Let’s acknowledge the obvious: tofu can be polarizing. If you didn’t grow up eating it, or aren’t vegetarian, it’s one of those foods you’re unlikely to pick up on a whim and start experimenting with. Many are weirded out by its spongy texture, while others have heard the rumor it’s bad for women’s health and have since stayed far away.
I hope the tofu guide below dispels some myths and inspires you to give this multifaceted ingredient a go!
First off, what is tofu?
Tofu is a soy-based food. It’s made by grinding and cooking soybeans, turning them into milk (much like you would make almond milk), then coagulating that milk, and pressing the resulting curds into a block. It’s a lot like making cheese, actually.
Tofu originated in China ~2,000 years ago and quickly found its way across Southeast Asia. Here in the States, it’s commonly (albeit, mistakenly) thought of as a meat substitute, but it really stands in a category of its own, and you don’t have to be vegetarian to love tofu.
OK, so is tofu bad for you?
I heard it causes cancer and stuff…
Um, no. First of all, it’s not really accurate to claim that any one food causes cancer because research is not that sophisticated yet. The confusion with soy is due to the fact that it contains estrogen-like compounds called “isoflavones”. Some studies have suggested that isoflavones could increase the growth of cancer cells, mimic estrogen in the body, and even impact fertility. Yikes.
The important distinction here is that these claims pertain to highly processed soy isolates – those found in protein powders, supplements, and other processed foods – where isoflavones can exist at unnaturally concentrated levels.
These claims do not pertain to whole soybeans/edamame or minimally processed soy products like tofu, tempeh, miso, or soy milk. In fact, Asian communities with a high lifetime consumption of soy are actually shown to have lower instances of breast cancer.
The moral of the story: minimally processed soy foods are perfectly safe in moderation and actually really good for you. Soy is one of the few plant-based foods that’s a complete protein, and it’s high in fiber and a variety of minerals. If you have a specific health concern, talk to a nutritionist about whether soy is safe for you.
Cool. So what kind do I buy?
Tofu is sold in varying degrees of firmness, from silken to extra-firm; the firmer the tofu, the lower its water content. Creamy-textured silken tofu is commonly blended into vegan custards, smoothies, and desserts, or served as an appetizer, like Japanese hiyayakko.
I use extra-firm tofu exclusively because it slices easily and is firm enough to fry, grill, and bake. I like Nasoya but whichever brand you buy, make sure it’s organic and non-GMO.
Do I really have to press it?
Firm tofu is typically pressed before cooking to eliminate excess moisture. Pressed tofu is better at absorbing seasonings and caramelizing (getting browned on the outside). If you’re pressed for time (oh man, that’s a corny pun), you can skip this step, but know that your tofu will be more watery and less chewy. Different brands of tofu have different levels of moisture, so pressing time may vary.
You can buy a tofu press if you want, but I like to use what I already have. To press tofu, I put the block on a plate, top it with another plate or a small cutting board, and weigh it down with something heavy (like a couple of cans/jars). Then I let it stand for 15-30 minutes, periodically draining off the excess water.
I think tofu is bland…
True, tofu does have a mild flavor. Like chicken or cauliflower, think of tofu as a blank canvas for whatever flavors you want to infuse it with.
My favorite way to flavor tofu is to season it with dried herbs and spices (my fav combo is smoked paprika, garlic powder, salt, and pepper). You can also marinade it, like my baked tofu recipe, or drizzle cooked tofu with a fun sauce, like my sesame ginger dressing.
Sounds easy enough. So how do I cook it?
To quote Bubba from Forrest Gump, “you can barbecue it, boil it, broil it, bake it, saute it…” Seriously though, tofu is super versatile and can be cooked in a lot of ways. It can be: sliced and seared/grilled; crumbled to resemble a scrambled egg texture; marinated and baked; or cubed and added to soups/sauces.
Below, I’ve rounded up my favorite tofu recipes – some from me and others from around the interwebs. Enjoy!
Easy Baked Tofu
Marinated and baked tofu destined for salads and grain bowls. Perfect for meal prep.
Caramelized Tofu with Brussels Sprouts and Pecans
Recipe and photo by Heidi Swanson of 101 Cookbooks
Sick Day Noodle Soup with Shiitakes, Kale and Tofu
An Asian-inspired non-chicken alternative to the classic.