Tofu Primer

Every time I teach a cooking class, I get the same questions– what is tofu and how do you make it taste good? It seems that even if I’m teaching about something entirely different, half the questions I field are about tofu, so I thought this month we’d just go over some of the basics.

Tofu is like the soy version of cheese. It doesn’t taste like aged cheese, and it’s not the product sold as “soy cheese”, but tofu is made from soymilk just like cheese is made from dairy milk. Of course, this leads us to another question – what is soymilk?

At its simplest, soymilk is dried soybeans that have been soaked, blended with water, strained of solids, and cooked. (This cooking is necessary to make the soymilk more digestible.) Various flavorings can be added, and most commercial soymilks are sweetened. Most soymilks are sweeter than dairy milk, and this makes the “beany” flavor of the soymilk less obvious. There are many brands of soymilk commercially available, however, and even unsweetened soymilks can be found. If you have tried soymilk and didn’t like it, try several different brands. I bet you’ll find one that suits your taste buds.

Anyway – back to tofu. To make tofu, the tofu master adds a coagulating agent (usually a seaweed extract called nigiri, or a calcium salt) to the fresh, warm, plain soymilk. The coagulating agent causes the soymilk to separate into curds and whey – just like what Miss Muffet was eating when she was interrupted. This is also where the name “bean curd” (often used on menus in Chinese restaurants) comes from.

At this point, I should mention that there are two different styles of tofu. One is called “Chinese-style”, which is the type most people are familiar with. It comes in plastic tubs filled with water and is stored in the refrigerator. The other style is “silken” tofu (sometimes called “Japanese style”, although both styles are eaten in Japan). Silken tofu is sometimes packaged like Chinese-style tofu (in plastic tubs in the refrigerated section of the store), but is often sold in aseptic containers that are shelf stable. The most common brand of silken tofu is MoriNu. Both Chinese-style and silken tofu are available in soft, firm, and extra-firm varieties.

To get back to our tofu making – after the coagulating agent is added, the curds and whey are poured into molds. Chinese-style tofu is made in molds that have holes in them to drain off the excess whey, or watery part of the soymilk. These molds are lined with porous cloth, like cheesecloth, and the curds are pressed firmly to express the excess whey. The firmer the pressure, the firmer the resulting tofu (and the less water the tofu will contain). Silken tofu is made in solid molds, so the excess water remains in the tofu, creating a more custard-like texture. Chinese-style tofu is more suited to stir-frying, baking, and making “ricotta” or “feta”-type cheeses (see next month’s column for these recipes!). Silken tofu is more suited to creamy-smooth preparations like dips, salad dressings, creamy soups, and pudding-like desserts.

Most Chinese-style tofu is sold in one-pound blocks. If you see a recipe that calls for “one block of tofu,” my first guess would be that the writer intended for you to use one pound of firm or extra-firm Chinese-style tofu. I think of that as the default type. Unfortunately, not all recipe writers think the way I do, so this isn’t always the case. It’s especially difficult to be sure of what some of the recipe posters on various websites mean when they say “one block (or package) of tofu”.

Sometimes, you will see recipes that call for “one package of MoriNu silken tofu”. That would seem to be pretty straightforward, unless you know that MoriNu changed its packaging a few years ago, and went from the old 10.5 oz package to the “new” 12.3 oz package. If the recipe you are using is less than 5 years old, then you can feel secure that it was written for the “new” larger size package, and if it’s more than 10 years old, it was written with the old 10.5 oz package in mind, and will need some conversion on your part. If, however, you don’t know how old the recipe is, or it was written sometime in the mid-1990s, it is impossible to tell which size package the writer meant unless they specify. (This is especially useful to remember if you try a recipe and it doesn’t quite work out right the first time.) Anyway – just think of all the time you spend in the kitchen as experimental and educational. Keep good notes when you try new recipes, and you won’t mind the occasional “mess-ups” nearly as much!

To make Chinese-style tofu absorb flavors better, you will want to drain off the water when you remove the tofu from its package. Many recipes call for pressing the tofu. I usually find that simply rolling the tofu in a paper towel or clean kitchen towel is enough to remove excess water. You can press out more water this way: cut the tofu in half lengthwise, wrap the two pieces in a towel, place them on a clean cutting board, and put a weight on top. A clean plate with a can of vegetables or a jar of pasta sauce is about the right weight. If you want to get really fancy, you can elevate one end of the cutting board and let the excess water drain into the sink. This is all WAY too much work for me. I just pat my tofu dry and get on with it!

The secret to getting very creamy, smooth results using silken tofu is two-fold: use a food processor (not a blender, unless you’re making something really thin like a creamy soup), and let it run for several minutes. Scrape down the little bits of tofu that stick to the sides of the food processor bowl once or twice near the beginning of the processing time, and let the tofu run until it becomes creamy and a little glossy. Once it takes on a lovely sheen, it is perfectly smooth. Add the rest of your ingredients only after you see that shine.

Here are some recipes to help you enjoy your tofu – Chinese-style and silken. Next month, we’ll look at how to make non-dairy, tangy “cheeses,” both with tofu and without.

