If there’s one plant-based ingredient that many people seem to be intimidated by, it’s tofu. I totally get it. Tofu, on its own, is kind of a blank canvas. Well, less of a canvas and more of a blob of… what is it anyway? Don’t worry, we’ll cover that. In this post, I aim to help you get more comfortable with tofu. We’ll talk about what it is, what it can be used for, how to cook with it and more. So, let’s get to it, cooking with tofu!
What Is Tofu?
This is a common question for anyone who is new to plant-based eating. We know it comes in a package, but in the beginning, most of us have no idea what tofu is and how it’s made. Never mind how to cook with it. Let’s remedy that today.
Tofu, also referred to as bean curd, is made from soybeans that have been blended with water. The mixture is then heated and coagulated (changed to a semi-solid state). The curds are then separated from the remaining water and pressed into a block.
That block may not seem like much, but it’s an extremely versatile ingredient, and a staple in most vegan and plant-based kitchens. In terms of flavour, it really is a blank canvas and will absorb the flavours of any ingredients added to it.
You can make tofu taste like almost anything if you know how to flavour foods. Often, when people don’t enjoy the flavour of tofu it is because it wasn’t well seasoned or otherwise flavoured by the cook. We’ll get to some flavouring tips later in this post, so your tofu will be delicious right from the start.
Tempeh vs Tofu – What’s the Difference?
Tempeh is like tofu’s firmer cousin. Rather than being blended with water, tempeh is made from whole soybeans that are cooked and fermented and then pressed into a block. The resulting product is firmer and dryer than tofu. It can be described as almost meaty in texture.
Like tofu, tempeh is rather bland with a bit of a nutty flavour. It is usually marinated or sauced prior to cooking to add flavour and allow it to reach its full potential as a healthy and delicious meat-substitute.
Is Tofu a Whole Food?
I get this question a lot: “Is tofu processed?”
When following a whole food plant-based diet, you’re aiming for either whole or minimally processed foods. The ‘whole’ part is pretty easy to understand, but minimally processed can be a slippery slope.
When deciding whether something is considered minimally processed, it can be helpful to ask yourself two questions:
- Has anything harmful been added?
- Has anything beneficial been taken away?
In the case of tofu, the answer is no for both questions, so we can consider it a minimally processed plant food.
Tofu Nutrition Highlights
Tofu is a well-known alternative to meat for those following a plant-based, vegetarian or vegan diet. This is largely due to the generous protein content. Beyond being rich in protein, tofu offers important minerals like iron and calcium. It’s also low in saturated fat and cholesterol-free, making it a heart-healthy alternative to animal protein.
To learn about some of the health benefits associated with tofu consumption, check out this page from Nutrition Facts.
Is Tofu Gluten-Free?
Tofu is gluten-free in its natural form, but some prepared versions may include additives that contain gluten. If you have celiac disease or are sensitive to gluten, be sure to carefully read labels of flavoured or prepared tofu varieties as they may contain gluten.
Tofu Nutrition Facts
Here are the general nutrition facts for tofu. Please note that this information will vary by type and brand. The information below is from Sunrise brand extra firm tofu. (Firmer varieties are higher in calories, fat, protein, etc. due to lower water content).
85g of tofu ( 1/4 of the block) contains:
8g of Fat
0 mg of Cholesterol
2g of Carbohydrates
13g of Protein
10% RDI of Calcium
15% RDI of Iron
Types of Tofu and Their Uses
You may have noticed that there are different varieties of tofu available. This can often make them feel more intimidating, as beginners often don’t know which type to use in their cooking. No problem, I’ve totally got your back here.
The main differences between the different types of tofu are water content and overall texture. Let’s go over some of the most common varieties now.
Silken or Soft – These varieties contain the most water and have a creamy texture. This makes them likely to fall apart if not handled gently. Soft is a little coarser in texture than silken. They can be used for desserts, smoothies, cream cheese, puddings, dressings and sauces
Medium – Medium tofu contains less water than soft or silken, but is still pretty delicate, so handle it gently. It works well in miso soup, stews, thick sauces, and eggless egg salad recipes.
Firm – Firm tofu is another step down in the water content. This variety is firmer and stands up to tougher cooking methods than the softer varieties. It’s commonly used in stir fry, spring rolls, ramen soup, tofu scramble, vegan ricotta, and even faux crumbled meat.
Extra firm – This variety contains the least water and has the firmest texture. It can be baked, roasted, pan-fried or grilled. Extra firm tofu can be served in a stir fry, soup, curry, as tofu wings, kabobs, or even as a patty on sandwiches.
Prepared – This variety comes flavoured and often pre-pressed and ready to cook or enjoy. Be sure to check the ingredient label for any ingredients you may be avoiding.
Sprouted – Sprouted tofu comes in different levels of firmness. In this variety, the soybeans are sprouted prior to making the tofu. As a result, the final product contains easily absorbed nutrients and can be easier to digest.
Tips and Tricks for Using Tofu
Okay, now that we’ve looked at some of the different varieties available, let’s be sure you have all the tips you need to successfully cook with and enjoy tofu.
Most tofu comes packaged in water. In order to get flavour into it, you’ll want to press the excess water out. Once pressed, tofu will readily absorb flavours, sauces and marinades. Pressing it will also help you avoid ending up with the mushy tofu that people sometimes complain about.
Soft or silken tofu is much more delicate. For this reason, it’s typically not pressed. The best way to drain soft or silken tofu is to cut a slit in the package, pour out excess water and then gently press against the block through the packaging. This allows excess water to drain out the slit you cut. Typical uses for silken tofu don’t require it to be heavily pressed, so you don’t have to go crazy with this.
