Cooking Tofu:
Purchasing and Preparation

Tofu often doesn't receive the recognition it deserves, regardless of one's dietary preferences. This versatile soy-based food offers numerous benefits and can be incorporated into cooking in countless healthy and delightful ways.

In terms of nutrition, tofu and canned beans are both excellent choices. They are convenient options that require less time and effort to cook compared to preparing dried beans. However, when it comes to taste and overall quality, tofu stands out as a top-notch option, whereas canned beans cannot match the flavor and texture of beans prepared from scratch.

What is Tofu?

Tofu, a traditional Asian food, is made by coagulating unsweetened soy-milk into blocks. It possesses numerous commendable qualities: affordability, ease of preparation, nutrient density, and remarkable versatility. While most bean varieties require almost an hour to cook, tofu offers comparable nutritional benefits and is ready to be enjoyed immediately. Its convenience, adaptability, and healthiness make tofu an excellent choice for vegans and individuals seeking to incorporate more vegetarian foods into their diet.

Although tofu's origins are likely rooted in China, it has become an integral part of cuisines across various Asian countries. It is particularly popular in regions where Buddhism holds a significant influence, as many Buddhists follow a vegetarian lifestyle and rely on tofu as a primary protein source. Throughout Asia, tofu is regarded with similar reverence as the French treat bread—it is freshly purchased each morning and consumed on the same day.

If you struggle with digesting beans, it's highly recommended to give tofu a try. It offers the same protein and nutritional benefits as any other bean product, but it is much more easily digested.

Where to Buy Tofu

Tofu can typically be found in the refrigerated section of any supermarket. However, for a wider selection, it is recommended to visit a good natural foods store that offers more varieties.

The best way to purchase tofu is from Asian grocery stores where it is sold fresh. Instead of being packaged, you can use tongs to select a block from a shallow tub filled with water.

When visiting Asia, tofu is incredibly affordable. Even in countries like Japan, which are known for higher living costs, you can purchase high-quality tofu for significantly less than in Western countries. It is likely that Japanese groceries sell tofu at a lower price to attract customers, considering its popularity in the region.

Soybeans are commonly genetically modified, but it is easy to find organic tofu. Organic certification ensures that GMO crops are not used, so if your tofu is made with organic soybeans, it will be free from genetically modified organisms. Most brands available at natural food stores prominently feature organic soybeans as the main ingredient.

Firm, Soft, and Medium Varieties

Tofu is commonly available in various textures, including soft, firm, medium, and extra-firm. It is recommended to try different textures and determine your preference, as any type can be used in most recipes.

However, if you plan to cube your tofu for stir-fries or similar dishes, opting for firm or extra-firm varieties is advisable. Soft tofu tends to break apart when stirred frequently during cooking, whereas firmer varieties hold their shape better.

Silken Tofu

Silken tofu stands out as a distinct type of tofu that boasts a custard-like texture. Its name derives from its smooth and velvety consistency when blended, setting it apart from regular tofu that may have a slightly lumpy texture. Silken tofu can be utilized in a wide range of tofu-based recipes, providing a fantastic variation to prevent your favorite tofu dishes from becoming monotonous.

This unique tofu variety is particularly well-suited for certain baked recipes and can be transformed into a delightful dessert pudding. Additionally, adding a small amount of silken tofu to smoothies can offer a pleasant protein boost.

Unlike regular tofu typically found in the refrigerated section, silken tofu is commonly packaged in aseptic "juice box" style cartons, making it shelf-stable. It can be readily found at reputable natural food stores, and it is also available from various online retailers due to its long shelf life. However, fresh silken tofu might only be found at artisan tofu shops in Western countries, while it is more easily accessible in Japan.

Artisan Tofu

If you're fortunate, your city may have an artisan soy-foods shop that offers a range of tofu varieties distinct from the standard white blocks found elsewhere. These specialized shops often draw inspiration from Japan's traditional tofu establishments, where unique tofu varieties are crafted in small batches. Each artisan tofu variety you purchase will come with its own recommended preparation method, so be sure to inquire about it at the time of purchase.

One particular Japanese tofu variety worth trying is "tofu no miso zuke." This fermented soy food, which can be described as a combination of tofu and miso, is delightful when spread on crackers. It also adds an incredible flavor when mixed into marinara sauce, spiced with hot peppers, and served over pasta with a sprinkle of nutritional yeast.

In addition to traditional tofu, the Japanese have a unique tofu variety called yuba. Yuba is a dehydrated, skin-like product made from curdled soymilk. While it is not commonly found in Western supermarkets, you can easily find yuba at Asian grocery stores or through online retailers. Yuba is available in brittle dried sheets and is used in various Japanese recipes. It is also a crucial ingredient in Chinese "hot and sour" soup.

Baked Tofu

Regular tofu cut into cubes is often served at salad bars, which may not be the most appealing way to enjoy tofu. However, there is a tofu variation specifically designed for salads called "baked tofu," which offers a more enticing option. Baked tofu can be found in the refrigerated section of most natural food stores.

Unlike regular tofu that comes in water-filled tubs, baked tofu is packaged in plastic sheets and has a denser and chewier texture. It is typically marinated in tamari or teriyaki sauce before being baked. Thinly sliced baked tofu can be added to salads, providing a good amount of protein and increasing satiety. It also works exceptionally well in sandwiches and wraps.

