Tofu or not tofu? That’s the question – here are the answers.
You might know it as tofu, bean curd, or ‘hang on, this isn’t chicken in my salad’, but tofu is one of the most versatile and divisive ingredients – feared by many, but loved by many more. Devotees would argue that if you think you hate tofu, you just haven’t been cooking it right.
The pro-tofu PR campaign isn’t helped by the fact that it’s a sneaky shapeshifter of a food, taking many different forms and basically every flavour under the sun. So to help unwrap the mystery of this wobbly white wonderstuff, here is your need-to-know.
What actually is it?
Tofu is fermented soy bean curd. It’s made from curdling soy milk so that it separates into solid curds and liquid whey. Some producers use processed soy milk, but the better ones make theirs from scratch with soy beans. The curds are then pressed into solid blocks – almost exactly like the way cheese is made.
Discovered in China around 2,000 years ago, tofu has been enjoyed in Japan since the eighth century – but only made it across to UK shores in the 1960s, around the time vegetarianism was decriminalised. Sorry, we mean popularised.
Widely misunderstood for decades as bland and flavourless, poor tofu was even voted America’s ‘most loathed food’ in a USA Today Roper Poll in 1986. But thankfully for permed hair and soy beans everywhere, things have changed since the 80s.
What does it taste of?
Erm. Not a whole lot, if we’re honest. But the point of tofu is to be a blank canvas, soaking up any flavour you throw at it like a little protein sponge.
Having a ‘delicate’ (indistinguishable) taste means that tofu lends itself to both sweet and savoury dishes and an endless list of different cuisines, though it’s most commonly found in East Asian and Southeast Asian cooking alongside garlic, chilli, sesame oil and other punchy flavour-makers.
Ok then, what does it feel like?
Tofu’s texture is both its biggest asset and also the main reason haters are likely to hate. Soft and squidgy, it can range from slightly chewy and omelette-like to something more like the silky consistency of ripe avocado.
Frying is one of the quickest ways to create a bit of texture, while at the other end of the spectrum, silken tofu can be whizzed up as a nutritious base for smoothies and moussey desserts.
Let's be honest – isn't it only nice when it’s fried?
No! We promise. It can be delicious baked like this, grilled, scrambled, whipped or just raw in a salad. Although as with almost any food, plunging it in hot oil is probably a good place to start on the path to deliciousness.
Just like the meat it often fills in for, tofu tastes great when it’s browned and crisp on the outside, soft and tender in the middle. The best way to get a nice crispy exterior is to make it as dry as possible before cooking, so choose a firm variety of tofu (not silken) and pat it down with kitchen towel first.
How do I know if it’s firm? Prod it?
Most tofu confusion (or ‘tofusion’, if you will) comes from the variety of formats it’s available in. The most important difference is between regular, firm tofu – usually found packaged in little plastic trays in the chiller aisle – and silken tofu, which often comes in cartons and doesn’t need to be refrigerated until it’s opened. The two types are made with different coagulants, and the latter is softer, smoother and creamier. Think feta vs cream cheese if that helps.
Just to make things even less straightforward, both regular and silken tofu come in different levels of firmness. But don’t panic, that won’t make a lot of difference in most recipes.
What do I do with silken tofu?
Stop being scared of it, for a start. Silken tofu is a master of disguise, and it’s especially useful in vegan recipes as a substitute for egg (try it in quiche or scrambled on toast) or dairy (stick it in a smoothie, use it in a cheesecake or turn it into chocolate mousse).
If you’re not vegan, the knowledge that it’s also low in calories and high in protein might help cancel out the fact your cheesecake has a soy bean tang.
Can’t I buy tofu that already tastes of something?
You certainly can. Pre-marinated tofu pieces (like these ones by Cauldron) are an easy veggie shortcut and taste good hot or cold. There’s also a rainbow of different tofu blocks around, from spicy to smoked, stuffed with olives or even rolled in sesame seeds.
So if I DO give tofu a go, how do I store it?
This is the oddest bit of the whole tofu deal. To keep it fresh once opened, plain tofu needs to be stored in cold water in the fridge. It’s best if you change the water regularly too, so this is your chance to make up for neglecting your childhood goldfish.
Do I need to start wearing sandals now?
That's really up to you ... but be careful not to drip tofu storage water on your toes. Nobody enjoys that.