WHAT IS IT?
Tofu originated in China and is made from dried soybeans that are soaked in water, milled into soya milk, then strained, heated and coagulated. Just like cheese, it can be silken, soft, firm, or extra firm. On its own, tofu is basically flavorless, but it absorbs sauces and spices like a sponge and is very versatile. In the Western world, it is commonly used as a meat substitute. In Asian cuisine, however, this protein-rich ingredient is eaten by just about everyone, commonly prepared raw, stewed, or stuffed with fillings. In Japan, tofu kaiseki is a cuisine that focuses entirely on tofu. In India, tofu is commonly used as a low-fat replacement for paneer cheese, since it has a similar texture.
On its own, tofu is basically flavorless, but it absorbs sauces and spices like a sponge and is very versatile.
THINGS TO KNOW
Tofu is used in sweet or savory dishes and can be prepared in many different ways. You can steam, grill, bake, saute or fry it but, no matter how you prepare it, it’s important to press the excess liquid out of it, a process known as “pressing.” This is particularly important if you’re using firm tofu, as pressing improves its texture and ensures that it holds its shape. Depending on the store, you may be able to find it pre-pressed.
Think of tofu as a vehicle for flavor. Since tofu easily adopts seasonings and flavors, marinating it will go a long way. There is one golden rule, however; avoid using oil in a tofu marinade. Even after it’s pressed, tofu still contains a lot of water, and we all know that oil and water aren’t friends. Instead, stick to vinegar, citrus juice, soy sauce and stock. It should be mentioned that tofu doesn’t need to be cooked but it tastes better, especially when it gets crispy on the outside as a result of grilling or baking it.
There is one golden rule, however; avoid using oil in a tofu marinade.
Tofu and soy, in general, has gotten a bad reputation over the years for containing phytoestrogens, which some believe can interfere with hormone function and increase risk for some types of cancer. Phytoestrogens are naturally occurring estrogens that occur in a number of plants and foods, including soybeans. Many studies have proven this to be untrue, however; in fact they’ve even linked soy consumption to lower cholesterol, cardiovascular health and a lowered risk for chronic diseases. Tofu is also a great source of protein, packed with calcium, iron, and magnesium. It’s even low in carbs and calories, especially silken tofu. Speaking of which…
SILKEN VS. REGULAR TOFU
The two main kinds of tofu are silken and regular. Both are made from the same ingredients but they are processed slightly differently and each works better for different dishes.
Regular tofu, sometimes referred to as bean curd or Chinese-style tofu, is the most common type of tofu sold and is best used in stir-frys or baked, the latter of which you’ll be doing this week for a Thai green curry recipe. This type of tofu is packed in water and requires refrigeration.
Silken tofu, also called soft or Japanese-style tofu, has a softer consistency than regular tofu and can fall apart very easily. Often blended or pureed, it is best used in salad dressings, smoothies, and desserts, serving as a great substitute for milk and cream. Unlike regular tofu, silken tofu often comes in an aseptic, or sterilized, container and has a shelf life of up to a year, unopened.
Unlike regular tofu, silken tofu often comes in an aseptic, or sterilized, container and has a shelf life of up to a year, unopened.
THE SUPPORTING CAST
You might have also seen tempeh and seitan hanging out in the tofu section of the grocery store. Tempeh is made from fermented soybeans and has a firmer texture than tofu as well as a unique, nutty flavor. It works really well in tacos. Seitan differs from tempeh and tofu in that it isn’t made from soy. Rather, it is made from wheat, more specifically, gluten. Since it is high in protein and has a similar texture to meat, it is often used in vegetarian cooking, especially in dishes that are meant to mimic meat-based ones.