As a dietitian, I often get questions about tofu: How do you make tofu? Is tofu really good for you? Is it bad for my hormones? Is it safe for kids to eat? How much tofu can I eat in a day?
Leaving these questions unanswered could mean avoiding tofu altogether while it can, and should, be a wonderfully nutritious addition to any diet, plant-based or not. In fact, tofu is one of my personal favorite foods because of its nutritional attributes, ability to satisfy, and versatility in recipes. In this article, we will talk about tofu's nutrition, when you should "press" tofu, and how to use it in recipes. Also included is an easy-to-prepare baked tofu recipe.
What is Tofu?
Tofu, a staple in countries like China, Japan, and Korea, is made from dried soybeans that are soaked in water, crushed, and boiled. The mixture is separated into solid pulp, called okara, and soy milk. To separate the curds from the whey, salt coagulants, like calcium and magnesium chlorides and sulfates, are added. The soy milk is then poured into molds to allow the whey to drain off. The resultant soft cakes are cut into squares and stored in water until sold.
Soybeans are a natural source of calcium and the addition of calcium coagulants added in the tofu manufacturing process makes it even higher, which is why you may hear some nutritionists recommend calcium-treated tofu if you're trying to boost calcium intake. The nutrient content of tofu varies depending on the type of coagulant used to make it. For example, nigari-set tofu contains slightly more fat and potassium but less protein, fiber, and calcium compared to calcium-set tofu.
How to Use Tofu
If you've shopped or noticed the tofu selection in the grocery store, you were probably met with several options, like extra soft, soft (Silken), firm, extra-firm, and super tofu (a somewhat new kid on the tofu block).
Extra soft and soft Silken tofu have a soft jello-like texture. Like all tofu, they can be enjoyed in their raw state. Soft tofu's texture makes it an ideal ingredient for making cream pies, puddings, and other creamy desserts. It can take the savory route, serving as the creamy base for a sauce or dressing, a thickener for soups and stews, or cut into cubes and added as a raw protein addition to a salad.
Firm, extra-firm, and super tofu are used interchangeably and are best served wherever you might add meat, eggs, or cheese to a meal. They can be cut into cubes and used in a stir fry; sliced into "steaks" and grilled alongside veggies; scrambled as you would eggs; or crumbled into a feta or ricotta cheese. The main difference between the three varieties is the texture. If I ever hear a complaint from new tofu tasters, it's typically about its texture being "too mushy." For that reason, I find that most people who are newly experimenting with tofu appreciate the super firm texture, which is the least mushy and more, well ... firm! That said, the firm and extra firm textures can give you a similar outcome to the super firm texture if you press them (see below).
Tofu is available in both refrigerated and shelf-stable varieties. You can also find it dehydrated. Tofu is minimally processed with few ingredients — typically only soybeans, water, optional seasoning, and coagulants such as calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, or delta gluconolactone.
Tofu has a neutral flavor and takes on any flavors you add to it. If you stir fry it with teriyaki sauce, it'll taste like teriyaki. If you make it into ricotta cheese by adding miso and nutritional yeast, it'll taste cheesy from the umami-flavored miso and cheesy-flavored nutritional yeast. Some folks like to press the tofu then marinate it for an hour or overnight in the refrigerator so that it absorbs the flavors of the marinade.
To Press or Not to Press?
Soft tofu doesn't need to be pressed because it's used in creamy applications. You can drain it then add it, as is, to any recipe that calls for it. When aiming for a firm texture, as you might when adding tofu to a stir fry or making it into a tofu steak, you'll want to press the firm and extra-firm varieties. Personally, I don't feel a need to press the super firm. I've done it before and find that it doesn't release much water during the pressing process and doesn't change the outcome of the dish if it's not pressed.
What does it mean to press tofu? Tofu is packaged in water when you purchase it from the store and it'll retain lots of that water. You'll want to open the package over the sink, drain the water, then remove the tofu. If you want the tofu to be firm and crispy when you pan fry, air fry or bake it, then you’ll want to press as much water as possible out of it at least an hour before you cook it.
How to press tofu: Wrap the tofu in a few paper towels or a clean tea towel, set it on a plate or cutting board, then set something heavy on top of it, like a cast iron pan or a few heavy books. Let it press for about an hour if possible. Remove and discard the paper towels or wash your tea towel. If you find that you love tofu and are making it often, you may want to consider investing in a tofu press that is made specifically for removing water from the tofu.
