adventurous grocery store run, jiggling sadly inside its sterile little tub. Or -- for shame! -- you've written it off as something only enjoyed by vegetarians, whose palates are so skewed by a lack of meat that they find really weird and gross things tasty.

But here's what you're ignoring: tofu, when given a chance, can take on a variety of flavors and textures. It's cheap, it's got a long shelf life, and it boasts a lot of protein. And it doesn't have to be reserved for vegetarian dishes; it serves as a nice complement to other proteins, too, like in this chicken stir-fry.

Tofu
Extra-firm pressed, fresh, and silken tofu.

Tofu is made by adding a coagulant -- such as salt or acid -- to heated soy milk, which causes the proteins to bind together and form a solid. You'll generally find it in three main varieties:

Silken tofu, at its simplest, is the (mostly unprocessed) curd that results when those proteins coagulate. It is silky, and a bit wobbly, and it blends and purées easily. This makes it ideal for thick, creamy dishes like Heidi Swanson's vegan chocolate mousse, but it also takes well to simple savory preparations.

Pressed tofu is what likely popped into your head when we mentioned the word. Sold in dense blocks, it's the result of pressing silken tofu to extract water. You'll find it in varying degrees of firmness, "extra-firm" being the most resilient version -- this kind stands up well to heat, even to the grates of a grill, when pressed even further.

Fresh tofu is freshly pressed -- you'll often find it at health food stores or Asian markets. If you live near a good Chinatown, you can find it easily, and it's cheap; we scored about two pounds for a dollar downtown. 

Tofu Skins

The last, oft-forgotten cousin of the tofu family? Tofu skins. When we posted a photo of them last week, the majority of you guessed they were tagliatelle or other noodles. Wrong! When soy milk is heated, it forms a layer of skin, just as dairy milk does. When removed and drained, this skin (also called yuba) takes on an eggy texture; when cooked, it sucks up flavor as easily as a chameleon adopts color. You'll often find them dried, and can reconstitute them in water before cooking. They also come neatly folded, like a present ready for you to unwrap.

Pressing Tofu

Prepping and cooking pressed tofu:

Pressed tofu will absorb flavor and stand up to heat best after it's been pressed again, at home. All it takes is something heavy: place your tofu on a towel-lined board, and top it with more towels. Weigh it down with some heavy books or a cast-iron skillet, and forget about it for 30 minutes. You'll have ultra-firm tofu to use however you'd like -- here are some suggestions:

Freeze it. Yes, put it in the freezer. Freezing tofu gives it a spongy texture once it defrosts -- it's reminiscent of the delightfully chewy tofu you'll find in Thai curries. Be sure to defrost it before cooking.

Broil it. Possibly the easiest way to prep tofu? Slice it into thin rectangles, brush it with olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, herbs, and spices of your choosing. Then broil for a few minutes on each side, until browned. The result is crispy and flavorful and fantastic on salads and sandwiches.

Prep

Bake it. Cut your tofu into cubes or planks, marinate it, and then bake it at high heat for 30 to 45 minutes, flipping once. Soy sauce-based marinades are an obvious choice, but feel free to experiment -- or forgo the marinade altogether for olive oil and salt, and slather everything in a flavorful sauce afterwards -- barbecue sauce will never let you down.

Fry it. We're fans of this Japanese-Style Fried Tofu, which yields a beautiful, crisp exterior.

Japanese-Style Fried Tofu

Really though, you can do pretty much anything to your tofu: grill it, poach it, scramble it, braise it, simmer it in a curry, make it into burgers, or add it to a stir-fry. Mark Bittman's How To Cook Everything Vegetarian is a fantastic resource for the tofu-curious; for those ready to dive in, head-first, to the world of bean curd, Andrea Nguyen's Asian Tofu is your reference of choice. 

Only after you've tried all of these techniques can you tell us that you don't like tofu. In that case, well, all the more for us.

Tell us: how do you like to prepare tofu?

Jump to Comments (84)

Tags: ingredients, how to, tofu, soy, soy milk, tofu skins, bean curd, vegetarian, vegan, special diets, how-to & diy

Comments (84)

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11 months ago Dg

Still taste like shit

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over 1 year ago KtMcB

I tried CMJN's method of soaking tofu slices in warm salted water & dry before pan frying it. And it DID create a great crust! I liked the texture a lot.

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over 1 year ago cleanplates

be sure to buy your tofu gmo-free and sprouted when possible!

