Using the word “tofu” in any conversation will sometimes result in wrinkled noses and looks of pure disgust. Depending on who you are talking to, this is usually either because the person has never tried tofu, or because they have tried a tofu dish that wasn’t prepared correctly. This ingredient can be difficult to prepare and even harder to make palatable. When you know how to work with tofu, though, you can create dishes that even diehard omnivores can enjoy.
Why would you want to cook with tofu? Perhaps you need to prepare a meal for a vegetarian or vegan. Maybe you want to limit your intake of saturated fats found in red meats and certain types of poultry. You might even simply want to try something new to expand your culinary capabilities. Whatever the reason, tofu is not a substance to be feared, but to be embraced as a challenge.
What is Tofu?
Tofu is a protein that is made from soybean curds that are cooled and pressed into blocks. It originated in China about 2,000 years ago. Since then, other Asian countries, including Japan and Korea, have incorporated tofu into their respective cuisines. During the last century, tofu has appeared in Western countries as an alternative to meat.
There are two main types of tofu. Silken tofu, which is typically not refrigerated, has a high moisture content and a consistency like custard. It is typically used in Asian desserts and is not commonly found in cooked dishes.
One exception would be the highly popular Sichuan classic dish, mapo tofu. The origin of mapo tofu goes all the way over 150 years back to 1862 during the Qing Dynasty.
Firm tofu, as the name suggests, has a firmer consistency and can be cut into cubes. It is typically packed in water and requires refrigeration. This is the type of tofu that is most found in stir fry dishes, soups, stews, and other cooked dishes.
Plain tofu has little flavor, which can be a source of consternation for many cooks. Because it readily absorbs the flavors of other ingredients, though, it serves as a blank canvas for creating a wide variety of entrees and sides.
Firm tofu has a rather rubbery texture than some people find unappealing. When you buy a package of tofu, take it home and put it in the freezer overnight. In the morning, transfer the package to your refrigerator and leave it until it thaws. Freezing firm tofu changes its texture and gives it a more meat-like consistency.
When you open a package of firm tofu, you will see a strange off-white block sitting in a container of water. Although the water helps tofu retain its texture, you will need to remove as much of the water as possible. This allows tofu to more readily absorb flavors from marinades, spice rubs, and other flavorings.
To remove the water, cut the block lengthwise into 1/2-inch-thick filets. Place the filets on a clean kitchen towel and wrap them in the towel. Gently press down on the tofu with your palms to squeeze out the excess moisture.
After you have removed the excess water, you can marinate tofu to add flavor. If possible, refrigerate the tofu slices in marinade overnight to maximize flavor absorption.
The type of marinade you use depends on the dish you want to create. If you want to use tofu in a stir fry dish, you can marinate it in soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, or a mixture of the two. For Thai curry, use a mixture of red or green curry paste and coconut milk.
Barbecue sauce, buffalo wing sauce, mustard, and steak sauce also work well as tofu marinades. You can even marinate tofu in mole, enchilada sauce, or a mixture of fajita seasonings and tomato juice to use in tacos, burritos, fajitas, and other Mexican dishes.
Once you have dried and marinated tofu, you can use it in just about any dish as a meat substitute. You can cut it into cubes and add it to stir fry dishes, soups, curries, or fajitas. Mashing tofu with a fork makes it an appropriate addition to casseroles, lasagna, and omelets. You can even bake tofu filets on a non-stick baking sheet.
Tofu stands up well to heat and does not dry out easily. It is difficult to overcook firm tofu, although you might have to be careful not to burn the marinade that coats the outside of tofu cubes.
Of course, you can also deep fry tofu. Some cooks like to coat the cubes with egg batter before deep frying — this gives tofu a crispy exterior like General Tso’s chicken. If you plan on deep frying tofu, though, skip the marinade until after cooking is complete.
Although tofu remains a mysterious substance to many people in the Western world, it does not have to exist outside of your culinary capabilities. With a little practice and creativity, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you have mastered this misunderstood, often maligned ingredient.