One question we get a lot from clients looking to transition to a meat-free diet or just to eat a little less meat is about meat analogues, plant-based foods that are generally thought of as analogous (comparable) to meat in the plant-based diet. Some of our clients have never tasted tofu, tempeh or seitan and don’t know what they’re made of. Many have heard of them from friends or perhaps have had them in a restaurant meal but aren’t sure how to prepare them at home. We’re here, as always, to provide some clarity in what we hope is a simple, straightforward way.
Before we start though, there’s a misconception (maybe more of an oversimplification) to clear up. Knowing that if one person is thinking something, many more are too, it occurred to us that some clarification was in order when a client asked about “that stuff vegans eat,” referring to tofu. However it was that tofu became a marker of the meatless diet, let us assure you that not all people who choose a plant-based diet eat tofu—or tempeh or seitan. One very important thing to understand about these foods is that they are, after all, processed in some way.
Plenty of plant-based eaters, especially in this age of heightened awareness of the connection between nutrition and health, prefer to get their nutrients from whole, unprocessed foods such as beans, legumes, nuts, dark green veggies and the rest of the vast array of foods the garden, field and orchard provide. There are also plenty of plant-based eaters who just plain don’t like meat analogues. Also worth noting is that just as not all plant-based eaters eat tofu, not all who eat tofu are vegan or vegetarian. Our point is that if you choose to follow a plant-based diet (or are just exploring, perhaps for No Meat March), you don’t have to eat tofu, tempeh or seitan. And there’s no guard at the grocery store prohibiting omnivores from picking up a package of tempeh. These foods are, like any other, just options in a vast buffet.
With that out of the way, let’s start with tofu. There are a lot of different kinds of tofu, different preparations, etc. but someone just discovering it would likely find tofu as a white block about 5 x 3 ½ x 2 inches, similar in appearance to a brick of white semi-soft cheese, either vacuum-sealed on the shelf or packed in water in the refrigerator case. We’re pretty sure its enigmatic appearance contributes to the confusion. What is it? What is it made out of? What do you do with it?
Tofu is made from soy beans, those beans you get steamed as an appetizer called edamame at some Asian restaurants. The beans are soaked, ground, boiled and strained to make a soy milk, not unlike the almond or soy milks you might see at the store. The soy milk is then coagulated using a salt or an edible acid and the resulting bean curd is pressed into the blocks you buy.
So the process is somewhat similar to curdling, straining and pressing dairy milk to make cheese. In that respect, it is technically processed, though minimally so relative to all of the commercial, prepared, pre-packaged “fake meat” products on the market.
Nutritionally, tofu is high in protein and relatively low in calories and fat. A 4-ounce serving contains 10 grams of protein. Compared to the 95-calorie and 5-gram of fat “cost” of that 4-ounce serving, it’s a pretty good deal. Those are, of course, general numbers that will vary with the style and preparation. Also, tofu contains none of the artery-clogging cholesterol of meat and provides quite a bit of calcium, iron and other minerals.
Tofu is an interesting food to work with because it’s so versatile. It has very little odor or flavor of its own, so it really is what you make of it. Much like people use marinades containing sugar, salt, fat, spices, etc. to flavor meat, tofu can take on a Southwest flavor, an Asian flavor, a sweet Polynesian taste, really anything you want.
The most common reason people give for not liking tofu is the texture. Refrigerator-case tofu is packed in water to maintain its moisture content until the consumer is ready to use it. Straight out of the package, it’s rather spongy. You can use it this way, most commonly in miso soup with little cubes of tofu, by just draining off the water and slicing it. We’ve found, though, that not everyone realizes that the majority of uses for the block-style tofu call for the water to be pressed out of it and for it to be cooked in various ways, which gives it quite a different texture.
