Tofu is also known as soybean curd. It is a soft, cheese-like ingredient made from soy milk and is a dietary staple throughout Asia as well as being an invaluable ingredient for vegetarians due to its richness in high-quality protein as well as having a good source of B-vitamins, calcium and iron. But that’s not all. It is low in saturated fat, contains no cholesterol, is very low in sodium and is an excellent substitute for many dairy products, especially useful for those with a lactose intolerance. Tofu makes a great meat substitute, not only for vegetarians, but also for individuals who have trouble digesting meat. Altogether, tofu is a nutritious, healthy and valuable protein source for everyone.
Origin and history of tofu
Tofu was first used in China around 200 B.C. Although the exact history of the making of tofu isn’t known, Chinese legend has it that the first batch of tofu was made by accident. A Chinese cook added nigari to flavor a batch of pureéd, cooked soybeans; the nigari produced curds which we now call tofu.
Tofu was first used in Japan in about 761-793 and was called “okabe” or “kabe” which translates to wall, also “shirakabe” which means white wall. In became popular in the Edo period (1603-1867).
With an influx of Chinese immigrants to American in the 1800’s came the introduction of tofu to the US. Wo Sing & Co., was founded in 1878 in San Francisco and was the first tofu manufacturer in the US catering for the demand. In Europe, whilst Paillieux of France was the first to make tofu in 1880, the first commercial manufacturer of tofu was a company called Caséo-Sojaïne, which was founded in about 1911 by Li Yu-ying.
Processing of tofu
Tofu is made by curdling fresh hot soymilk with a coagulant.
Of course, served alone, tofu tastes rather bland. But tofu – or doufu to use its Chinese name – is not designed to be eaten alone. The beauty of bean curd is that it absorbs the flavors of the food it is cooked with.
Types of tofu
Besides blandness, another common complaint about tofu is the texture. However, today you can choose from a wide variety of tofus that vary from firm to extra firm, which are fairly dense and solid, to soft, which is more jello-like. There is also silken tofu, which has a creamy, custard-like texture, and also comes in varying degrees of firmness.
Use firmer tofus for stir-fries and grilling, soft tofu works well in soups and silken tofu is good for blended dishes like pudding. But there are no rules – it all depends on your own preference. Recipes normally specify which type of tofu to use, but if they don’t, it is safest to stick with medium firmness.
Normally located in the refrigerated section of the grocery store, tofu comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes – from individual cakes to larger blocks. One company even packages their tofu in a convenient, plastic-wrapped cylinder – all you need to do is peel back the plastic and slice. Also try the Chinese-style tofu packaged in water – it gives the best results when cooking Chinese dishes.
- Extra firm tofu has the least water which enables it to hold its shape very well, making it ideal for slicing, cubing, baking, frying and grilling. It also has a higher level of protein. When frozen and thawed, the texture becomes very “meaty” and it’s ideal for making “meaty” dishes such as casseroles, pasta sauces and stir-fries.
- Firm tofu is not as dense, although it still holds its shape well for slicing, dicing and frying. It works particularly well in desserts and dressings and as cottage cheese, ricotta or cream cheese substitutes.
- Soft tofu is much less dense – ideal for blending into sauces and dressings. It can be used to reduce the amount of egg used in a recipe or to replace yoghurt / sour cream. Soft tofu also is lower in both protein and fat.
- Silken tofu is made by a slightly different method producing a creamy, custard-like product. It is very delicate and works well in pureed or blended dishes such as soups and dips however it can also be eaten straight from the packet.
Tofu can also be frozen, which gives it a more meaty texture. Firm to extra firm tofus are better for freezing. But no matter what type of tofu you’re working with, you can add extra firmness by draining it before freezing. Simply place the tofu between paper towels or tea towels and lay a heavy pot or board on top of it for fifteen to thirty minutes. Frozen tofu will last for at least 3, and up to 5, months.
Many recipes also call for tofu to be drained before cooking. This will increase its capacity to absorb other flavors, making for a tastier dish. Another way to increase tofu’s flavor is to marinate it. There are no hard and fast rules here, but the longer the tofu is marinated, the more flavorful the result. After marinating, you can either fry it or add it to a soup or salad. You don’t even need to use it immediately – stored in the refrigerator in a sealed container, marinated tofu should last for several days.
How to drain tofu
You’ll have a more flavorful dish if you drain the tofu before cooking. It will take about 15 minutes
What you need:
- 1 block tofu
- Cutting board
- Towels (paper or other)
- Heavy weight
- Knife to cut tofu
- Cover a cutting board with paper towels or towels.
- Cut the tofu into the size and number of pieces called for in the recipe.
- Place the tofu on the cutting board.
- Place a heavy weight, such as a book or bowl, on the tofu.
- Drain the tofu for 15 minutes.
- Change the paper towelling or towels as required.
- If possible, you might want to tilt the cutting board to allow the water to drain into the sink.
- For better results when cooking tofu, be sure not to overcook.