How to Make Tofu

tofu in pan next to vegetables

Tofu is one of those foods that instantly create divisions among diners. Odd, crumbly, and sometimes jiggly and slimy, it’s a mysterious white block floating in liquid like something pickled, but it’s not pickled. It’s just floating in water, bobbing in its little package like a science experiment. So what is it exactly?

What Is Tofu?

Tofu is made up of three ingredients: soybeans, water, and a coagulant—usually nigari (magnesium chloride) or gypsum (calcium sulfate). Soy milk, prepared with soybeans and water, is the precursor to tofu the way milk is the precursor to cheese. A coagulant is added to soy milk to create curds and whey, similar to the way cheese is made. Tofu is kind of like plant-based cheese. When made and prepared correctly, it is oh, so good. When it’s not, well—we’re back to a flavorless albino block.

How Is Tofu Made?

To make tofu, you need a lot of tools and dishes, but not many ingredients. Like making cheese, much of the tofu-making process comes down to timing, but it requires a lot less of it. In fact, after you have your soy milk made, you can make tofu in under an hour.

The recipe that follows has developed from a lot of reading and trial and error.The only ingredient that will really change your end result is the coagulant. Nigari, which has a slightly bitter taste that many people happen to like, is often used to make this recipe. If this is not to your liking, gypsum results in a less bitter taste and creates the same firm, smooth tofu as nigari (and it adds a lot of calcium to your block, too). Some recipes recommend using Epsom salt, which sounds nice because it’s widely available, but it results in a grainy tofu that’s neither tender nor firm. 

Before you get started, pause and get things in order, especially if you’re the kind of home cook that’s prone to panic at the precise moment a pot starts boiling. Have your cheesecloth and all of your utensils out on a table or counter before you begin, and be prepared to stand and look at a pot for about 15 minutes when adding the coagulant. You also should be prepared to make a mess—like many DIY projects, your table will look like you made a lot more than just a block of tofu when you’re done.

Be creative and use what you have to make it happen. You can use anything as a mold for tofu, so feel free to get creative.

Soy Milk Step 1: Soak the Beans

First of all, you need to make your soy milk. Pick up some dried non-GMO soybeans from a health food store another grocery or market. You’ll need about 3 cups to make a block of tofu.

Place 3 cups of dried soybeans in a medium mixing bowl. Cover with water by about 2 inches. Let soak overnight. In the morning, drain the beans, and get ready to make soy milk.

Set out:

  • A blender
  • A dry measuring cup
  • A liquid measuring cup
  • A large pot
  • A wooden spoon
  • A mixing bowl
  • Cheesecloth
  • A fine mesh strainer

Soy Milk Step 2: Blend With Water

Place drained, soaked soybeans into a blender with 8 cups of water. Blend until very creamy and frothy.

Soy Milk Step 3: Cook, Then Strain

Pour the liquid into a large pot, and place over medium heat on the stove. Cook, stirring often and skimming and discarding any froth or foam that forms, until steam, begins to rise from the surface of the liquid but the liquid does not boil.

Take care not to burn your milk here and be sure to constantly scrape the bottom of the pot with your wooden spoon—if your soymilk burns on the bottom, your tofu will taste disgusting. If you burn it, throw out your batch and start over.

Once the soy milk starts to get seriously foamy (like beer) and rise up the sides of the pot, move it off of the heat immediately and do not let it boil over. Set your fine mesh strainer over a mixing bowl (the strainer should fit in the top of the mixing bowl but not touch the bottom). Line the strainer with cheesecloth, and leave plenty of it hanging off of the edges.

Pour the cooked soymilk into the cheesecloth-lined strainer. Allow this to cool for at least an hour or two or until cool enough to handle.

Soy Milk Step 4: Press, Then Cook Again

Once your soy milk is cool, gather up the sides of the cheesecloth in your hands, forming a sack. Press out the remaining soy milk from the solids. Once all of the milk has been squeezed from the sack, you should have about 8 cups of soy milk. Transfer the soy milk back into the pot, and discard or save the solids, called okara, to use in cooking.

Cook the soy milk a second time, again over medium heat. Stir often to prevent scorching. When steam forms on the surface of the soy milk, turn down the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes. Now you’re ready to make tofu!

Before you make your tofu, make sure your supplies are set out and at the ready.

Set out:

  • 1 T. coagulant (gypsum or nigari)
  • A liquid measuring cup filled with ½ cup water
  • A wooden spoon
  • A well-fitting lid for the pot
  • Cheesecloth
  • Tofu mold (either an actual mold or a homemade rig), lined with several layers of cheesecloth
  • A mixing bowl
  • About 2 ½ pounds of weights

Tofu Step 1: Add the Coagulant in Four Additions

Stir the soy milk several times and remove any skin that has formed (you can eat this or discard it). Turn off the heat. Combine the coagulant with the water, mixing to dissolve. Stir the soy milk vigorously for 10 seconds, then add 1/4 of the coagulant mixture, stirring several times more and then gently lifting the spoon out of the pot.

Sprinkle another 1/4 of the coagulant over the top of the soy milk, then cover the pot and allow it to sit for 3 minutes. Stir just the surface of the soy milk for a few seconds, then sprinkle the next 1/4 of the coagulant over the surface of the soy milk. Cover the pot again for 3 to 5 minutes. Gently stir the soy milk, then add the final 1/4 of coagulant. Cover and let sit for another 3 minutes.

By now, your soy milk should no longer look like soy milk; you should have a pot of pale yellow whey and whitish curds.

Tofu Step 2: Drain the Whey, Mold the Tofu

This is where things get messy. With your cheesecloth-lined tofu mold or homemade rig nearby and also your mixing bowl, begin separating the whey from the curds. Press the small fine mesh strainer into the mixture, pressing down the solid curds and allowing the whey to fill the cup. Use your ladle to scoop up the whey and transfer it to the mixing bowl. Continue to do this until the curds feel firm against the back of the strainer and there is no longer enough whey for you to scoop out of the pot.

Transfer the curds into the prepared mold, cover with a layer or two of cheesecloth, place the top of your mold on top and place your weights on top of this to press it down. Allow your tofu to sit for 15-25 minutes for a firm to extra-firm tofu.

What to Do With Tofu

Chill your tofu in the fridge until firm enough to cut, then cut it into cubes and bake it, fry it, or steam it. If you want to wait a few days, place it in fresh, cold water for up to three days. Or you can add a little bit of salt and pepper and serve it right away with rice and veggies—it’s a little crumbly this way, but still full of the fresh flavor of a job well done.

Tofu Recipes

Here are a handful of favorite recipes that use tofu:

This piece originally appeared by Ashley Adams in the Anchorage Press.