A Primer for Everyone Who’s Been Swiping Our Tofu
All you need to know about the other white meat — it’s good, it’s nothing to be scared of, and please stop hoarding it
Hi there —
I know you’ve been in my neck of the woods because you left your calling card: the empty shelves in the refrigerated section at the grocery store, once the nearly exclusive province of herbivores and jam-packed with options, now a chilly ghost town. More often than not these days, it is picked bare, stripped of our beloved tofu and pretty much everything else, like a plague of vegan-curious locusts went to town on our little enclave.
My Vegan Family Needs You to Quit Hoarding All the Tofu
Thanks for eating plant-based, but save some for me!
It’s been like this since early February, pretty much since the beginning of the pandemic panic. It’s not just where I live, either: I’ve seen distressed cries all over social media from my fellow vegans who have seen their once-reliable staple disappear from shelves and return in such reduced quantity that we seem to be experiencing something like a national shortage. On one of my grocery missions, I even saw silken tofu sneakily miss-shelved in the refrigerated section, which I will get to in a minute and really does not count unless you want to subside on chocolate mousse and vegan cheesecake this whole stay-in-place time, which, honestly, I have heard of worse ideas.
Pandemics can make you do strange, desperate things, but you do remember that not very long ago, too many of you were posting cockamamie stories about soy — that it would make dudes grow man-boobs and basically kill humanity — and all it would take for some of you to conjure a face of utter revulsion was to hear the innocuous word tofu? I’m not going to gloat — okay, maybe I will just a little — but it doesn’t take a detective to deduce that shortages of meat, dairy and eggs, quick expiration dates and the costs of flesh and animal products are maybe making you reconsider your one-sided enmity toward an innocent legume. Welcome! This is what we vegans wanted all along. Took you long enough but who’s complaining?
Now that you’re here, I wanted to give a little tutorial on working with tofu because while it is delicious when done right, it is very easy to screw up. On the bright side, it’s also not that hard to get right. So let’s dig in.
First, though, a little history…
If you’re going to eat all the tofu, at the very least, you can sit tight for a minute while I address some factoids about it.
There are some disagreements about when tofu-making first started, but we do know that it is first recorded as doufu in the Ch’ing I Lu written in about 950 AD; the word tofu is Japanese and the etymology refers to the fact that it is a curdled or fermented product: bean + curdled. While the exact pioneer is unknown, we do know that making tofu is a very old culinary art form and most likely adapted by the Chinese from Mongolian cheese-making techniques. Tenderly published an enthralling history of tofu if you want more details into the origin stories but I will suffice it to say that the common attitude that tofu is some product hippies invented on communes in the 1970s is erasing the rich and fascinating history that had its birthplace far from our shores and long before there was even a thing called “the natural foods movement.”
Like seitan, its wheat gluten-based counterpart, tofu was developed to satisfy the need and taste for hearty, inexpensive protein in East Asian Buddhist vegetarian cuisine, a culinary philosophy that reflects a belief in and practice of non-violence. While not all Buddhists or Buddhist denominations espouse and practice vegetarianism, it is a common dietary custom modeled by monastic communities, especially among Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean traditions. It was and is still considered an inexpensive and nutritious product that makes it easy to avoid eating animals.
So what is tofu?
Somewhere along the line, the idea that tofu is some hyper-processed, ersatz fake food took hold and really has not let up much. Tofu is soy milk that has been coagulated, either with something like nigari, a sea salt derivative, or an acid like lemon juice. The curds formed are poured into molds, pressed and shaped. In other words, the attitude that tofu is a “highly-processed” food is more than a little unfounded. Do we want to compare this with how animals are turned into cuts of meat? Or how cheese is made?
Well, what is behind the anti-soy hysteria?
Soy vey, here we go. Sadly, you can’t really talk tofu without also mentioning the Weston A. Price Foundation. The WAPF was co-founded by Sally Fallon Morell in 1999, created to extoll the research of Weston A. Price, a dentist from Cleveland who died in 1948. Extrapolating Weston Price’s research on indigenous populations, Morell — who has no medical background — and company promote a meat- and animal products-centric, high-cholesterol diet and bash soy (never mentioned in Dr. Price’s research) as containing “anti-nutrients,” as well as disrupting endocrine function, causing hypothyroidism and Alzheimer’s; they call it “more insidious than hemlock.”