What are the Nutritional Benefits of Tofu?
First and foremost, tofu is an ideal meat replacement since it's an excellent source of protein and contains adequate amounts of all nine essential amino acids. While animal protein is also complete with essential amino acids, it has been shown to increase the risk of heart disease, cancer and diabetes, while soy protein has been show to reduce the risk of these lifestyle diseases. Studies show that replacing animal protein with soy protein may help reduce inflammation and the risk of heart disease. Studies show that consuming 25 grams of soy protein a day (10 ounces of tofu or 2 1/2 cups of soy milk) can lower LDL by 5% to 6%.
Tofu is also abundant in numerous other vitamins and minerals. Molybdenum is an essential trace element found in tofu that breaks down harmful sulfites and prevents toxins from building up. When considering bone health, tofu is a rock star! Soybeans are a natural source of calcium and the addition of calcium coagulants added in the tofu manufacturing process makes it even higher, which is why you may hear some nutritionists recommend calcium-treated tofu if you're trying to boost calcium intake. The nutrient content of tofu varies depending on the type of coagulant used to make it. For example, nigari-set tofu contains slightly more fat and potassium but less protein, fiber, and calcium compared to calcium-set tofu.
Calcium-treated tofu is an excellent source of calcium with up to 960 mg per 100 grams (approximately 4 ounces). Tofu is also a good source of magnesium and phosphorus, two other essential minerals for bone health. Tofu is also an excellent source of iron, which is especially important for premenopausal women who menstruate. Finally, tofu is an excellent source of both selenium and zinc, two minerals that support the immune system, among other things.
Since tofu has a lot of nutrients in relatively few calories, it’s considered a nutrient-dense food.
What About Phytoestrogens?
Tofu has lots of protective compounds that make it an extremely healthy and nutritious food, one of them being isoflavones. Isoflavones are a class of phytoestrogens—plant-derived compounds with estrogen-like activity that may protect against age-related diseases and hormone-dependent cancers. This phytochemical is also a strong antioxidant. To learn more about the protective effect of phytoestrogrens, visit this article. Each gram of soy protein has approximately 3.5 mg of isoflavones. A 3.5 ounce serving of tofu has approximately 60 mg isoflavones.
Tofu also contains health-promoting compounds called phytosterols. Phytosterols are plant sterol compounds that block cholesterol from being absorbed and are a great addition to a heart-healthy diet.
A Note About GMO
Most soybeans are grown in the United States and more than 90 percent of soybean crops are genetically modified (GMO). While the research looking at health outcomes from consuming genetically modified food is inconclusive, genetically modified crops are made to withstand massive amounts of pesticides. Therefore, GMO foods also often contain boatloads of pesticides that do have solid evidence showing their harmful effects to human health and the planet's health. Therefore, whenever possible, try to purchase organic soy products of any kind, including tofu. Organic will ensure that it's both synthetic pesticide free and Non GMO. Thankfully, organic tofu is readily available and not much higher in cost compared to conventional tofu. To learn more about the importance of choosing organic whenever possible, visit this article.
Okay, are you ready to get started on your journey to becoming a tofu pro? The recipes below will help you experiment using tofu in a variety of ways. The Creamy Apple Slaw includes a creamy dressing made with Silken tofu that is the perfect compliment to the crunch of the apples, carrots, and cabbage. If you love a good sandwich (like me!) then jump into the Tofu Banh Mí. If summertime is your jam because it means you get to fire up the grill then Sweet 'n Smoky Tofu Mushroom Pineapple Skewers are going to rock your world. Jamaican Jerk Tofu with Pineapple Salsa will give you the technical skills to bake so it comes out perfectly cooked every time. Feel free to substitute your own favorite rub or marinade in place of the jerk seasoning. Finally, Easy Tofu Breakfast Muffins make a savory and energizing breakfast or snack on-the-go.
Do you have a favorite tofu recipe? Please share! Tofu is one of my personal favorite foods and I'm always looking for new ways to make it. Happy cooking!
Photo found at Food Revolution Network!
Have you tried tofu? If so what are your thoughts and how do you enjoy it best? Stir fried? Scrambled? Baked? Do tell! :)