Tofu is likely one of the most misunderstood vegan foods of all time. Some love it and swear by its health benefits, while others shun it completely in fear that soy might cause cancer and increase estrogen levels. Others want to start incorporating it in their diet, but simply don’t know what to do with it. We’re here to clear up all your doubts about this vegan staple, so you can enjoy it with confidence! So, keep reading and learn everything you need to know about tofu!
What is Tofu Made Of?
Tofu is an either gelatinous or spongy (sometimes porous) white block of concentrated soy milk, usually used as a meat/dairy product substitute by vegetarians or vegans. However, it is sometimes stir-fried with ground beef or used in non-vegetarian soups/stews in Asian cuisine. It could soon become one of the staple ingredients in your vegan cooking, as it is very high in protein, low in fat, and can have a chewy, almost meat-like texture when prepared correctly.
Origins of Tofu
Tofu, or “doufu”, was most likely invented in China around 900 AD, as it was around this time and in this region that the term was first documented. Some believe it was created by accident when the naturally-occurring nigari (a coagulant often used to make tofu) in unrefined sea salt was sprinkled into soybean soup and began to form curds. Others think it was created when attempting to make cheese out of soymilk using the traditional Mongolian method. However, no one is certain about how exactly tofu was first invented. What we do know is that for years it was a great source of protein for Chinese Buddhists, who consumed meatless diets and did not tend to raise cows or goats for milk. Today, it is used by vegetarians and vegans all over the world, and there are plenty of varieties of tofu produced for different culinary purposes.
Types of Tofu
There are 6 popular types of tofu on the market today:
This type of tofu is the most smooth, creamy, and delicate, making it a great base for smoothies, sauces, and soft desserts, like puddings and yogurt. It’s also enjoyed in soups (like miso soup) or marinated and chilled. However, it’s not the ideal type of tofu for cooking and frying. It also has the highest water content out of all types of tofu, and thus, contains a bit less protein.
Firm tofu is processed differently than silken tofu in that the coagulation process takes place by curdling soy milk and then pressing it, while silken tofu is quickly concentrated using a compound called GDL. Firm tofu’s coagulation process gives it its porous, spongy texture. Depending on how much it’s pressed, it can be sold as either soft, firm, or extra firm. This is because when tofu is pressed, the liquid content is gradually reduced, making the tofu more concentrated and compact. These types of tofu are ideal for frying, grilling, and baking.
Fermented tofu can be used as a great flavoring for certain dishes. On your quest for non-dairy products, you may have heard of Chao cheese, a product sold by Field Roast, in which they use fermented tofu to give their non-dairy cheeses their characteristic umami flavor. Fermented tofu is usually sold in a glass container with a rice wine, water, and salt brine.
High-protein Or Super Firm Tofu
This ultra-concentrated variety of tofu is the highest in protein, and its texture is the most similar to meat. However, it should be noted that it will dry out quickly when cooking, so keep an eye on it as it grills or fries in your pan.
Smoked Or Seasoned Tofu
Tofu sometimes comes pre-seasoned with herbs, soy sauce, or other condiments. This type of tofu is very convenient, as it requieres little preparation, and is usually firm, so it’s great for frying or grilling straight out of the package. However, you may also come across smoked tofu, which is usually smoked over tea leaves or beechwood, and can offer a deeper, unique flavor.
Tofu skin is simply the thin, solid layer that forms over top soy milk when it’s heated. They are then dried out and used as a wrap similar to spring rolls or marinated and fried with vegetables.
How Is Tofu Made?
Depending on the type of tofu, it can be processed a few different ways. However, the basic concept of the tofu production process is soy milk + coagulating agent + press. Three types of coagulants that can be used are salts, enzymes, or acids.
Typical salts used to coagulate soy milk are calcium sulfate and nigari. Today, the most common salt used to coagulate tofu is calcium sulfate. Nigari salts produce a smoother, softer tofu, while calcium sulfate can produce a firmer tofu that preserves the natural taste of the soybeans.
As for acids used to produce tofu, GDL and citric/acetic acid are most common. GDL is typically used to produce silken tofu, since the coagulation process is quicker, allowing it to coagulate inside the container its sold in, so it can stay in one piece before reaching the customer. Citric/acetic acid is also sometimes used, and this is one of the easiest methods for preparing tofu at home, since you can use lemon/vinegar and a cheesecloth to create a quick and easy DIY block of tofu. However, it’s not a common method in commercial tofu-making, as tofu producers generally try to preserve the original flavor of the soybeans, and the flavor of these acids are difficult to mask.
Finally, the enzymes used for tofu production are papain (papaya extract) and alkaline/neutral proteases, which are coagulants/gelling agents that are added to raw soy milk before heating, thus creating tofu.
Benefits Of Tofu
Soy sometimes gets a bad rap, since it’s been rumored to increase estrogen levels, which would alter our hormones and increase our risk of breast cancer. However, the studies displaying this conclusion have since been disproven, as it turns out the phytoestrogens (estrogen-like compounds found in soy) can mimic estrogen by binding to estrogen receptors as ‘weak estrogens’ and as a result, reduce estrogen levels in the body by taking the place of regular estrogens.
