Tofu 101

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.

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!

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Member Comments

I needed to know what problems it might cause thanks. Report
I have a bag of dry soy beans. I'm going to attempt making my own tofu and save the soy milk. Will be interesting to see if it's success or a mess. I do love tofu and most all soy products. So does my son, maybe the way I prepare it. Report
ALWAYS make sure it is organic. Report
Where we currently live purchasing tofu is very limited and isn't always available. I just might have to try that recipe for making my own. Thanks Report
I think I might actually try tofu now that I understand what it is and how to choose and use it! I like that it will take on the flavor of the dish I use it in. Thanks for the basics!! Report
I was told to switch to soy products when I refused HRT in my early menopause, 20 years later I find out it is one of the major culprits in whacking out my thyroid along with other gmo products such as wheat, corn etc...Its not the soy itself, its the recent genetically altered varieties that is screwing things up...I have done a great deal of research on this. I am not expert but for myself I just steer clear of it.
This nutritional idea is excellent. Try my favorite california dinner Tofu, Miso soup. It's nice for lunch time and helps ease digestion. Report
I first tried tofu 30 years ago. Tried it a bazillion different ways. Never liked it. Thought it tasted like tasteless mush no matter how I seasoned/marinate
d/cooked it. Then I did some research on it and found how it screws up your thyroid and other hormones as well as most of it being genetically modified so farmers could spray more pesticides or herbicides on it without it dying.

So, finally found good reasons for not eating soy and not feeling guilty about not eating it. Report
I really love tofu....esp since living in Japan. However, I wanted to add ( sorry if already said I didn't feel like reading 50+ comments lol ) that it is so important that you choose an organic tofu at the grocery. Those that are not organic are most likely made of GMO soy and soooo not good for you. Have fun experimenting if you haven't yet, it's so good in Asian recipes! Report
This article is very lacking in adequate research. The only soy that is actually decent for you is fermented soy, of which tofu is not. Tempeh, miso, etc.,. Also, people with endocrine issues should NOT use soy regularly and should drastically limit their intake. Soy is not the health food it is being made out to be. Not to mention, 85% (and climbing) is a genetically modified product. Report
okay I understand the article, but the comments have me confused. Guess I will give it a try and see how my body reacts to it. Report
1thirty3 is correct - tofu has its own flavor. It tastes like a very mild bean, and the flavor comes out when it's warm. It takes a lot of time to acquire this taste, but it's worth it. You can learn this flavor by adding cubes of soft or medium tofu to broths, or scrambled with eggs. It's just a little bit like cottage cheese or paneer (Indian fresh cheese) or Mexican fresh cheese. The difference is that it tastes like beans, not like milk.

The texture takes some getting used to as well. The soft or silken type are a soft custard. Eaten Japanese style, with chopped green onion and soy sauce, some of the flavor comes out. If you go with a milder sauce or dressing you like (something savory or sweet), you can really develop a feel for it.

When you develop the ability to taste the tofu, the differences between types and brands will jump out at you. Report
Thank you for the great information about tofu... I needed it! I learned a lot and shared it with my husband who likes to cook! I like tofu and soy products in different ways and don't eat enough to harm my thyroid or hormones. It's something I like, but don't eat everyday. Thanks again!
Peace, Mysti~ Report
whatever! anything is bad for you if not enjoyed in moderation. even fruit and vegetables can be bad for you. every side has their own opinions and each side will change the facts in their favor. meat is bad , tofu is bad. what should i eat!!!!!!!!!!! Report
Here's an article I suggest you read also before going "too tofu"...
lle/soydangers.pdf Report

About The Author

Liza Barnes
Liza Barnes
Liza has two bachelor's degrees: one in health promotion and education and a second in nursing. A registered nurse and mother, regular exercise and cooking are top priorities for her. See all of Liza's articles.
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