Medium, firm or extra firm tofu is much easier to press. First, open the package and give the block a good rinse under cold water. (Be gentle with medium as it’s still a little delicate).
Now, you can use a tofu press if you like. This works differently depending on the type of press. Be sure to follow the directions included with your tofu press for best results.
No tofu press? No problem. You can also use household objects to press your tofu. Simply wrap your block of tofu in a clean kitchen towel and place it between two plates. Then put something heavy on the top plate. You can use cookbooks, canned goods or a heavy pan. You don’t have to go crazy here, just some decent weight that will push down on the block of tofu. Leave it for 15-20 minutes and it should be ready to go. If you notice partway through that the towel is soaked (not just damp), switch it out for a new one and continue pressing.
Can you freeze tofu? Absolutely you can. I know this might sound crazy, but freezing tofu before using it can be a game-changer. Freezing tofu actually makes it firmer, lending a meatier texture. You’ll need to thaw it before use, so make sure to take it out a day in advance so it can thaw in your fridge.
Once thawed, you can forgo the pressing step and just squeeze out the excess water with your hands. The firmer texture makes it stand up better to handling. Once you squeeze out the excess liquid, it will also absorb more flavour, whether from a marinade or sauce you cook it in.
As I mentioned earlier, tofu is basically a blank canvas, so you don’t want to skip this step. You can whip up a quick marinade, toss it in a sauce, or even season and bread it. Just whatever you do, don’t skimp in the flavour department. If it turns out bland, this is the problem.
If you do use oil in your kitchen, don’t use it in your tofu marinade. Oil won’t add much in the flavour department and will coat your tofu, keeping it from absorbing other liquids (with a lot more flavour). The outcome is less than enjoyable. So, skip the oil in your marinade and use flavourful liquids instead.
What to Do With Tofu
By now we’ve covered what tofu is, the nutrition basics, the different types and some tips for using it. So now you’re probably wondering what to do with it.
Well, first you’ll need to turn that block into something more appetizing. Here are some popular ways to shape your tofu:
Slice it – This is a common method used for firmer varieties. Slice your tofu into ‘steaks’ to use as a patty on a sandwich or a standalone side. You can even cut the rectangles in half diagonally to make smaller triangles if you’re feeling fancy.
Cube it – You can cut your tofu into cubes to add to soup, stir fry, a nourish bowl, kabobs, and more.
Crumble it – Crumbled tofu can be used to make tofu scramble, ricotta, faux meat crumbles, or stirred into a stew.
Blend it – This is mainly for soft or silken varieties, but you can add it to smoothies, blend into soups and stews, use it as the base for a sauce, dip or dressing, or even turn it into a delicious pudding or mousse.
How to Cook Tofu
Cooking with tofu isn’t as intimidating as it seems. In fact, you don’t actually have to cook it. It can be used straight from the package when making smoothies, dips, sauces or desserts. However, cooked tofu is really enjoyable, so many choose to cook it first.
Some things to keep in mind:
- Choose the right tofu for your dish. The firmer the tofu, the better it stands up to tougher cooking methods.
- The firmer the tofu, the less it will stick.
- The longer you cook the tofu, the firmer the end result will be.
- For a crisp coating, toss the tofu in cornstarch of fine breadcrumbs before cooking.
- Press your tofu first to allow it to absorb more flavour.
By this point you’ve already learned a lot about how to handle it, now let’s dive into cooking methods.
This method can be used for sliced, cubed or crumbled tofu.
Oven temp: 375°- 400°F
Cook time: 30-45 minutes (depending on the size and thickness of your pieces).
- Press, then marinate, season or toss your tofu in a sauce, then spread it out on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.
- Pop the sheet in the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes.
- Take it out and flip the pieces
- Continue baking for another 15-25 minutes, until gently browned and crispy around the edges. Use less time for smaller pieces.
This method can be used for sliced, cubed or crumbled tofu.
Stovetop temp: Medium to medium-high
Cook Time: 10-20 minutes(depending on the size and thickness of your pieces).
- Press, then marinate, season or toss the tofu in a sauce.
- Add to a preheated, non-stick pan. The firmer the tofu, the less likely it will stick.
- For cubes or slices, you’ll want to allow some time in the pan before flipping. For crumbled tofu, you’ll want to move it around in the pan every couple of minutes to ensure even cooking.
- Sauté until warmed through for tofu scramble, or lightly browned and crisp at the edges for cubes, slices, or crumbled meat style.
Air Frying Tofu
This method works best for sliced or cubed tofu
Air fryer temp: 375°- 400°F
Cook time: 10-15 minutes
- Press, then marinate, season or sauce your tofu
- Place into the basket of the air fryer
- Air fry for 10-15 minutes, stopping periodically to move the tofu around to ensure even cooking.
- It’s done when it’s gently browned and crispy.
For best results, stick to firm or extra firm tofu when grilling. You can use cubed tofu on skewers with veggies for delicious kabobs, or put sliced tofu right on the grill.
Grill Temp: Medium-high
Cook time: 5-10 minutes, longer for kabobs
- Press and cut your tofu. Use cubes for kabobs. If slicing for the grill, keep your pieces larger so they don’t fall through the slats.
- Marinate, season or sauce your tofu.
- Place on the grill and brush with more marinade or sauce.
- Turn every 2-3 minutes until the desired doneness is reached.
- For kabobs, cooking time may take longer depending on the size and type of veggies you included. Keep a close eye, turning often until done.
The Bottom Line
That wasn’t so scary, was it? Tofu can be intimidating if you’ve never used it before and have no idea what to do with it. Now you’re armed with all of that knowledge and more. We’ve covered the different types and what they can be used for, some nutrition highlights, tips for using tofu and even how to cook it! So, save, share or pin this post for later and you’ll never be intimidated by tofu again.
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