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Tofu 101

Go from Confused to Connoisseur
  -- By Liza Barnes, Health Educator

So you’ve heard of tofu, maybe you’ve read about it, and perhaps you’ve even seen it at the supermarket or hanging around the appetizer table at a party. But even though you know it won't hurt you—and you might even like to be introduced someday—you’ve refrained because you’re just not sure. Well this mysterious food doesn’t have anything to hide…

Let's start at the very beginning of the tofu story. Tofu was invented over 2,000 years ago in China. Like many great inventions, tofu was an accident. Legend has it that a chef, attempting to flavor soymilk with nigari (a crystallized salt) wound up with curdled soymilk. The adventurous chef then tasted the curdles and fortunately, shared the discovery with everyone. Tofu has evolved over the many years since its discovery, branching off from the original product into a plethora of varieties. All those choices can be confusing for the beginner tofu connoisseur, so here’s a guide to all the species of tofu.

Tofu: Plain and Simple
To describe tofu as soybean curd turns many people off, so try this analogy: Cheese is to cow’s milk as tofu is to soymilk. Although the flavor is not at all the same as cheese, a similar process is used to make it. While you won’t see a product called "plain tofu" on the supermarket shelves, what you will see is basic tofu prepared many different ways. But before we delve into the varieties, let’s get the basics straight. <pagebreak>

For you do-it-yourselfers out there—or for those who just want a better understanding—here is a simple, step-by-step description of how basic tofu is made.

  1. Soak soybeans overnight until tender, then bring to a boil.
  2. Blend the soybeans with water to make a slush.
  3. Strain the slush through a cheesecloth, reserving the liquid. (This liquid is soymilk.)
  4. Add a coagulating agent (nigari, lemon juice, etc.) to the soymilk to curdle it.
  5. Press the curdles into the shape you desire.

This basic recipe is modified to make many different products. Now let’s talk varieties.

Firm Tofu
This is tofu that has a firm texture. You’ll find "Firm" and "Extra-Firm" styles, but actual textures vary greatly by brand. Firm style tofu is best for stir-fries, or for replacing meat in a recipe. The best thing about these varieties is that they take on the flavor of the dish into which they are incorporated. So you can spice, sweeten, or marinate to your hearts content—you decide the flavor. Firm varieties of tofu are available in both refrigerated and shelf-stable packages. Just open, drain the water, slice, and cook as desired. If you don’t use the whole block at once, cover the rest with water and store (tightly covered) in the refrigerator for up to five days, changing the water daily.

Soft Tofu
This is tofu that has a much softer texture. "Soft" or "Silken" varieties are good for making smoothies, pudding, soups, or any other creamy dish—just scoop it straight from the package into the blender or mixing bowl. Like firm tofu, it takes on the flavor of its respective dish, is available in both refrigerated and shelf-stable packages, and should be stored in the fridge after opening.

Flavored Tofu
Relatively new to the scene, flavored tofu has become a popular variety. Basically it’s just plain tofu, already spiced, seasoned, marinated, or smoked for you. It can be eaten right out of the package, on sandwiches or salads, or incorporated into recipes like stir-fries. It is available in the refrigerated section of supermarkets and natural foods stores, and can be kept in your fridge until the best by date. Just make sure you keep it tightly sealed to prevent it from drying out.

With all of the brands of tofu on the market, you’ll have to do some taste testing to find your favorites. But armed with some basic tofu knowledge, you might feel a little less overwhelmed and more likely to enjoy the adventure. So the next time you run into some tofu, give it a chance- you'll be surprised at how delicious it can be!