Healthy and versatile, tofu (a curd made from soy milk) has been used in Asian cooking for around 2,000 years, perhaps making it one of the earliest convenience foods. Tofu has become increasingly popular in western diets thanks to its low-calorie, low-fat plant-based protein.
But perhaps you’ve looked at the watery blocks in the supermarket and wondered what you can possibly do with it. It’s easy to get tofu wrong - using the wrong kind of tofu, not draining it properly or cooking it in a way that doesn’t suit its type can all leave you with a bland, tasteless mush. But good tofu is a wonderful thing, its mild taste can become a carrier for a range of delicious flavours, and its soft texture changed to a beautifully flavourful, crispy or chewy ingredient suitable for a wide range of recipes, or even blended into a rich and creamy dessert.
Why eat tofu?
Tofu is a superfood. Not only is it low in fat and high in protein (8g per 100g), it also contains all nine of the essential amino acids, as well as calcium and iron. 100g of tofu will include 35% of your recommended daily calcium intake and 30% of your recommended iron.
Find out about the health benefits of tofu
How is tofu made?
Making tofu is a lot like making cheese, but using soy milk as the base instead of animal milk. Soy beans are cleaned, soaked, ground, filtered, boiled, coagulated and finally pressed. The most complex and variable step is the coagulation stage and the different methods used can create different textures and nutritional content. The main coagulants are salts and acids, and tofu can be made at home using lemon juice, vinegar or salty water.
The different types of tofu
Silken tofu is a very smooth, unpressed Japanese tofu usually found with Japanese ingredients in the world food aisle, or sometimes the free from pantry section of the supermarket. Silken tofu has a creamy consistency, it falls apart and turns to mush easily. In Japan it is most commonly used with added flavours or sweeteners to make desserts and sauces. It can also be used instead of eggs to make eggless quiches and frittatas. Confusingly, silken tofu will often be labelled silken firm or silken extra firm, depending on how high the water content is. Don’t confuse them with medium or firm block tofu, anything labelled ‘silken’ will have a high water content.
A Chinese supermarket might sell ‘soft tofu’, the Chinese equivalent of silken tofu, for use in sauces and desserts.
Medium tofu is delicate but not as soft as silken tofu. It can be sliced but will crack when handled too much. Stir frying will make the tofu fall apart but it can be used to make tofu scramble or tofu fried rice, and is often crumbled up and used in soups.
Firm tofu holds its shape when sliced and fried, and it absorbs flavours well, making it a versatile ingredient and an excellent choice for stir fries. It’s the tofu you would be most likely to use in day-to-day cooking, and when following a recipe asking for unspecified ‘tofu’ this is the one you should probably get. It will need draining (see below) to improve consistency.
Extra-firm tofu is dense and slightly chewy. It holds its shape better than any of the other tofu varieties and is a good alternative to paneer in Indian recipes and works well deep-fried. If you’re planning on barbecuing your tofu you should definitely find some extra-firm tofu.
UK supermarkets often sell pre-marinated tofu. This is firm tofu that has been marinated to make it easier to cook, making it a good option for anyone lacking time or confidence, but it is an expensive way to buy tofu and is really a convenience item – good for snacking on the go or taking to picnics.
If you’re lucky enough to have a good Asian supermarket in the area they’ll probably be selling puffed tofu. Puffed tofu has been deep fried in advance, filling the firm tofu with pockets of air. It has a chewy consistency and is very absorbent, making it a good choice for soups and stews. It doesn't need any draining.
If you’ve already bought your tofu you’ve probably noticed it’s a bit wet, unless it's puffed or pre-marinated. Unless you’re using silken tofu to make a dessert or sauce, you’ll probably need to drain the excess water. Watery tofu doesn’t absorb flavour so you need to get lots of moisture out before cooking, and there are a couple of ways you could do this.
Block tofu comes packed in water so should be drained before use to stop it being too watery. Tofu presses are widely used in Asia, but a low-cost option is to wrap the tofu in a clean tea towel, place a flat baking sheet on top and gently weigh it down with a book to squeeze out the excess liquid. Allow the tofu to drain for about 10 minutes. Drying the tofu improves its ability to marinate and makes it less likely to have a slimy consistency when cooked.
Freezing tofu changes the texture as the freezing process dries it out. This means you can skip the draining process when it comes to cooking. Boiling a block of frozen tofu until thoroughly defrosted puffs it up in a way reminiscent of deep frying (minus the unhealthy oil!) and the air pockets created makes it easier for the tofu to absorb flavours from marinating and cooking.
Adding flavour to tofu
Tofu is usually paired with Asian flavours of soy sauce (or tamari sauce to make it gluten-free), ginger, garlic, sesame oil and chilli, but it’s so versatile you can use a lot more flavours. Soak in barbecue sauce for a healthy alternative to barbecue ribs, or coat in a salt and pepper cornstarch mix for takeaway favourite crispy salt and pepper tofu.
Kala namak, or Himalayan black salt, is a pungent sulphurous rock salt popular in South Asian cuisine and found in Indian and Nepalese shops. Don’t be put off by its strong smell – a little goes a long way and just a small amount can add an eggy taste to a range of dishes. Use it to make tofu scramble, quiche or frittata.
It’s a common misconception that raw tofu benefits from marinating – most of us don’t have the time it would take to marinate raw tofu. Lightly fry the tofu before marinating – this dries the tofu out even more, creating pockets of air for the flavourful juices to sit in.
