Have You Met… Tofu

This post is part of a series meant to spotlight ingredients, providing nutritional background, a little culinary inspiration, and perhaps encourage you to take an adventure into new markets and cuisines.

Have you met… tofu?

Tofu receives an unfair share of bad press — from the dismal beliefs that it’s bland and rubbery, to the damning fears that soy foods are detrimental to health.

Fortunately, these claims are mostly misguided. Tofu is a true chameleon ingredient, and a little creativity goes a long way + the current body of research indicates that the average amount of soy foods, including tofu, consumed in a typical Western diet is entirely safe, even health-promoting, for the majority of people.

In this edition of HYM I will present you with more of these facts, and help set the record straight!

What is it?

Originating in China over 2,000 years ago, with some records suggesting its first appearance c. AD 965, tofu has been a dietary staple of Chinese, Japanese and other southeast Asian cultures. Often thought of as a meat alternative for vegetarians, vegans and omnivores alike, this is actually not the case in Asia, where it is quite often served alongside or incorporated into meat dishes.

Also known as bean curd, tofu is a product of soy(bean)milk. The milk is heated and inoculated with natural acids, enzymes or salts promote coagulation, forming curds. Much like cheesemaking, the curds are separated from the liquid, then pressed and cut into blocks. The duration of pressing the soybean curd is what determines the ultimate consistency.

What’s so great about it?

For less than 100 calories and no cholesterol per 3-ounce serving, tofu is rich in antioxidant selenium and the trace mineral manganese, and is a good source of iron, magnesium, and immune-boosting zinc, plus mono- and poly-unsaturated fats for heart and brain health. Tofu is an excellent source of calcium, and becomes even more so when manufactured with a natural calcium compound. It is also a source of the B-vitamin folate and choline — two nutrients that offer some protection from development of birth defects of in a developing fetus.

This plant-based protein ranges from roughly 6 to 10 grams per serving, depending on the method of processing and style, and is considered a complete protein, meaning it contains the full complement of essential amino acids. Tofu is naturally gluten-free, but if you are following a low FODMAP (“fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols”) eating plan, note that silken tofu is considered high FODMAP, while firm tofu is considered low FODMAP.

New research also links regular intake of soy foods, including tofu, to significantly improved insulin resistance and blood pressure, increased antioxidant activity, and lower levels of triglyceride and cholesterol. Soybeans and soy foods, including tofu, are the most concentrated sources of isoflavones currently known in the human diet. Isoflavones are bio-active chemicals called phytoestrogens — plant-based compounds that very weakly mimic the effects of estrogen in the body.

Based on current research, moderate consumption of whole, unprocessed soy foods — tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy nuts, soy sauce — is considered safe* for menopausal and postmenopausal women (reduces symptoms), and individuals with cancer (may even help prevent breast and prostate cancers). Soy is also associated in some instances with increased fertility, and may protect against oxidative damage in women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). Additionally, recent studies suggests that moderate intake should have no significant effect on sperm count, sperm motility, or male reproductive hormone levels, including testosterone.

Two groups that should exercise some caution with tofu and other whole soy foods, are those with thyroid issues and history of breast cancer. Consuming smaller amounts on occasion should be fine, and the impressive anti-cancer and other health benefits of soy foods likely outweigh potential concerns. However, it is, and will always be, my professional advice to talk first with your physician about recommendations based on your personal medical history and treatment plan. And when conducting your own research, always check the sources!

Where do I find it?

These days, it’s easy to find this healthy, affordable ingredient. If you live near an Asian market that sells handmade tofu, lucky, lucky you! The next best option is the rectangular plastic box found in the refrigerated produce or deli sections of most every food store (pictured above). Of slightly lower quality, but still worth purchasing if it’s your only option, is the shelf-stable cardboard box, often found in the Asian or “ethnic foods” section of the store.

Fresh, refrigerated tofu versions should remain refrigerated, and have a shorter lifespan than the shelf-stable versions that are UHT- (ultra-high temperature) processed, and can therefore stay at room temperature.

Once opened, your tofu should be creamy white with a light, sweet, kind of bean-y smell (like soymilk). If it is slimy, sticky, or smells sour or rancid, do not use it – either throw it away or return it to the store for a refund.