There are also, as we mentioned, different styles of tofu that each have a different texture. Tofu is usually sold as “silken,” “firm,” and “extra firm” in order of most to least moisture content. Silken tofu can also be sold in blocks, but is easily blended or mashed to resemble a thick yogurt and is also sold in cups or containers in that form. It’s very useful in recipes to thicken or impart a creamy texture. Firm tofu is often described as having a custard or fat-free cream cheese texture. If you’re not a fan of that texture, you may find you don’t like firm tofu. This was the root of the problem of one client who said he had tried tofu and didn’t like it; he had chosen the “middle one” (firm) and followed a recipe that called for very light cooking. No surprise that he also wasn’t a fan of foods like gelatin. He became a tofu convert after trying extra firm tofu that had been pressed and baked. Pressed extra firm tofu has a texture most like that of very moist poultry. That’s the type we’ll concentrate on for preparation.
But first, one more note about choosing your tofu. As previously mentioned, tofu is made from soybeans. At least in the U.S., 94 percent of soybeans grown are genetically modified. So if you’re trying to avoid GMOs (which you can read more about here), we recommend choosing organic tofu or tofu with the Non-GMO Project Verified label, which looks like this:
Okay, on to the fun stuff. Now that you’ve got your tofu home, what to do with it? The first order of business is to press it. You could equate this pre-seasoning step to an omnivore having to thaw meat from the freezer. First, drain off the water the tofu was packed in. There are two ways to proceed from here. You can either wrap the tofu in a clean cloth, place it between two plates and put some weight on top or, especially if you think you’ll be using tofu on a regular basis, you might want to invest in a tofu press like this:
Either way, check your tofu periodically and drain off the liquid that’s been pressed out. This usually takes an hour or two. If you use the cloth method, you may need to change the cloth if it gets saturated.
Once your tofu is pressed, the preparation, seasoning and cooking method depend entirely on what you want to do with it. Just like there are different cuts of meat used for different purposes, you could cut your tofu into small cubes for soups or stir fries, large triangles for laying over beds of greens or large squares or rectangles for sandwich use. Also much like meat, your seasoning or marinade will depend on the type of cuisine, and whether you bake, fry, sauté or whatever you do with it will depend on the recipe. Here are a few we’ve experimented with just to give you an idea of the versatility of tofu.
For a decadent Sunday brunch, this Tofu Florentine from the cookbook Veganomicon by Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terry Hope Romero features a light, broiled tofu with a rich, creamy sauce.
This Baked Pineapple Curry Tofu with Fried Basmati Rice and Veggies from long ago came from Dawn Hutchins of the Florida Coastal Cooking blog. You can see the cubes of baked tofu that were marinated in pineapple juice, miso and curry imparting a fantastic sweet-savory-spicy punch.
This Hearty One-Pot Meal Miso Soup is one of those recipes that makes enough for the freezer. It’s also very convenient, in that you can throw in whatever vegetables you need to use up. The original recipe called for edamame (soy beans) but we used small cubes of pressed, uncooked tofu instead. We also used the dark miso we had on hand rather than the white miso in the recipe.
Lightly frying small rectangles of tofu in sesame oil for this peanut satay-style dish gives the tofu an almost crispy outer crust.
Cubes of tofu matched in size with the veggies and crusted in a sassy adobo seasoning made for yet another delicious meal from Florida Coastal Cooking! P.S. Chef Dawn includes a tutorial video in that post about “shaving” tofu cubes to make them look more like chicken chunks.
And finally, the recipe for this Filet O’ Tofish sandwich came out of Alicia C. Simpson’s fun cookbook Quick and Easy Vegan Comfort Food. The entire block of tofu is sliced into four large rectangles and marinated in kelp powder to impart that ocean flavor. The “filets” are then breaded and baked.
So there you have it: what tofu is, how to prepare it and some suggestions for cooking with it. If you’re less familiar with tofu, what else would you like to know about it? What other questions do you have? If you’ve used tofu before, what are some of your favorite recipes? What tips do you have for preparing and cooking with it? Let us know in the comments or send us a message through the contact page!
Next up: tempeh! So let us know what questions you have about tempeh as well.