Of course, none of these claims are presented with objective supporting evidence, nor is their advice to drink raw animal milk, eat lard by the spoonful and promotion of cod liver oil as a “superfood” backed by science. Back when I was pregnant with my son, WAPF proponents (sometimes known as Wappers) were all over parenting sites with their fear-mongering and baseless propaganda. They arrogantly call their dietary philosophy a return to “traditional foods” as if Asian populations didn’t have a longstanding tradition of diets rich in soy and not consuming dairy. Whether or not their name is directly attached to the anti-soy propaganda you may come across, know that the wacky WAPF is at the root of much of it. Unfortunately, many people just glean the merest of “information” from this dubious organization and are off to the races, associating soy with being “toxic” and dangerous. As we learned from Karl Rove’s political operative playbook, if you tell a big, audacious lie, you are more likely to be believed than if you fudge the facts just a little, as people believe that there must be some truth to the bold claims or the ones spinning the tales wouldn’t be able to say them. Fallon and the WAPF are selling something: their books, their memberships, their guides, their “lifestyle.” Just consider the source when you hear anti-soy rhetoric.
Now, let’s get to the important stuff.
Tofu comes in several varieties, often designated by denseness, and the most common forms are block, also known as regular or fresh, tofu in soft, medium, firm, extra-firm and super-firm or silken, which is also packaged in different levels of firmness. Each of these kinds is used in different ways, but most often, when you are looking for tofu to use in a stir-fry, you will want a block tofu that is from firm to super firm. The firmness is a way of determining how much water has already been squeezed out of the packaged tofu; the more firm, the more dense. You will find block tofu in tubs in the refrigerated section of a grocery store.
Silken tofu is usually found in aseptic boxes on shelves in the Asian section of a grocery store, though it can also be refrigerated; when it is, it is usually in tubs, not boxes. Silken tofu is usually used in blended, creamy foods like custards, puddings, pie filling, smoothies, salad dressings and dips. It is made from soy milk that has not been coagulated and pressed; like regular tofu, soft silken is most delicate and firm silken is least, but all silken tofu is too fragile for much handling. This is the tofu to use in recipes you want to be silky and creamy, though be mindful that firm silken tofu may not be ideally soft for every application.
Of block tofu, soft tofu is similar to silken but less smooth, and can be used in similar functions. It is not a tofu you would press because it’s too soft and wet. It would squish. You could use it to blend into soups to boost the creaminess factor.
Medium block tofu is just that: On the continuum, it has a medium firmness and water content. You will see more visible curds in medium than in soft tofu, so it has more texture. It can be good in tofu scrambles, cut into cubes for gently simmering in a miso soup. As it is still fairly delicate, it is not ideal for holding its shape.
Firm block tofu is where we start getting into the sturdier varieties that will stand up better to spatulas and stir-fries, though it is also great in scrambles and ricottas. It absorbs flavors well and because it’s more sturdy, you can use it in a variety of functions: It can be used in a stir-fry, as I said, but it can also be baked, battered, glazed or used in conjunction with a softer variety of tofu to add structure to a recipe.
Extra-firm block tofu is more dense and squat and as such, it holds together well and it is easier than any of the softer grades to cut into a variety of shapes and retain them: cubes, triangles, rectangles, and it also can be crumbled well. Because it is more firm, it can be harder to infuse with flavor, though. Use extra firm in stir-fries and on the grill, as well as in recipes like chorizo, paneer and feta that need sturdier tofu.
Super-firm is the new kid on the tofu block, at least around here, and is different from the other block varieties in that it is vacuum-packed as opposed to being packed in tubs with water. (You will find it in the same refrigerated section, though.) It is dense, baby, and I mean that as a compliment. It is more inclined to dry out due to the lack of moisture, so it’s not great for a long oven bake but is great as a meat replacement in a pan with sauce. As with firm tofu on up, you can get a great sear on it. It is my personal favorite.
While looking at tofu, you might also find smoked tofu and pre-marinated and pressed tofu. These are ready to go in recipes or even enjoying as is straight out of the package. These are great for to stir into some prepared grains and veggies, use in sandwiches or wraps or to cube and serve on salads, for example.
On troubleshooting tofu…
Think of tofu as a kind of blank canvas that you can modify the texture of and flavor with marinades and spices. Isn’t that kind of cool? So if you are unhappy with how your tofu dish turns out, it may be that you either used the wrong kind of tofu or didn’t season and prepare it properly. Am I blaming the victim? Sort of. It’s a learning curve, but not a terribly steep one. Here are some tips for maximizing greatness with your tofu.