Any uncooked tofu should be refrigerated in a tightly sealing container, covered in water that should be changed every 1 to 2 days; use within 5 to 7 days. Tofu can also be frozen for longer keeping – drain off the water, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and then place it into a freezer-safe zipper-top bag or tightly sealing container; use within 3 months. Note: Tofu cooked from frozen will have a slightly more spongy texture. Though, it’s a clever technique to recreate restaurant-style crispness without the deep-frying!

Tofu is among the cheapest protein sources. At larger chain supermarkets, the refrigerated versions cost between $2.00 and $2.50 for 16 ounces (1 lb), but occasionally go on sale for less. Our local Asian market is the price winner, selling a 19-ounce container for $1.59. That’s roughly $0.08 per ounce!

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How do I use it?

I once read that “either you love tofu, or you’ve not eaten it prepared well.”

If you’re trying it for the first time, heads up — expecting tofu to taste or feel like eating meat is a recipe for disappointment. Tofu is tofu. Think of it as a blank canvas. It has mild, subtle sweetness and smooth texture that soaks up other flavors, and takes on a new personality. Done well, it is anything but bland.

Each type has a different texture and level of moisture, and therefore prefers certain cooking methods:

  • Extra firm and firm tofu is dense, and retains its shape when cooked. These varieties can stand up to marinating, sautéing and stir-frying, braising, baking, grilling or frying, and are excellent substitutes for lean meats or shrimp.
  • Soft tofu has a creamy, soft texture that won’t hold much of a shape during cooking, making it suited to soups, casseroles, and pureed applications.
  • Silken tofu, which may also be labeled as Kinugoshi, is almost custardlike, and readily loses its shape. This variety is best for sauces and dips, puddings and other desserts, for blending into smoothies, and can be used to thicken soups.
  • Other styles you may come across include pre-marinated, smoked, and/or pre-baked or –grilled.

Some tofu kitchen tips I’ve learned over the years:

  • Once drained, blot the tofu dry with a paper towel before cooking to ensure proper browning.
  • To encourage maximum flavor absorption, gently warm the tofu before marinating.
  • Soft or silken tofu can serve as a non-dairy alternative to evaporated milk, cream, and cream cheese in dessert recipes, like mousse, cheesecake and cream pies. Typically replace up to 100% of the dairy 1:1 with the pureed tofu.
  • Silken tofu is a passable egg substitute as well. For every 1 egg, substitute 3 Tbsp silken tofu.

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The first tofu recipe I made on my own and loved was during a foray down the 101 Cookbooks rabbit hole: caramelized tofu with Brussels sprouts and pecans. Then came her grilled tofu kebabs with mushrooms, red onion, lemon and muhammara sauce, and then the “lazy-day” peanut soba noodle salad — all still favorites in our house.

HERE ARE A FEW OTHER RECIPE IDEAS TO GET YOU STARTED

  + Creamy tofu and green pea dip (silken or soft)
+ Japanese snap pea and mushroom brothy noodle bowl (soft or firm)
+ Tofu “chorizo” (firmer)
+ Gingery tofu sliders with avocado and pickled jalapeños (firmer)
+ Curried tofu with cauliflower, green bell pepper, onion and raisins (firmer)
+ Almond honey and orange tof-ice cream (silken or soft)
+ Tofu (dark) chocolate pudding (silken)
+ Vegan lemon bars with almond flour-coconut oil crust (silken or soft)

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Whether you ascribe to a plant-based eating pattern, are an omnivore looking to experiment with a new protein source, or want to save money by stretching your meat, tofu is a cheap, convenient and filling source of protein that, despite its reputation as boring, can please just about anyone.

Give one of the above recipes a go, or try a tofu favorite of ours: hiyayakko (Japanese cold tofu with toppings)!

Cheers, Heather

Tell me… Are you already familiar with tofu? Any favorite recipes or tips to share?

*For more on safety of soy, check out this consumer guide from the Vegetarian Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. And keep in mind that many of the concerns surrounding soy foods, including tofu, are based on research done on animals, which cannot be 100% extrapolated to humans, making it imperative to check the source of your information.

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