Making your own baked tofu at home is remarkably easy and cost-effective compared to buying pre-made varieties. Pre-packaged baked tofu usually comes at a significantly higher price compared to regular tofu. By preparing it yourself, you can save a substantial amount of money. Here's a simple way to make your own baked tofu:

1. Slice your tofu into strips.

2. Marinate the tofu in your preferred sauce for a few hours.

3. Place the marinated tofu on an oiled baking sheet and bake it at medium heat for 30 to 40 minutes, flipping it once during cooking.

Preparing baked tofu at home using this simple method is incredibly easy, and it will significantly reduce your expenses compared to purchasing pre-made options. By following these steps, you can enjoy delicious homemade baked tofu while cutting your costs by more than half.

Storing Tofu

While certain packaged tofu products undergo high-temperature processing and have a shelf life of approximately two months, I prefer to follow the Asian tradition of purchasing freshly made tofu and consuming it on the same day.

If you find yourself with an opened pack of regular or silken tofu that you can't finish all at once, here's the proper storage method. Place the remaining tofu in a covered container and submerge it in fresh water. Store the container in the refrigerator and remember to change the water at least twice a day. Try to consume the tofu within a few days to maintain its freshness and quality.

Is Tofu Nutritious?

The nutritional content of tofu can vary, particularly in terms of calcium.

Tofu is formed by solidifying soymilk using either magnesium sulfate or calcium sulfate as coagulants. In some cases, the label might indicate "nigari," which refers to magnesium sulfate-rich minerals commonly used in Japanese tofu production.

If you're specifically looking to increase your calcium intake, it's recommended to choose tofu made with calcium sulfate. This type of tofu is exceptionally high in calcium and serves as an excellent alternative for individuals who avoid dairy products, offering a substantial dose of calcium in every serving.

How to Get Cooking with Tofu

Tofu is a versatile ingredient that can bring a lot of variety to your meals. With numerous cooking methods available, you can explore different textures and flavors. Tofu's ability to transform its texture is particularly notable, ranging from extra firm and chewy to smooth and silky. One interesting technique is to freeze firm tofu in thin strips overnight, resulting in a chewy, meat-like texture that works well in dishes like spicy Mexican chili.

Pressing tofu to remove excess liquid is a common step in many recipes. You can achieve this by placing the tofu between two dinner plates and placing a medium-sized book on top for a few minutes. For those who regularly cook with tofu, investing in a dedicated tofu press may be worth considering. It helps to extract liquid more efficiently and is a convenient tool for handling tofu.

Cooking Your First Tofu Meal

With the abundance of tofu recipes available, let me suggest some great options for beginners. If you're new to cooking with tofu, two excellent recipes to start with are incorporating tofu into a stir-fry or preparing scrambled tofu.

Stir fries

Tofu is an essential ingredient to enhance the flavor and protein content of stir-fries. It adds substance to the dish, making it more satisfying compared to vegetable-only stir-fries that might leave you feeling hungry soon after.

When preparing a stir-fry, it's best to cook the tofu separately before adding the vegetables. Start by pressing and cubing firm or extra-firm tofu, as softer varieties may break apart during cooking. Use oil with a high smoke point for frying the tofu on medium-high heat, ensuring to gently turn and move the cubes to maintain their shape. Cook until they develop a golden color, then set them aside in a separate bowl while you cook the remaining stir-fry ingredients. Towards the end, reintroduce the cooked tofu and add any desired sauces and seasonings.

Stir-fries are versatile, nutritious, and delicious, making them a valuable culinary skill. For detailed instructions on creating a fantastic stir-fry, refer to comprehensive recipes and guides available.

Scrambled Tofu

This vegan brunch dish is renowned worldwide and makes for a perfect introduction to cooking tofu due to its simplicity. There are numerous online recipes and cooking videos available for scrambled tofu. The great thing about this recipe is its forgiving nature, ensuring a delicious outcome regardless of the specific recipe chosen. However, there are three key rules that will guarantee a flavorful dish:

1. Incorporate an abundance of vegetables, with a focus on onion and garlic.

2. If available, add a few thinly sliced canned chipotles towards the end of the cooking process.

3. Always include a generous amount of nutritional yeast just before serving!

More Tofu Cooking Variations

Although tofu has its roots in Asian cuisine, it surprisingly complements Mexican cooking exceptionally well. Whether it's burritos, enchiladas, or tamales, adding sautéed slices of tofu to savory Mexican dishes always elevates the flavors. The mild taste of tofu harmonizes beautifully with traditional Mexican sauces and spices.

Similarly, tofu seamlessly fits into American soul food and Caribbean island meals. Cookbooks dedicated to these cuisines consistently showcase a diverse range of tofu-based recipes.

Additionally, there are numerous popular dishes that incorporate tofu, such as:

  • Indian Curries (in place of meat)
  • Barbecued Tofu—sauté, bake, or deep fry tofu and add a little barbecue sauce
  • Puddings
  • Fruit Smoothies
  • Spicy Taco or Burrito Filling

Deep-Fried Tofu

Although it may not be the healthiest option, deep frying tofu is undeniably delicious. By cutting it into small cubes and immersing them in hot oil until golden, you'll achieve a chewy texture on the outside and a soft, tender inside.

This method doesn't significantly enhance the tofu's flavor but works well in stir-fries or as bite-sized pieces with a tasty dipping sauce.

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