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In Defense of Tofu

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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.


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.

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.


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?

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

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