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over 1 year ago cleanplates

check out this article for more info!
http://national.cleanplates...

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over 1 year ago CMJN

I got a great tip for cooking tofu over at Michael Natkin's Herbivoraceous website. He said if you soak it in hot salted water then drain and dry, it forms a crust more easily when you fry. I bake mine. Actually, I slice very thinly and make tofu crisps. I find this soaking tip makes this so much easier. However, I didn't like the salt idea, so I substituted soya sauce for salt in the hot water. Seems to work. I think it's the hot water than does it. You soak the pieces in the water, then drain and press dry between two towels. Bake anywhere between Gas 4 and 8. The result seems to be the same whether you cook for a long time on 4 or a shorter time on 8. You just have to watch it more carefully on 8. It goes from soft to chewy to crisp. All stages are good in their own way. It's also nice baked in thicker slices. I sometimes spray with soya sauce also before cooking.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

I'll have to give that a try!

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over 1 year ago YukariSakamoto

We live in Tokyo and have a dizzying array of tofu to choose from. Most popular uses are on its own simply garnished with grated ginger and soy sauce, in miso soup, or over salads. It's also delicious when made into a Korean style hot pot with kimchi and thin slices of pork.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

I'm so jealous! How incredible. Have you ever tried making it at home?

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over 1 year ago YukariSakamoto

Yes, a few times a year. Our local supermarket sells soy milk in a PET bottle with a small pack of nigari to make fresh tofu. Biggest challenge is keeping the soy milk at the right temperature so it doesn't burn.

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over 1 year ago PMarie

I love to eat it just plain, by the slice. Maybe a little salt, but not necessary. It is humble and pure and satisfying.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Agreed -- sometimes I like it plain, sliced on sandwiches, with mustard and pickles. It's kind of like vegetarian kid comfort food.

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over 1 year ago green tea and kimchi

I've been really into tofu salad sandwiches as of late. poach firm tofu to warm, drain and mix with mayo (or veganaise) stone ground mustard, onions, capers, dried cherries, celery, curry powder, salt and pepper. delish!

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Jessica, you're awesome -- and your timing is perfect! I've been meaning to try making tofu salad recently. I'll have to try your recipe!

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over 1 year ago jeanette sandoval

I love to use Tofu, and one time I tried Tofu Jerky and it turned out really good. I cut the tofu in strips and marinated it in a jerky marinade and dehydrated it to the texture I liked and it lasted about a week in the fridge and had a nice texture and flavor.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

Wow. Do you think this would work in a low oven, too?

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over 1 year ago Michael Witkin

I haven't used tofu, because it's rather high calorie per unit of protein. But recently, my doctor told me to get more non-meat protein. So here goes tofu. There is storefront on or around Broome and Bowery, where there are always long lines for big cubes of fresh tofu

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over 1 year ago KtMcB

Doesn't cheese a higher calorie count than tofu? After 6 months of cutting out meat at home, cooking vegetarian(using tofu regularly) and fish 2 or 3 times a week I got my cholesterol down below 200, first time since I started getting it checked, over 20 years ago.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

That's so awesome! Calorie count will depend on your your serving size, but this likely has more to do with the dairy/ saturated fat/cholesterol in cheese, not the calories. Keep it up mama!

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over 1 year ago Robyn Miller

One of my favorite lunches is tofu (I use firm but don't press it) mixed with pesto, either with sourdough toast on the side, or using the tofu w/ pesto as sandwich filling. Quick, easy, and tasty!

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over 1 year ago kimikoftokyo

When I go to the asian markets I also get a mix to make tofu burgers with. I also put it in my soup and no one notices it. From salads to stir fry. I add lots of flavor.

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over 1 year ago IlovePhilly

I love tofu so much. Sadly, I can't eat unfermented soy anymore. Homemade tofu is the best, and this post has me salivating wildly and crying inside!

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over 1 year ago PMarie

My heart goes out to you, I share your love.

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over 1 year ago Renée (RJ Flamingo) Joslyn

Speaking of using as an egg replacement, this Tofu Rancheros (a play on Huevos Rancheros) was my husband's way of introducing me to tofu, some 25 years ago: http://flamingomusings... I've been a fan ever since, and use both styles in so many different ways. Here, I've used silken tofu and soy milk to make a delicious "ice cream": http://flamingomusings.... Don't put tofu down!

