What happens when you make cheese or "curd" from soymilk instead of cow’s milk? You get tofu (also known as soybean curd). Don’t get me wrong. Tofu isn’t something you want to use as you would cheese -- most of us wouldn’t want to make a grilled tofu sandwich or order a tofu pizza, for example. No, tofu is its own unique food, with huge culinary possibilities. If you're new to tofu, you may be wondering how to choose, store, and cook this nutritious food. Read on for tofu recipes, cooking tips, and facts.
What Is Tofu?
When you look at this beige, gel-like substance, you might wonder how it’s made from soybeans, which many of us picture in their green, unripe state as edamame. Tofu is actually the "curd" from the milky liquid extracted from mature soybeans that is pressed into cakes.
Soybeans are the only plant proteins that contain all 8 essential amino acids, meaning they are "complete" proteins like egg whites or chicken. A slice of firm tofu (2.86 ounces) contains 13 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 0.5 grams of omega-3 fatty acids, 55% of the Recommended Dietary Intake (RDI) for calcium (when made with calcium sulfate), 12% RDI for iron and magnesium, 20% of the RDI for selenium, 9% for vitamin B1, and 6% for folic acid.
If you're thinking tofu is a relatively new, know that it is actually centuries old to China. According to The Food Encyclopedia, Tofu was "new" to Japan in 1212 when it was introduced by the Chinese, who had been making the soybean curd for more than 2,000 years.
When many Americans first became aware of this chameleon food in the '70s and '80s, it was considered something of a fringe food. But it’s becoming more and more appealing to Americans, including college students, according to a recent study.
What Can I Do With Tofu?
The way I see it, there are two types of tofu recipes:
- Recipes in which tofu is a mystery ingredient – you might not even know it's in there.
- Recipes that feature tofu, unapologetically, in all its glory.
I tend to favor the latter types of tofu recipes, but there are times when the gel-like texture of tofu can be blended in to add creaminess and thickness to a dish. There are also times when tofu can act as a filler to extend other, more expensive ingredients, like ground sirloin in a meatloaf.
The tofu recipes below include both kinds of tofu dishes. Try them and see which you prefer.
What Kind of Tofu Should I Buy?
When standing at the refrigerated produce section of your grocery store, you might be surprised to see how many types of tofu there are: "extra firm," "firm," "soft," and "silken." You’ll want to stick with the type your recipe calls for since there is a major texture difference between the two extremes.
Basically, you want to buy the extra firm or firm tofu if you want the tofu to hold its shape – if you plan to marinate and broil or bake your tofu in slices, or if you are dicing and stir-frying it. If you're blending the tofu with other ingredients to make a smoothie, creamy filling, or spread, or you're using it as a fat replacement in batter or a ground meat dish, you'll want to use the softer or silken tofu.
Here's a primer on the various types of tofu:
- Silken. Use this as a creamy, thickening ingredient in smoothies, soups, pasta dishes, dressings and sauces, or as a substitute for mayonnaise or sour cream in some recipes. You'll need a blender or food processor.
- Soft. This is halfway between "silken" and "firm" tofu. Crumble it and use in recipes as an extender or substitute for scrambled eggs, cream cheese, ricotta cheese, or cottage cheese.
- Firm or Extra-Firm. This type of tofu holds its shape well. It's great for grilling, baking, sauteing or stir-frying.
Tips for Storing Tofu
Once you bring tofu home from the store, keep the unopened tub in the refrigerator until you're ready to use it. If you have some left in the tub after you open the package, it will keep for about 5 days. But there’s a catch: It’s best to store it in a sealed glass or plastic container with a few inches of water.
Trust me: You'll want to use it within a day or two, because you need to change the water in the container every day. If you don’t, well, let’s just say it’s probably one of the worst-smelling items you’ll ever pull out of your refrigerator.
Freezing tofu is also an option. Some people freeze tofu on purpose because once it’s thawed, it has a more porous texture. Some liken this texture to a fish or chicken fillet.
Tofu Cooking Tips
The most notable thing about the taste of tofu is that it doesn’t have any particular taste. Instead, it takes on the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Here are some ways you can use tofu in your favorite recipes and with your favorite foods:
- Marinate slices of tofu and bake, grill or broil it.
- Use diced tofu in soups, stews, casseroles, and chili.
- Pan-fry slices or strips of tofu. You can coat the tofu pieces in cornstarch and brown them with a little canola oil in a nonstick skillet or wok over high heat.
- Silken tofu adds creaminess when blended in with salad dressings and creamy sauces, puddings, cream soups, cheese fillings, and more. One package of silken tofu is equal to 1 1/2 cups pureed tofu.
- Tofu can add volume to scrambled eggs or egg salad when used half-and-half with real eggs.
- Soft tofu can work as a meat extender when added to ground sirloin or ground turkey to make meatballs, meatloaf, or meat filling.
- Silken tofu is enjoyed in the raw in Japanese cuisine, topped with soy sauce or another flavorful sauce. Many in the West prefer it cooked unless it’s being pureed into something.
- Tofu can replace half of the fat ingredient called for in cake recipes without compromising flavor and texture, according to a study that tested a 25% to 75% substitution of silken tofu for fat in shortened cakes (cakes that contain fat and a high ratio of eggs to flour).
- Previously frozen tofu works well as a meat replacement for chicken, pork, and beef in all sorts of recipes, from stews and stroganoff to fried rice and tacos.
- To use less oil when stir-frying or pan-frying tofu, and use a quality nonstick wok, skillet or frying pan. You'll need a lot less oil to keep the tofu from sticking to the pan.
4 Healthy Tofu Recipes
To help you get started cooking and enjoying tofu, here are four easy-to-prepare tofu recipes to try.
