What comes to mind when you hear the word “tofu”? For some, it’s a delicious, versatile ingredient used in many different types of cuisines. For others, it’s a bland block of curd that they swear to never touch.
In reality, tofu is a soy-based protein that is low in unhealthy fats and easy on the wallet. So why is it so stigmatized? Because it’s unfamiliar! Many people have never cooked or tried tofu before, so they assume it’s some sort of “fake meat.” But tofu isn’t trying to be meat at all; it’s a protein source all its own, just like beans and lentils. So no need to fear tofu! Instead, let’s learn about what it is and how to cook it!
A Brief History of Tofu
Tofu originally comes from China. While we cannot know how it came to be for certain, legend says that it was accidentally “discovered” when a Chinese cook added seaweed to soy milk. Much to the cook’s surprise, the milk curdled—and tofu was born!
Tofu: An Affordable Source of Lean Protein
While protein is an important part of our diet, not all protein sources are created equal. It’s important that we eat a variety of proteins that are low in saturated fat. Consuming too much saturated fat will raise your “bad” cholesterol (LDL), which increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. While some protein sources come with large amounts of saturated fat, tofu does not, making it a great protein option. Substituting tofu once a week for another protein higher in saturated fat will increase variety in your diet and improve your health in the long run.
Tofu is also an economical source of protein. One pound of tofu typically costs between $2.00 and $2.50. Other forms of protein tend to be a bit more expensive; for example, chicken breasts and ground beef average at about $3.27 per pound, pork at $3.90 per pound, and steak at $6.86 per pound. You can cut some costs by using tofu as your protein source in your meals once or twice a week!
Types of Tofu
Tofu is categorized by its texture. There are four main types of tofu: silken, soft, firm, and extra-firm. While all of these types are a soy-based protein, they contain varying amounts of water, creating their different textures. The softest tofu is silken tofu; it contains the most water and has a creamy texture. The hardest tofu is extra-firm tofu; it contains the least water and therefore has a sturdier texture.
So, which kind of tofu do you need for your meal? Well, it depends on what you are making. Typically, a recipe will call for a specific firmness level of tofu. However, some types are best for specific kinds of meals. Silken and soft tofu, for example, are most commonly used in soft foods, such as smoothies, puddings, dips, and desserts. Firm and extra-firm, on the contrary, are typically used in dishes where the tofu will be kept in its whole form, such as stir-fries and curries.
There is some flexibility within these categories, so use the kind of tofu you like! You wouldn’t want to use silken tofu in a stir-fry or extra-firm in a smoothie, but if a recipe calls for firm tofu but you prefer extra-firm, use extra-firm! If the texture of the tofu will be able to meet the needs of the recipe you’re using, don’t be afraid to make substitutions.
Note: If you are looking for non-GMO tofu, look for the words “organic” or “non-GMO” on the package.
How to Press Tofu
Although firm and extra-firm tofu contain less water than silken and soft tofu, they still must be pressed before being cooked. This will not only improve the texture but also allow it to absorb more of the flavors in which it is cooked.
To press tofu, wrap it in clean kitchen towels or paper towels. Place the wrapped tofu flat on a plate. Place another plate on top of the wrapped tofu and put something heavy (e.g. cookbooks, unopened cans of beans) on top of the plate. The weight on top of the tofu will press out the excess water. Let the tofu drain for at least 30 minutes. If the towels become too wet to absorb more water during the process, exchange them for new, dry towels.
How to Store Tofu
Unopened tofu can be stored in your fridge just like it is in the store—in the package it came in. Once the tofu is open, however, store it in an airtight container with enough water to cover the tofu. Change the water every day. Open tofu can be stored for up to five days in the refrigerator.
You can also freeze tofu. Freezing tofu makes it both firmer and more absorbent, so it can more easily soak up the flavors of your dish. To freeze tofu, drain it using the process described above. Then, cut it into slabs or cubes and store it in freezer bags for up to five months. Defrost in the fridge overnight or in cold water or the microwave before using.
How to Cook Tofu
Tofu is super versatile, so there are tons of ways to cook it! Here are some ideas for firm and extra-firm tofu (remember: silken and soft are best for creamy foods):
Make a delicious marinade and marinate your drained tofu for several hours or overnight. Bake it in the oven at 400 degrees for 35 to 45 minutes, flipping halfway through. Baked tofu is great on salads, sandwiches, and grain bowls!
Tofu can be sautéed just like meat or vegetables. Heat oil in a pan, and add your drained tofu. To sear the tofu well, make sure the pan is hot before you add the tofu. And don’t forget to stir it so it doesn’t stick! Add whatever seasonings you like—or sauté marinated tofu. Sautéed tofu is a great addition to stir-fries and curries.
Tofu is great on the grill! Cut your drained tofu into long strips and grill for about ten minutes, flipping halfway through. Light grill marks will appear on the tofu. Season however you like! Pair your grilled tofu with grilled veggies to make kebabs.
Crumble your tofu into small pieces and cook it in a pan with your favorite seasonings. Use crumbled tofu in tacos, stews, wraps, salads, or to top pasta.
A tofu cooking tip: If you want your tofu to be crispy, toss it in cornstarch. You want only a light coating of cornstarch; shake off excess into a bowl or over the sink.
For more information on how to store and cook tofu, click here.
Looking for some tofu inspiration? Try these recipes below!