What is tofu?
Tofu is essentially a solid block of soya milk which has been curdled. The ingredients used to solidify can be lemon juice or calcium or magnesium salts. Tofu has been used as a meat substitute for centuries and it has many other uses in vegetarian and vegan cookery. Although it is bland on its own, it absorbs flavour and, when prepared correctly, is a delicious ingredient.
Types of tofu
The big white blocks that are sold in plastic trays immersed in water are firm tofu. It may be described as medium firm or extra firm depending on the texture. This is the type that is particularly used in Chinese cookery as a meat substitute (you will often find it described as ‘bean curd’ on restaurant menus). If you are vegan, you need to be careful when ordering in Chinese restaurants as they sometimes make their own tofu and use egg as an ingredient.
Silken tofu comes in Tetrapaks and is found in shops on the shelves rather than in the fridge. Silken tofu has a very smooth consistency and is wonderful for making sauces and desserts.
Try this recipe for vegan sour cream made from silken tofu.
Smoked and Flavoured tofu
Smoked tofu is flavoured with wood smoke. It has a meaty flavour which makes it great for savoury dishes.
Braised tofu has been marinated and cooked. It has a tough, meaty texture and a strong flavour that works well in stir fries. It comes in tins so it’s a handy thing to have in the kitchen cupboard.
How to cook tofu
Before you cook with tofu, you need to squeeze out the water. The best way to do this is with a tofu press. The press exerts an even pressure on the block of tofu and has a tray to collect the water, so it is mess and fuss free. If you don’t have a tofu press, you can wrap a block of tofu in a cloth and put a book on top. This is a bit more fiddly and less effective than using a press, but will do if you only occasionally cook with tofu.
Because tofu is bland and flavourless on its own, the main thing when cooking is to get some flavour into it. The best way to do this is to marinate the tofu so it can absorb flavour. A simple marinade can be made of vegetable oil, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar. You can also use liquid smoke, toasted sesame oil or liquid aminos. Put cubes or slices of tofu into a flat dish and pour the marinade over the top, making sure the tofu is covered all over. Leave it for half an hour. You might want to turn the tofu over half way through to make sure it evenly flavoured.
The freezing technique
Here is a great technique to make marinading easier. Cut the tofu into blocks the size of sugar cubes, place them in a storage tub and freeze them overnight. Then, defrost them by pouring water over them. As it freezes, the water in the tofu forms ice crystals which means when it is defrosted it has holes in it like a sponge. You can press down on them gently to squeeze out the water and as you release them and they will soak up the marinade. The freezing also gives the tofu a stronger texture, which is nicer to eat and is less likely to break up when you cook with it.
This freezing technique is used in our Tofu Irish Stew recipe.
Tofu can be used to make a delicious alternative to scrambled eggs. Once the water has been squeezed out of the tofu, it is crumbled up and fried with turmeric. Check out our recipe for scrambled tofu.
For a really lazy way to make really tasty scrambled tofu, get some Vitam Tofu Scramble. It’s a sachet of flavouring that you mix with water and stir into the fried tofu.
As tofu is made from soya, it is high in protein, containing all nine amino acids that are essential in the diet. Depending on the firming agent used, it can also be a good source of calcium or magnesium.
As is high in protein, it can grow bacteria quickly so it is important to keep it refrigerated. You can keep blocks of firm tofu in the fridge for a few days. It’s best to keep them immersed in water and to replace the water each day.
Tempeh is a similar product to tofu but made from whole soya beans which are fermented. The end product has a much firmer, chewier texture which can be fried as a burger or dropped into stews and stir-fries.
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