In fact, more recent studies have shown that those who consume larger quantities of quality soy products actually have a reduced risk of breast/prostate cancer. This would explain why those living in Asian countries, who have always consumed much more soy than those in Western countries, have also had much less cases of prostate cancer up until recently, when higher amounts of meat and dairy were introduced into their diets by Western influence.
In addition to its cancer-fighting properties, tofu offers plenty of nutrients, including iron (2.75mg in 100g tofu), calcium (345mg in 100g tofu), and protein (12.68g in 100g – depending on the type of tofu and how long it’s pressed)!
Tofu Vs. Tempeh
Tofu and tempeh share many similarities — they are both made out of soybeans, are high in plant protein and iron, and are used as meat replacements. However, their methods of preparation are drastically different. Tofu, as we saw earlier, is coagulated soy milk that is then pressed and sometimes fermented. Tempeh, on the other hand, is always fermented.
To make this Indonesian soy product, the soybeans are first soaked and briefly cooked. Then, the mold Rhizopus oligosporus or Rhizopus oryzae is mixed into the batch. The soybeans are soon bound by a white layer of mycelium, and after about 48 hours, the tempeh is ready to enjoy marinated and cooked!
While tofu offers many nutrients and protection against breast and prostate cancer, tempeh actually offers more nutrition and is more easily digested due to the fermentation process! It’s also less processed, since the soybeans remain intact. So, either one of these options is excellent, especially when consumed as a meat substitute.
1. Is Soy Safe?
As mentioned above, the isoflavones in soy have been linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer and prostate cancer. In a recent randomized study, Japanese women added more soy milk to their diet, while a control group did not add any additional soy milk to their diet. The group that was instructed to drink more soy milk experienced a considerable drop in female hormone levels. A similar experiment was conducted on Western women, and circulating estrogen levels were also greatly reduced. Finally, a study was conducted on Japanese men, and they experienced a drop in female hormone levels as well. So, not only is soy safe for most men and women (with the exception of those suffering from an underlying condition or a soy allergy), it’s a great source of protein, iron, calcium, and can potentially reduce your circulating estrogen levels, reducing your risk of hormone-sensitive cancers.
2. Is Soy Bad For The Environment?
Although soy is a huge cause of deforestation, this is mainly because it is one of the plants used to feed cattle. In fact, 80% of the soy produced in the Amazon Rainforest (accounting for 14% of the cause of deforestation in this region) is destined for cattle. In short, soy for human consumption is not the main issue. By switching from beef to tofu, or from dairy milk to soy milk, you can greatly reduce your water footprint, carbon footprint and land use.
3. Can Tofu Be Eaten Raw?
Since tofu is coagulated soy milk, and the soy milk has already been cooked, tofu is safe to eat both raw and cooked. In fact, silken tofu is usually enjoyed raw. Simply remember to rinse your tofu before consumption.
4. How Do I Use Firm/Regular Tofu?
Firm tofu is usually pressed (simply place between two chopping boards and add a heavy object over top — like a cast-iron pan or use a tofu press), marinated, then either fried or baked. However, you can also crumble your tofu to create a delicious tofu scramble or high-protein vegan bolognese sauce. Some also like to bread and deep fry their tofu, which is a delicious option, just remember to enjoy in moderation. A healthier alternative is air-fried tofu!
5. How Do I Use Silken Tofu?
Silken tofu is usually simply marinated and enjoyed chilled. However, it can also be added to smoothies for extra creaminess and protein. Another great option is to use it in creamy desserts, such as puddings, yogurts, or mousse. Some additional ways to use it are:
6. How Do I Cut My Block Of Tofu?
Tofu can be cut in many ways, or not cut at all (chilled silken tofu)! Here are some great ways to chop your block of tofu for beautiful presentation:
- Triangles: Place the block horizontally on the chopping board, and chop into 1” thick slices. Then, place each slice face down and cut them diagonally. Cut them diagonally in the other direction for smaller triangles.
- ‘Fillets’: Place the block of tofu horizontally on the chopping board and chop into 1-2” thick slices.
- Cubes: Place the block of tofu on the chopping board and chop in half. Then, cut down the narrow side of each half. Finally chop each 1/4th of your block of tofu into smaller cubes.
- Crumbled (for bolognese sauce or scrambled tofu): Simply break the tofu into small pieces using your hands or a potato masher.
7. How Should I Store My Tofu?
First, remember to keep your tofu in the fridge (unless it’s silken tofu in shelf-stable packaging) and do not open your tofu until you’re ready to use it. Once you have used it, if there is a piece left over, it’s important to place it in an airtight container and cover it in water. Then, keep it in the fridge for no longer than 4 days, and change the water every day until you can use it.
Alternatively, if you’ve bought too much tofu, you can always freeze any additional packages until you’re ready to use them. Then, defrost it in the fridge for 2 days. Just note that freezing tofu does change the texture a bit — it will be spongier and chewier; ideal for frying.
We hope you can now use tofu confidently, knowing it will do your body good and that it is an incredibly easy ingredient to work with in the kitchen. If you’d like more info on how you can use different types of tofu, and what kind of an effect this soy product has on the environment, make sure to check out our FAQs! Thanks for caring about the animals and our planet!