Please note that I did not include nutritional counts with these recipes because I did not have reliable data for them.

Asian Baked Tofu
At my first restaurant job, I baked 40 pounds of this tofu at a time!

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 1 hour

1 pound Chinese-style tofu, firm or extra firm
2 cups tamari soy sauce
1/2 cup sesame oil toasted, Asian style
2 tablespoons minced fresh garlic
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger

Drain tofu, pat dry with paper towels. Press lightly to remove excess moisture. Dice tofu to desired size – I usually cut it into three strips lengthwise, then 4 x 5 across (60 pieces per pound). If you prefer, you can also make “steaks” by slicing the tofu into 3 or 4 slices lengthwise.

Mix the remaining ingredients together, then pour marinade over tofu. Let sit for 10-15 minutes. Don’t overmarinate or the tofu will become too salty when baked.

Drain tofu (reserve marinade). Place on a baking sheet and bake at 350 F for 10 – 15 minutes. Flip tofu over, then bake for another 10 – 15 minutes. Stir again. Bake until tofu is evenly golden brown all over, but isn’t dried out and tough. Total baking time is approximately 30 – 45 minutes.

This tofu is now ready to be used in a stir fry, tossed on top of a salad, or eaten as an appetizer.

The marinade can be saved in an air-tight container in the refrigerator and reused for up to one week, or four batches of tofu, whichever comes first.

Not Your Mother’s Onion Dip

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett
Serving Size: 6
Preparation Time: 10 minutes plus time to chill

1 12.3 ounce package MoriNu silken tofu, firm or extra firm
1/3 cup oil
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
1 teaspoon unbleached sugar
1 package Fantastic Foods dry onion soup mix
1 teaspoon sea salt (optional)

Puree tofu in food processor until smooth, creamy, and glossy, scraping down the sides of the container once or twice during processing. Add other ingredients except salt, process until thoroughly mixed, then taste. Add salt if necessary, process dip again briefly, then chill. Serve with potato chips or raw veggies.

Cook’s Notes: many supermarket brand dry onion soup mixes contain “natural flavors” which may be (and often are) derived from animal products. They are not required to list the origin of “natural flavors” on the package, so it is difficult to determine if these products are, in fact, vegan. The folks at the Lipton company told me awhile back that their soup mix had beef flavor in it. I do not know if this is still the case, but Fantastic Foods onion soup and some of their other soup/dip flavors are listed as vegan on their website at

Southern Fried Tofu

Recipe By: Lisa T. Bennett, adapted from Friendly Foods, by Ron Pickarski
Serving Size: 4
Preparation Time: 45 minutes

1 pound Chinese-style tofu, firm or extra-firm
3 tablespoons veggie “chicken”-flavored seasoning (see notes)
1 1/4 cups flour, unbleached
2 tablespoons gluten flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons spice blend (see below)
1 tablespoon canola oil
1 cup water
2 cups peanut, sesame, or canola oil for deep-frying

Spice Blend
2 teaspoons thyme
2 teaspoons curry powder
2 teaspoons onion powder
2 tablespoons veggie “chicken”-flavored seasoning (see notes)
4 teaspoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons savory
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 teaspoons dried basil

Remove tofu from package and pat dry (or press). Cut tofu into 2-3 pieces crosswise, then cut each of these into 4 pieces each. Place them into a bowl, and sprinkle cubes with 1 tablespoon chicken-flavored seasoning. Gently mix and set aside.

Stir together 1/2 cup of the unbleached flour and the remaining 2 tablespoons of the “chicken” seasoning. Set aside this breading mixture.

Mix the remaining 3/4 cup of the unbleached flour, gluten flour, salt, and Spice Blend. Blend well so that the gluten flour doesn’t create lumps. Stir in the water and 1 tablespoon of canola oil. If the batter does lump, blend the mixture in a blender.

Heat the oil in a deep skillet or deep fryer set to 370 F. Dip a piece of tofu into the breading mixture and coat it completely, then dip it into the batter, using prongs or long chopsticks. Remove it and hold it above the batter for about 10 seconds, tapping it gently against the side of the bowl to release excess batter. Then hold about one third of the piece of tofu in the hot oil for about 15 seconds to set the bottom so it won’t stick to the pan. Release the tofu and let it completely submerge. Repeat for the other pieces. Deep-fry the tofu a few pieces at a time to a light brown. (Don’t add too many pieces to the fryer at once or you will cool the oil down and make the tofu greasy.) Remove with a heat-proof slotted spoon and drain on paper towels for at least 30 seconds. You can place the tofu in the oven at 250 F for up to 15 minutes to retain crispness.
Cook’s Notes:

“Chicken-flavored” veggie broth mix is available in bulk at Sevananda and most natural foods stores.

Serve Southern-Fried Tofu with veggie gravy, biscuits or rice, and LOTS of vegetables. It is also great served cold – like that fried chicken my mom used to pack for picnics, only better!

If you’re in a hurry, instead of the spice blend, use 1 tablespoon of pre-mixed poultry seasoning (a mix of herbs – usually mostly rosemary, sage, and marjoram) and 1 teaspoon of salt.