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over 1 year ago Michael Gorges

I soak in Braggs Liquid aminos, and other flavors like garlic, onions. Then into the food dehydrator, to make tofu jerky. Its tasty, chewy, and goes great in salad or eaten as snacks.

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over 1 year ago Marian Bull

Marian is Food52's Associate Editor.

I love Braggs!

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over 1 year ago CourtneySue

Silken Tofu is great in smoothies and as an egg replacement. Usually 1/4 to 1/3 a cup of silken, soft tofu is equal to one egg. I've made chocolate chip cookies with silken tofu for years and no one's been the wiser.

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over 1 year ago TheWimpyVegetarian

I have a little grandson who is allergic to eggs, so this is PERFECT. I'm doing this the next time they visit for chocolate chip cookies. Thanks for the idea!

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over 1 year ago Renée (RJ Flamingo) Joslyn

I'm going to try this, too!

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over 1 year ago Salinya

I use quite a bit of tofu. One way is in sweet and sour vegetables. I add pineapple and tofu.

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over 1 year ago EatArt

SO happy to read this post! I always keep packages of tofu in the fridge, but often let it sit, unloved, because I don't have time to conjure up a multi-ingredient marinade or make a fussy recipe. You had some great new ideas that will have me reaching for my tofu way more often, that are so simple, I've already got them memorized and stashed in my last-minute recipe repertoires. Olive oil, herbs, and salt is now #1 on my list.

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over 1 year ago Whats4Dinner

Oh dear lovely ladies, my mom has shared with me a new way of enjoying tofu. We're Korean sooooo:
1) Boil a block of tofu for 10-15 minutes covered by at least 1/2 inch of water
2) Mix up a bowl of soy sauce, distilled white vinegar, Korean sesame oil (and it MUST be Korean sesame oil), a little brown sugar and a little kochigaru (Korean red pepper flakes). Really, just mix this up to taste.
3) Cut up the somewhat cooled tofu and pour this well-blended mixture over the tofu.........this and rice, a little kimchi.......and dinner is served!

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

THIS sounds awesome!

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over 1 year ago theminx

Sounds a bit like the recipe Ruth Reichl once offered on the Gourmet site - it had garlic and scallions but no vinegar and it's terrific.

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

Whats4Dinner - I just whipped your recipe up, and it's a keeper! The consistency of the tofu is excellent! Next time I'll go a bit lighter on the sauce to start, but that's simply my preference. I ended up adding sliced scallions and sesame seeds to the mix as well. What a delicious new dish! Thanks so much!

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

When I said "sauce" I meant the soy sauce :)

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over 1 year ago AAFoodie

I recently had the most delicious tofu tacos. But I've been avoiding soy products out of some nutritional skepticism (GMO, isoflavones ...) Anyone have thoughts on that?

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

Yes! This has been the most spirited soy conversation today!
You don't need to have any skepticism about consuming minimally-processed, organic soy products. For women who haven't experienced breast cancer, they are safe to consume and are actually associated with decreased risk (see comment below).
Regarding GMOs: as long as you buy tofu (or any other soy product) that is 100% certified organic, it is GMO-free. The package will usually state this. Sometimes there is also a third-party verification, such as by the Non-GMO Project. (more comments on this topic below, as well!)

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over 1 year ago AAFoodie

Thanks, Michelle, but I think the jury is still out on soy consumption. If you know of solid research on that issue, I'd love to see it.

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

I cite the research in my book "Just Because You're An American Doesn't Mean You Have To Eat Like One!", Chapter 7, Benefits of the Traditional Japanese Diet. Three of my citations came from research cited by Schwarcz, Joe. an apple a day: the myths, misconception, and truths about the food we eat. Toronto: HarperCollins, 2007. Print. pages 56-7. An additional citation was from Setchell, K.D.“Phytoestrogens: the biochemistry, physiology, and implications for human health of soy isoflavones.” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. Vol. 68. No. 6. December 1998. www.ajcn.org. Web. 2010. I cover the topic over almost three pages. I have no issue with women eating organic, minimally-processed soy every day! The Japanese do, and they are the healthiest people in the world.

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over 1 year ago AAFoodie

Thanks, I saw the link to the book after I commented. It looks really interesting, I'll have to take a look.

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over 1 year ago Michele Jacobson

:)

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over 1 year ago Big Flavors

I love tofu but never thought to freeze it. Interesting! I think that a lot of times, people just assume that tofu is flavorless before trying it prepared well. It's their loss though - it's such a wonderfully adaptable ingredient!