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When I tell people I'm meeting for the first time that I make tofu for a living, they are amazed and intrigued.
The conversation generally begins with my explanation of how artisan tofu is made (it’s similar to cheese-making) and invariably ends with the question, “If I can’t find your products, how do I find good tofu?"
Tofu is found in practically every grocery store, in various textures, from silken to extra firm. And while more and more consumers are choosing tofu as source of plant protein for their meals, many still do not have the opportunity to eat high-quality artisan tofu.
When you taste really delicious tofu for the first time, you will know it. Flavors and textures reveal themselves: fragrance of earthiness; subtle sweetness; creamy chewiness. But chances are you’ve had few opportunities to taste good tofu because if you’ve had it, you would know.
We eat more tofu today, yet we have no standards for tofu. Put another way, we do not pay attention to its flavor—we don’t even expect tofu to have flavor—nor do we truly discuss its texture.
We don’t even have the language to describe what defines good tofu in the same way that we taste and discuss wine, chocolate, or even other legumes. Our expectations and conversation about these foods has evolved in the past few decades only because high-quality examples have become more widely available. It wasn’t so long ago, in fact, that heavily-processed, bland cheese and instant coffee were the only options available in American stores.
But in the 1960s and 70s, a shift slowly began: Dutch-born Alfred Peet changed the way Americans drink coffee, bringing small batch, freshly-roasted dark blends to the country; and Laura Chenel was one of the first American cheesemakers to produce European-style artisan cheeses like chèvre, putting the now-ubiquitous goat cheese salad on the first menu in the U.S. at Chez Panisse. We take these standards for granted now, but our palates have become discriminating because American artisans have reclaimed these foods and revolutionized our tastes.
Tofu, from its formal introduction to America in the 70s, was led down the same commodity path as coffee and cheese: a commodity misunderstood and politicized, a meat substitute that missed the mark on taste. For several decades, tofu carried this inadvertent baggage that dulled our expectations. But artisanal tofu is taking back the soybean and tofu and reintroducing it to the public.
When you have your “A-ha!” tofu moment, it will be no different than your first experience tasting an exceptional olive oil or coffee. And you will never want to eat chalky, bland, mediocre tofu again.
At the end of reading this piece, you’ll have the knowledge you need to explore tasty tofu. And if you aren’t already searching for good tofu, you will be soon.
What does good tofu taste like?
I grew up eating tofu as a child in Asia, where it’s is eaten in many forms, from liquid (soy milk) to solid (braised firm tofu). When I eat tofu, I seek its standalone flavors and textures. The prized tofu in Asia has a distinct fragrance of freshly-cooked soybeans (wafting through every mom-and-pop artisan tofu shop), a nutty, subtle sweetness, and a buttery taste. As for textures, I love the silkiness of soft tofu, the springiness of firm tofu (not chalkiness), and the chewiness of a fried tofu puff (aburaage tofu).
These flavors and textures are harder to find with tofu made in America. Why? As consumers, we are not seeking them out or demanding our tofu makers produce such tofu. And why? We do not seek them out because we have not yet experienced such subtleties.
But good tofu exists. And when you find it, you'll taste the difference.
Seek out these characteristics when you're shopping:
- High protein: seek out tofu with at least 12 grams of protein per serving (Hodo’s has 14 grams per serving); higher-protein tofu is often made with thicker and richer soymilk
- Higher fat: look for tofu with at least 4 grams of fat per serving; fat (tofu has only unsaturated) makes tofu taste more buttery and less chalky
- Texture: good tofu has elasticity (bend the tofu to see if it breaks) and is more chewy than chalky (chalky tofus are often made with thinner soymilk and more coagulant); good tofu should be springy and not crumbly
- Taste: after some chewing, tofu should taste slightly sweet, nutty and buttery; if tofu is sour or bitter, it is either not fresh or has not been coagulated in a balanced way
- Look for organic soybeans: using organic beans makes a thicker soymilk, which will make tofu with an enhanced flavor (if the maker describes where the soybean is from on the package, that's a good sign—good tofu starts with a carefully grown and sourced beans)
And once you find good tofu, introduce it to your friends and neighbors, ask them to look for it, and demand it from all tofu-makers. Just as seeking good artisan coffee improves the overall availability of good coffee, the more you seek artisan tofu, the more you will find it in restaurants and grocery stores in your neighborhood!
And look for these flavors and textures while you're cooking and eating:
- Texture: grainy when not homogenized; mouth-coating; slightly creamy
- Flavors: beany, nutty, and earthy
- Applications: add sugar, agave, chocolate, or fruit to sweeten it, or add salt (soy sauces), acid (red vinegar), pickled vegetables (for hot soymilk, the acidity of the red vinegar and pickled vegetables will change the texture of soymilk to make it more porridge-like)
- Texture: smooth, flan-like, gelatinous
- Flavor: beany, nutty
- Applications: blend it to make shakes or mousses, or add sugary syrup or a savory sauce and eat it as is
- Texture: smooth, slightly chewy, and gelatinous; spongy when frozen and thawed
- Flavors: beany and nutty
- Applications: eaten as is with savory sauce, crumbled for scrambles, fried to get elastic outer layer and spongy texture, and good in soups and clay pots
- Texture: smooth and chewy; can also be chalky or scratchy,
- Flavors: beany, nutty, slightly sour, and slightly bitter
- Applications: braised, fried, stir-fried, crumbled for drier scrambles, smoked, grilled
- Texture: ranges from creamy to elastic to crunchy (dry)
- Flavors: rich, beany, sweet, and nutty
- Applications: nama yuba ("young" yuba with a creamy, rich, and clean flavor and a texture similar to burrata cheese) should be lightly dressed and use in creamy form; fresh yuba can be eaten fresh, used as wraps, pan-fried, deep-fried, or added to soup; dry yuba needs to be re-hydrated and is used in stir-fries and soups only
What's the best tofu you've tasted? Share with us in the comments!