Brrr: It’s freezing!
First, many people advocate freezing and defrosting tofu to get that great chewy, meaty texture that is created by the water inside turning into ice crystals creating small pockets, perfect for absorbing marinades. Warning: If you’re one of the people who doesn’t like the spongy quality of tofu, this approach may not be for you.
If you’re up for trying, though, here’s what you do: Remove the tofu from its package, drain, pat dry, cut into the shapes you want to use (like squares or rectangles), freeze overnight — not touching — on a baking sheet and then transfer into an airtight container or freezer bag. When you are ready to use it, thaw it in the refrigerator earlier in the day. Squeeze or pat the excess water out over a colander and use as you wish. I don’t recommend freezing the whole block intact as it can take a long time to thaw but if you do, just submerge and simmer it in water until it is thawed enough to cut.
A pressing issue…
There is no vegan of my particular vintage who hasn’t been made a little eternally jumpy by the sound of a bunch of precariously placed cutting boards, cookbooks and cans of beans suddenly cascading to the ground. This is because the Old Skool way of pressing tofu was to erect these very shaky extraction structures on our kitchen counters. We’d trust these wonders of wishful and naive engineering — think to ourselves that this time, we got it right — go traipsing off into another room, and in 20 minutes or so, have to pry our startled selves out of the ceiling when it all came crashing down out of nowhere. Well, seemingly out of nowhere. It turns out, no matter how exquisitely balanced your construction was, the tofu would press down more in some places than others, shift here or there, and create not the most level surface for all those weights. It was scary but — along with first generation vegan cheese and hot dogs — it was character-building. Or something. Our poor cats were high-strung for a reason. You will want to press for 20–30 minutes or until you simply cannot construct another monument.
These days, many people have turned to handy gadgets called tofu presses. I am not going to link to any because, as I have already established, I am an Old Skool vegan who apparently still likes being startled, so I do it the old-fashioned way and I don’t have a brand recommendation. But just search, read reviews and get yourself one. Unless you want to join me in DIY land! Grab those cutting boards, old cookbooks and cans. No matter how you do it, pressing obviously removes more water and makes your tofu denser. The tofu to use: firm or extra-firm. Super-firm is too dense (and already has the water removed) and anything more delicate than firm will not hold up to being pressed.
Let’s marinate in it
After pressing, if you should be so inclined, you can marinate your tofu in a variety of sauces and seasonings before grilling, baking or sautéing. I tend to lean on simple but reliable marinades like sesame oil, tamari/soy sauce, rice vinegar, fresh minced ginger and garlic. You can make an Italian-style marinade, too, though, with ingredients like olive oil, garlic, lemon juice, basil, oregano and fennel, or Indian marinades with coconut milk, curry, lime juice, garlic and ginger. It is really up to you, but the idea is to coat your tofu with the marinade in a pan, stir and flip it every so often before cooking to ensure an even coverage. Marinating for 30 minutes or so is fine, but covered in the refrigerator overnight would infuse even more flavor. Remove the tofu from the marinade before cooking, but you can also season it in the pan with more of the flavorful liquid.
But how do I make my tofu stir-fry taste like it does at a Chinese restaurant???
Okay, you’re going to have a play around a bit, but I have found
- medium-high heat
- a large cast-iron skillet to prevent crowding
- a teaspoon or so of oil for coating the pan
- a thin, flexible but strong spatula
- and allowing the tofu to cook undisturbed for five minutes before your first flip
to all be components of a perfect tofu stir-fry: crispy without being greasy and if you followed some of the other preparation ideas, full of flavor. Shaking prepared tofu in cornstarch before putting it in the pan will also result in a deliciously crispy tofu without all the calories of oil.
Okay, are we good?
One final note: We’ve discussed history, myths and preparation. I’ve given you my everything. Can I simply ask that now that you are on your way to making your tofu really fab, you not eat, you know, all of it? I just looked at the package of tofu I managed to nab on April 12 and its expiration date is June 17. In other words, dang, people, chill out. You don’t have to buy it all at once! It will last. Sheesh. I didn’t divulge all my secrets just so you could grab all our tofu.
Your fellow tofu enthusiast
PS — One final tip: You might want to keep at least one of your steak knives as you’ll never find a better tofu package opener.