How to cook tofu
The most common way of preparing tofu is to fry it. This can be as part of a tofu stir fry, to top salads or use in sandwiches. Use firm tofu that has been dried out using either the draining or freezing method described above and cut into blocks or strips. Ideally fry in a mix of sesame oil with a splash of soy sauce to add flavour, and add chilli flakes and/or chopped garlic to infuse the oil, if you like.
Recipe: Easy supergreen stir-fry with marinated tofu
Recipe: Crispy tofu with orange and macadamia nuts
Recipe: Mapo tofu
Baking tofu is a good way to give tofu a nice, crispy consistency without using as much oil as stir-frying. Drain the water out of your firm tofu, cube and toss in a little sesame oil (vegetable oil is okay too) with some soy sauce or tamari sauce. A little cornstarch will give it a crispy coating. Bake in the oven at 200C (gas mark 6) for about 25 minutes, turning halfway through. This crispy tofu can be added to stir-fries, salads or even just eaten as it is. Baking tofu in slices allows it to be eaten as a ‘steak’ with potatoes and seasonal vegetables, or sliced thinly and used in sandwiches – using liquid smoke will give it a smoky bacon-like taste, ideal for a TLT with tofu, lettuce, tomato and mayonnaise.
Recipe: Crispy baked tofu
Recipe: Baked tofu slices
Recipe: Tofu, lettuce and tomato sandwich
Extra-firm tofu is best for barbecuing, as you absolutely need a tofu that will hold its shape over the grill. The pieces should also be large to prevent it breaking up and falling through. Press the tofu well to reduce the amount of water, and then rub it with oil to prevent it sticking to the grill. The low fat content of tofu means it sticks more easily than meat – if you notice it sticking as you turn brush with a little more oil.
If you struggle to find extra-firm tofu, or would prefer to eat smaller chunks, it’s a better idea to bake the tofu with barbecue sauce, cook it under the oven’s grill or cook in a griddle pan on the barbecue.
Recipe: Teriyaki tofu
Recipe: Baked BBQ tofu
Recipe: Grilled tofu skewers with spicy peanut sauce
Boiled might sound boring, but if tofu is boiled in a flavourful broth or stew it needn’t be. Boiling also allows you to alter the texture – the longer it’s boiled the firmer the texture will be. If you want a more meat-like consistency it will need to be boiled for at least 20 minutes to allow the edges to toughen up, but five minutes is enough to heat it through and keep it creamy. Boiling tofu is a really easy way to incorporate it into your diet and it’s perfectly suited to Asian-inspired soups.
Recipe: Chinese braised aubergine with tofu
Recipe: Kimchii jjigae
Recipe: Chinese hot and sour soup
If you’re watching your cholesterol level or have an egg allergy tofu scramble is a good alternative to scrambled eggs. Using different tofu types will give you a different scramble consistency, so use silken or soft if you prefer a more runny scramble, or extra-firm if you want scramble with a bit of bite to it. Drain away what you can of the water (don’t worry if the tofu falls apart at this stage). Using kala namak, or black salt, will give the scramble an eggy taste. Kala namak is available from Indian or Nepalese stores. Despite its name it is pink in colour, resembling Himalayan salt, but it has a sulphurous odour reminiscent of eggs.
For a basic tofu scramble use ½ teaspoon kala namak (for the eggy taste), ½ teaspoon turmeric (for the pale yellow colour) and salt and pepper to taste. Lightly fry with the tofu until the tofu is heated through.
You can get as creative as you like with the scramble – chilli, chopped and softened fried peppers and onions and a sprinkle of fresh coriander at the end makes a good Tex-Mex style scramble, or add a dash of soy sauce, chopped fresh chilli, a little grated fresh ginger and a sprinkling of spring onions for an Asian inspired scramble.
Recipe: Tofu scramble shakshuka
Recipe: Tofu scramble
As with the scramble, making a quiche out of tofu is ideal for anyone with allergies, health concerns or dietary requirements. A block of firm silken tofu will turn into a thick, creamy liquid when blended and once baked will harden up again, creating a very similar consistency to quiche. While in its blended state you can add herbs and spices for additional flavour. Powdered garlic and onion, kala namak, salt and pepper will all give it a flavour boost. A little turmeric will give it some colour. The mixture can then be poured into your flan tin with whatever filling you like (roasted vegetables are always a winner – just chop courgettes, aubergines, cherry tomatoes and onions and roast for about 20 minutes).
Recipe: Simple tofu quiche
It might sound unusual to make a dessert out of tofu but it has been used that way in Asia, where lactose intolerance is common, for an extremely long time. Blending creamy silken tofu into a silky smooth custard consistency can be used to make a wide range of desserts, including tofu chocolate mousse, lemon posset, cheesecake and more.
Recipe: Lemon posset with shortbread
Recipe: Vegan chocolate pot
Burmese soy-free tofu
For anyone with a soy allergy there's Burmese tofu, the soy-free tofu that isn't actually tofu. Burmese tofu is still vegan and gluten-free, but instead of soy it uses chickpea flour, otherwise known as besan or gram flour. It has a similar texture to tofu and can replace tofu in a lot of recipes. Making it is a lot like making polenta - simply cook it on the stove top and leave to set. Chickpea flour can also be used to make a vegan egg-free omelette.
Recipe: Burmese tofu
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