Getting to Know Tofu
This protein-packed food is a smart alternative to meat
If tofu is anything, it's unassuming. Naysayers pooh-pooh its jiggly texture and boring white hue, and even fans admit to its somewhat unappealing appearance. But those who get past its exterior learn that tofu is versatile and actually rather fetching when dressed up in marinade and seared on the skillet.
Taste isn't the only reason both vegetarians and omnivores stock up on tofu. The soy foods industry rakes in $4 billion a year, thanks in part to reports on soy's health benefits. Because it's a complete protein, soy makes an excellent substitute for meat and fish. Not only that, but compared with animal sources of protein, soy is lower in saturated fat and is cholesterol free. About 3 ounces of firm tofu has 70 calories, 3 grams of fat, 2 grams of carbohydrate, and 7 grams of protein. (There is also light tofu, which has less fat and fewer calories.) Varieties that are processed with calcium sulfate are a good source of calcium. Soy also contains B vitamins and isoflavones, plant-derived compounds with properties that can lower cholesterol and may help relieve symptoms of menopause.
There remains a great divide among those who say soy promotes health and others who point to its side effects. Some research has linked soy isoflavones to a greater risk of breast cancer in women and lower testosterone levels in men. But the research—much of it done in rats—hasn't amounted to much, says Andrea N. Giancoli, MPH, RD, a Los Angeles dietitian. "Whole soy foods can actually reduce breast cancer occurrence," she says. But you'd be well advised to stick to soybeans and tofu and skip isoflavone supplements, which don't behave the same way as isoflavones found in food.
So, what's the difference between soy and tofu? At its purest, soy is a plant that produces pods full of beans. The pods, called edamame (eh-duh-MAH-may), contain soybeans and are a staple in Asian kitchens. So is tofu, a cheese-like substance made from curdled soybean milk. Since tofu is bland, it picks up flavor from spices, sauces, and other foods. You can buy tofu at the grocery store along with premade soy foods: pre-seasoned tofu, soy cheese, meat substitutes like veggie burgers, and tempeh, a firm and chewy soybean cake that sometimes contains grains and can be cooked much like tofu. (Keep in mind that some premade soy foods can be high in sodium, and check the label.)
There are two main types of tofu: water packed and silken, which differ based on how they're processed. Water-packed tofu, also called "regular," must be refrigerated right away. Silken tofu is sealed in an airtight package and only needs to be refrigerated once it's opened. Each type comes in various textures: soft, firm, and extra firm. "They handle differently," says Deborah Madison, author of This Can't Be Tofu. "A firmer tofu is going to hold up better. A soft tofu is going to be very delicate." Following are the three types you'll use most often in the kitchen.
Firm and Extra Firm
If you want your tofu to have a meat-like texture, buy firm or extra-firm water-packed tofu, which is solid and dense. Madison suggests a simple preparation: Season a slice with salt and pepper, then brown both sides in a dry pan or with a drizzle of olive oil. When the tofu is golden, deglaze the pan with soy, Worcestershire, hoisin, peanut, or oyster sauce, or a mix of soy sauce and a touch of molasses. The tofu will end up glazed and full of flavor. Madison also breads tofu before sautéing, then tops it with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese to create mock chicken Parmesan. You can also throw chunks into a stir-fry, add plain or spice-coated cubes to a salad, or marinate and sauté a slice before adding it to a sandwich in place of meat. "What you get with cooking tofu this way is it's very easy," Madison says.
If you try to use soft silken or water-packed tofu on the grill or in a stir-fry, it'll fall apart. But that's what makes it perfect for crumbling. Add soft tofu to scrambled eggs—or use it to replace the eggs entirely. To do this, Giancoli sautés soft tofu in oil and seasons it with turmeric and curry powder. She adds spinach, onion, garlic, and tomato and tops it with avocado before serving. Soft tofu is also a good filler for cakes and creamy soups. Maribeth Abrams, MS, CNC, author of Tofu 1-2-3, uses soft tofu in cheesecake and pumpkin pie. She also makes a Thai "pizza" by topping a crust with peanut sauce, crumbled tofu stir-fried in peanut sauce, veggies like broccoli and scallions, cheese, and chopped peanuts.
The creamiest of all tofu types, silken is ideal for dips, sauces, soups, pudding, and smoothies. Replace the sour cream in recipes with silken tofu or use it instead of cream in soup. An added bonus: Because it's less dense, silken tofu has fewer calories than firmer varieties.
Still not sure when you should use silken instead of soft? Get a recipe, suggests Abrams: "The recipe will tell you what kind of tofu to use." Some recipes will ask you to press firm and extra-firm tofu to release additional water and create a more meat-like texture. To press your tofu, Abrams suggests removing the slab from its package, wrapping it in a dish towel, and wedging it between two plates. Place a heavy object—like a can of soup or two—on the top plate to squeeze out any extra water.
If this step seems too time consuming, don't worry. "I don't bother pressing," says Madison. "If you're going right from the carton, the water will start to cook off." Just drain the tofu when you remove it from the package or let additional water drain by tilting your cutting board as you slice the tofu.
Store leftover tofu in the refrigerator, avoiding its exposure to the air. To keep unused water-packed tofu fresh, change the water daily. Skip that step and your tofu could go bad; a sour-milk smell is a telltale sign of spoilage. Another option: Freeze the tofu in its container. When you're ready to eat it, defrost the tofu, then press the water out. (In this case, pressing is necessary since freezing causes the water to expand.) "Tofu that has been frozen and defrosted has a different texture than tofu that has not been frozen," says Abrams. "It has a very meat-like quality. It's not soft and mushy at all. I typically only use it if I'm making something that I would be using ground beef for." Crumble it into tomato sauce to create "meat" sauce, use it in place of beef for sloppy joes, or add it to vegetarian chili.
Regardless of what type of tofu you use, feel free to try a wide range of flavors. "Think about the things you're serving with it," says Madison. "Tofu is not a deeply flavored food. You might consider sauces and herbs." If you typically enjoy teriyaki sauce on chicken, try it on tofu cubes. "There are so many different directions you can take tofu, and it helps to start with what you like to eat," she says.
And remember, no matter what you do to it, tofu is still tofu. "Don't expect it to be something it's not," says Giancoli. "It's a different experience. It's a different mouthfeel. Don't expect it to be meat." If necessary, ease yourself in. Start by visiting a Japanese restaurant where tofu is done well, Madison suggests. Or cook it in a dish that you don't associate with chicken or beef. Once you embrace tofu, you'll be too busy enjoying it for what it is to miss the meat.
A Soy Primer
An Asian legume that is full of protein and folic acid
Young green soybeans in the pod, eaten steamed (or boiled) and shelled
• Soy milk
Produced from soaked, ground, and strained soybeans; often used in place of cow's milk
The product of curdled soybean milk, usually sold in bricks
A fermented soybean cake that has a different texture than tofu but can be used in some of the same recipes
• Soy flour
Made from roasted, ground soybeans; used in baked goods to replace a portion of a recipe's wheat flour