Tuesday, March 17, 2009

All About Tofu

Tofu gets a bad rep. People fear it. People judge it. People make fun of it. After talking to a friend of mine about her sad experience attempting tofu taco "meat" I decided to talk about tofu here, because I have lots to say about it.

I used to joke about tofu, too. It's sort of a boring block of flavorless... jello. It's mysterious. And I haven't had much luck in finding tips and tricks all in one place, so I hope I can fill in the gap a bit.

Tofu's a great food. It's made from soybeans, and as far as prepared foods go, it's one of the least processed foods of all processed foods. You can even make your own, if you're so inclined. It's low in fat, free of trans fat, cholesterol free, low carb, high protein, and is a decent source of iron and calcium. (nutritional info)

There are rumors that tofu will cause men to grow breasts, women to ovulate constantly, (hormone imbalances), thyroid problems, and a host of other scary things. These are scare tactics, and I highly suggest people do their own research before listening to anyone who says a food will cause men to grow breasts. Check out The Safety of Soy. Go on, I'll wait.

So now that you know tofu is nothing more than a bean (a soybean, to be specific), and is nothing to be feared, let's talk a little about how to make it not suck. Tofu is great! Tofu is healthy! Tofu is fun! Tofu is flexible, versatile, and awesome.

Types of tofu. I'm going to abbreviate this, because I'm a simple girl. There are two distinct types of tofu: fresh, and not fresh. Fresh tofu is packaged in water and is sold in the produce/refigerated section of the market. There are lots of brands, like China Rose, Nasoya, and House. Not fresh tofu is packaged in an aseptic container (much like a juice box), and is shelf-stable. The only brand I've ever seen is Mori-Nu. Mori-Nu tofu resembles custard, doesn't have air holes (no spongy texture), and is really only good for pureeing in sauces, puddings, cakes, and so on. Fresh tofu is the type of tofu that's best for marinading and eating in chunks, slices, and crumbles.

Both types come in different densities, from soft to extra firm. In general, soft tofu is best for pureeing, or when you don't care if it keeps its shape. Firm or extra firm tofu is best for slicing, dicing, and serving whole. I always buy the firmest tofu I can find. Keep in mind that extra firm tofu in one brand might not be as firm as another brand, so there's some experimentation and experience that happens, too.

For ease, when I talk about tofu, I'm talking about fresh tofu, unless I specifically state Mori-Nu, or tofu an an aseptic package.

Texture of tofu. There's nothing wrong with busting open a package of tofu, and using it the way you bought it. Tofu is great as-is, and it has nothing to be ashamed of. However, something magical happens when the whole package gets thrown in the freezer, it's allowed to freeze solid, thaw, and be used in recipes. Freezing tofu changes the texture so it's more chewy, and it increases the size of the little holes in the tofu, which helps it absorb more of that awesome marinade you're using.

When I get home from the store, I throw most of the tofu right into the freezer, which keeps it longer, and when I want tofu, I take it out in the morning and leave it on the counter/in the sink (a LOT of condensation happens), and it's ready for dinner. I prefer un-frozen tofu for tofu scramble, but for almost anything else, I like my tofu frozen. If you lack forethought, like I often do, you can defrost the tofu in the microwave for 4-5 minutes. Just be careful that it doesn't get too hot to handle. And don't try to cut frozen tofu: your knife and the ice crystals will just tear it up and break the tofu.

Getting ready to cook tofu. Tofu needs to be pressed. This means the water needs to be expelled from the little holes in the tofu (think of tofu like a big sponge), to make room for marinades and sauces. There are lots of instructions out there about how to properly press tofu, but I'm impatient, so I'll tell you how I do it.

I get out two small plates, sandwich the tofu brick between the flat sides (the sides you eat from), and gently press evenly over the sink. Lots of water will come out, and eventually it'll slow down. Don't squash your tofu (frozen tofu can handle squashing a lot better than unfrozen, just FYI), and take care not to break the block up, but just gently press evenly with your hands until the bulk of the water is removed (you won't get it all). Some people rig up elaborate tofu-pressing devices, with stacks of plates and cans and heavy objects, with a tofu block wrapped in towels, and leave it for an hour... but I'm much too impatient for that. I find this works just fine. Now the tofu is ready to be marinaded or otherwise cooked.

Cooking tofu. When marinading tofu, longer is better, but even just a half hour to an hour is enough to soak up flavor. Then it can either be baked or pan fried. When I bake tofu, I've discovered that my Sil-pat baking mat is fantastic: tofu never sticks! It's amazing. But if you don't have a Sil-pat or don't want to use one, any baking dish lightly sprayed with oil works fine. spray the tofu before you flip them, so the other sides don't stick! I bake tofu at 350f for about 10-15 minutes per side, depending on how crispy I want them.

For pan frying, I admit I have some trouble with this. We use stainless steel cookware, and tofu always sticks to it. I've destroyed so much tofu on these pans, that I tend to avoid using tofu in them at all, which limits my tofu flexibility. I have a background in chemistry, and after reading many articles talking about the potential toxicity of non-stick cookware (example here), I'm really really leery about non-stick cookware, as convenient as it is for tofu. So, I admit (somewhat shamefully) that I have one lone non-stick frying pan that I'm going to use until the coating starts to peel off, and then I will throw it out and never use non-stick again. In the meantime, I do use it for tofu (and not much else), because it gets a nice crispy outside and keeps the inside chewy. (Baking tofu makes the tofu crispy throughout.)

If you have cast iron cookware, I'm jealous, because cast iron makes tofu awesome. It browns the outside nicely, and well-seasoned cast iron can be just as non-stick as Teflon or other non-stick surfaces, without the cancer. I have a great new cast iron pan, but I bought it about a month before we bought a nice new cooktop stove, and I'm paranoid about destroying the cooktop, so I have not use my cast iron since the stove arrived. But I highly recommend cast iron for tofu!

Enjoying tofu. Well, that's about all I can think of for now! If you have any tofu tips, tricks, or suggestions, I'd love to hear from you. Tofu is a great food, and it should be celebrated, not feared!


Anonymous said...

Wow... that was the most comprehensive (and enjoyable) read on tofu I've ever gone through! It's definitely given me well-needed tips. As a side-note: the type tofu you're talking about that's good for baking, sauces and what-not is 'silken' (I believe).

Jennifer said...

yay! thank you very much!

I have bought silken tofu fresh, packed in water, in the produce section before, so I didn't want to be confusing about that. I know I've read Mori-Nu tofu as "silken" before, but it confused the heck out of me when I found silken tofu in the produce section. I should update the post to mention this.

I've successfully used fresh silken tofu in ordinary tofu dishes, although I've never pureed it.

I think there needs to be some industry standards to take out the confusion. ;)

Anonymous said...

Great post, love it!

I find that if you dry-cook cubes of firm tofu in a pan until golden before tossing into another stir fry or stew you get great results (or even before marinading)

Jennifer said...


that's great advice! i agree completely and thank you for posting it!