If you're new to vegetarian, vegan, or Asian cooking, there are plenty of ways to incorporate tofu. This versatile plant-based protein can be enjoyed in any number of dishes, including dessert.
What Is Tofu?
Tofu, sometimes called bean curd or soybean curd, is a creamy, high-protein, low-fat soy product typically sold in blocks. Tofu is also high in calcium and iron. It's made from soybeans, water, and a coagulant or curdling agent, and absorbs flavors through spices, sauces, and marinades.
Due to its versatility and nutritional value, this staple of Asian cuisines for hundreds of years has more recently become popular in Western vegetarian and vegan cooking. Tofu is an affordable way to include plant-based protein in your diet, typically costing less than $2 for a two- to four-serving block. It's possible to make tofu from scratch at home, but the process is time-consuming and the technique requires practice.
How to Cook Tofu
The naturally high water content of firm or extra-firm tofu makes it necessary to first drain and press it, otherwise, it won't absorb flavors and take on a firm, crisp texture when you cook it. Some recipes also recommend that you freeze and thaw tofu before you marinate it, as this creates tiny pockets within the block that help it absorb and retain flavor. It also gives it a meatier, chewier texture.
Once it's pressed, cut the tofu into the desired shape and size (slices, slabs, cubes, or crumble with your fingers) before you begin cooking. Tofu can be seared, grilled, fried, steamed, stewed, braised, baked, roasted, deep-fried, and even "scrambled" for a vegan-friendly version of scrambled eggs.
What Does It Taste Like?
You may not even notice the mild flavor of tofu on its own. Rather, tofu takes on the flavor of whatever it's seasoned or cooked with, adding substance, nutrition, and texture to the dish as a whole.
Cooking with tofu is generally very easy. Here are a few quick and simple recipes to get you started:
Where to Buy Tofu
Tofu can be found at most supermarkets around the United States. You'll find a wider variety of brands and styles (including soy-free alternatives such as hemp tofu) at Asian grocers, health food stores, and specialty and fine food markets. Tofu is typically sold in individual 14-ounce blocks immersed in water, to maintain its moisture content. It is not ordinarily sold in bulk. Some Asian markets sell freshly made tofu in rectangular or triangular blocks—look for fresh, smooth, creamy-hued product sitting in small bins of chilled, clear water.
Uncooked tofu should remain immersed in water sealed in its original packaging until ready for use. If you purchased it from the refrigerator section, keep it refrigerated, even unopened. Tofu in shelf-stable packaging can be stored in the pantry.
Refrigerate any unused portion immersed in water in a sealed container for up to three days. Changing the water daily will prolong the tofu's freshness. You can also store leftover cooked tofu in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to three days.
You can freeze firmer varieties for up to three months, though you may notice a change in the color to a yellowish hue. For best results, cut the tofu into slabs or cubes sized for cooking, freeze them in a single layer on a cookie sheet, then store them in a plastic zip-top freezer bag or other airtight container. Defrost tofu in the refrigerator before using it.
Nutrition and Benefits
Tofu is an excellent source of protein for vegetarians and vegans, with more than 10 grams per half-cup serving and a variety of other essential nutrients. It's also low in fat and calories, although accompanying sauces can significantly alter the nutritional profile of a dish containing tofu.
Tofu vs. Tempeh
Tempeh is another soy-based protein, but unlike tofu, tempeh is made from compressed whole fermented soybeans instead of soy milk. It is higher in protein and fiber than tofu and has a firmer, chewier texture that stands up well to marinating, grilling, and frying. You'll find tofu and tempeh in the same section at the grocery store.
Tofu comes in different degrees of firmness: silken, soft, firm, and extra-firm. Silken is best for blending into smoothies and desserts, as well as in Japanese miso soup. Soft is ideal for heartier soups and stews, and firm and extra-firm stand up well to stir-frying, deep-frying, and baking. These styles are very different in terms of texture and culinary properties, so check the label to make sure you're buying the right tofu for the recipe you're making.
It has been suggested that the phytoestrogens in tofu and other soy-based products may contribute to adverse effects in men, such as gynecomastia, or enlarged breast tissue. However, there has been no conclusive evidence showing a correlation between soy intake and this type of physiological change.
US Department of Agriculture. FoodData Central. Tofu, firm, prepared with calcium sulfate and magnesium chloride (nigari). Updated April 1, 2020.