14 ounces firm tofu
6 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 teaspoons sesame seeds
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons apple juice
1 teaspoon minced or crushed garlic
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, finely minced (or 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger)
- Cut block of tofu vertically into about 10 rectangular slices.
- In large measuring cup, blend remaining ingredients to make teriyaki sauce. Pour sauce into 9x9-inch baking dish.
- Arrange tofu slices in sauce. Turn slices over to coat. Broil 10-15 minutes, then flip tofu slices over and broil 8-10 minutes longer.
Yield: 4 servings
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1 serving tofu without added fat OR 1 vegetarian patty without added fat OR 1/2 cup hearty stews, chili, bean soup OR 1/4 cup starchy foods and legumes with 1 tablespoon fat maximum
Nutritional Information per serving: 135 calories, 8.4 g protein, 13 g carbohydrate, 5.9 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 1.3 g fiber, 779 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 37%.
Vegetable Souffle Squares
6-ounce jar marinated artichoke hearts
1 1/2 teaspoons canola oil
1 small white or yellow onion, chopped
1 teaspoon garlic, minced
2 cups diced firm tofu, drained well
1 cup grated zucchini, grated (about 1 zucchini)
2 large eggs
1/2 cup egg substitute (or 4 egg whites)
1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs (or seasoned breadcrumbs)
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground pepper, or to taste
1/2-1 teaspoon Tabasco, or to taste
1 1/2 cups shredded reduced-fat sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried parsley flakes)
- Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Spray an 8x8-inch (or 9x9-inch) baking dish with canola cooking spray.
- Open artichoke hearts and empty into a colander. Rinse well and drain. Cut larger pieces into small chunks; set aside.
- Add canola oil to a medium nonstick frying pan and heat over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and tofu, and saute for 3-5 minutes. Stir in artichoke heart pieces and grated zucchini and stir well. Remove from heat; set aside.
- In large mixing bowl, add eggs, egg substitute, breadcrumbs, oregano, salt, pepper, and Tabasco. Beat on low until well blended. Stir in cheese, parsley, and artichoke heart mixture.
- Pour mixture into prepared baking pan. Bake for 30 minutes or until egg batter is firm. Let sit 5-10 minutes and cut into small appetizer-size square servings or larger entree servings. Serve hot or cold.
Yield: 8 appetizer servings or 4 entree servings
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as 1 serving tofu without added fat + 1 egg alone prepared without added fat OR 1 vegetarian patty with 1 tsp fat maximum
Vegetable and Tofu Noodle Stir-fry
2 (3 ounce) packages chicken or pork ramen noodles and 1 of the seasoning packets
1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 medium cauliflower head (cut away the core; cut the rest into florets)
3 carrots, thinly sliced
1 block firm tofu, diced
2 medium onions, peeled and quartered, then sliced
1/2 small head cabbage, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons light soy sauce
1 teaspoon sesame oil
- Cook ramen noodles in medium saucepan according to the package directions, then drain well. Add back to saucepan and sprinkle the seasoning over the top of noodles and stir to blend; set aside.
- Heat canola oil in heavy, large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add cauliflower, carrots, tofu, and onions. Cover skillet and cook, stirring frequently until crisp-tender (about 6-8 minutes).
- Spread cabbage over the top of vegetables, stir into vegetables, cover pan, and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until cabbage is softened (about 3 minutes). Remove from heat. Mix in cooked noodles, soy sauce, and sesame oil and serve!
Yield: 4 large servings
WebMD Weight Loss members: Journal as 1 1/2 cups hearty stews, chili, bean soup OR 1 sandwich and veggie burger OR 1 serving tofu with 1 tsp fat maximum + 1/2 cup starchy foods with fat + 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat
Nutritional information per serving: 337 calories, 21 g protein, 37 g carbohydrate, 14 g fat (1.7 g saturated fat), 0 mg cholesterol, 8 g fiber, 560 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 37%.
Breakfast Tofu Burrito
1 teaspoon canola oil
1/4 cup chopped onion
1/2 cup chopped bell pepper
1/2 cup soft tofu, crumbled (firm tofu can be substituted)
1/2 cup egg substitute (or use 1 large egg beaten with 2 egg whites, if desired)
1/4 cup salsa (mild or hot)
1/4 cup reduced-fat cheddar cheese
2, 9-inch multigrain or whole wheat flour tortillas
1/2 avocado, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fat- free sour cream
- Add canola oil to medium nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Saute onions, bell pepper, and tofu for about 3 minutes, stirring often.
- Pour in egg substitute and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until eggs are cooked throughout (1-2 minutes). Turn off heat and stir in the salsa and cheese. Cover pan and let sit 1-2 minutes.
- Meanwhile, soften the tortillas by warming in microwave on high for 30 seconds or in a large nonstick frying pan over medium heat.
- Spoon half the egg mixture into the center of one of the flour tortillas and roll up like a burrito. Repeat with remaining tortilla. Garnish each serving with sliced avocado and a dollop of sour cream, if desired.
Yield: 2 burritos
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members: Journal as: 1 sandwich with veggie burger OR 1 egg prepared with oil + 1 slice whole grain bread + 1 ounce low-fat cheese + 1/2 cup vegetables without added fat
Nutritional Information per serving: 275 calories, 16 g protein, 30 g carbohydrate, 9.6 g fat, 2.4 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 3 g fiber, 570 mg sodium. Calories from fat: 31%.
Recipes provided by Elaine Magee; © 2006 Elaine Magee
Elaine Magee, MPH, RD, is the "Recipe Doctor" for the WebMD Weight Loss Clinic and the author of numerous books on nutrition and health. Her opinions and conclusions are her own.