Tofu - It's not a plant-based cliché!

Tofu is a staple on my plant-based diet. I have loved the stuff since I was a kid, when the only place I found it was when my parents took me out to a Chinese restaurants.

Its unique texture and ability to soak up just about any flavor fascinated me. At this time, it was relegated to a cliché ingredient like canned water chestnuts and baby corn, but I saw its potential.

Fast forward to today when we use tofu all the time in stir fries, buddha bowls and scrambles. Here's what I've learned about this ingredient.

What exactly is tofu?

Tofu, or bean curd, is made from soybeans, water, and a curdling agent. Typically sold in blocks, the product is creamy and relatively flavorless – making it the perfect foil for hearty flavors and ingredients. Think of it as a blank canvas.

Benefits of Tofu

Tofu is high in plant-based protein, iron and calcium. It’s also affordable, especially when compared to steak or seafood.

Eight ounces of firm tofu contains a little over 22 grams of protein and about 200 calories. You also get almost 400 milligrams of calcium (1,000-1,200 mg are recommended per day for most adults) and 4 milligrams of iron (men and menopausal women need 8 grams per day, pre-menopausal women should get 18 grams).

Types of Tofu

Tofu is not just a singular ingredient. It comes in many forms: silken, soft, medium firm, extra firm and super firm.

Tofu type is defined by how much water is pressed out of it. Less water content makes for a firmer tofu. The type of “firmness” you choose is largely a matter of personal preference, but certain tofu types lend themselves to specific recipes more so than others.

Silken tofu: This one is best in creamy and blended foods – think of it when you add tofu to things like smoothies, desserts, dips, sauces, salad dressing.

Soft tofu: A Chinese equivalent of silken tofu, it’s not quite as smooth as tofu labeled ‘silken,' but it can be used the same way.

Medium tofu: Though more firm than soft or silken tofu, medium tofu is still pretty delicate. It’s nice in soups or as a sub for soft scrambled eggs.

Firm tofu: Firm tofu holds together pretty well and is okay in stir fries, but expect it to fall apart a little bit. It’s also good in tofu scramble. Firm tofu really soaks up flavor.

Extra firm tofu: If you’re looking for a slicing, steaking, cubing tofu – this is it. It bakes, grills, and crumbles well (to mimic ground beef).

There is also super firm tofu, high-protein tofu, sprouted tofu, Pumfu (this one is nutty as it’s made with pumpkin seeds) and more. Again, try different ones on to find the type you like best.

Preparing tofu

So you brought home the pack of tofu, and you wonder what to do with it. Most tofu looks like a white, spongy brick sitting in water. First thing – drain that water.

If you’re adding tofu to a scramble or smoothie, no need to do anything else unless you have a specific recipe that says so. For firm/extra firm tofu, you must drain and press it so it soaks up flavors and takes on a crisp texture when you cook it.

Some recipes even suggest freezing, then thawing, the tofu before using it. The freezing process creates tiny pockets within the block to help it absorb and retain flavor. The texture becomes chewier, too. I personally, don’t really ever freeze my tofu – I enjoy it a little softer – but you decide.

Tofu presses are available at kitchen stores and online, but I go old school. I wrap the tofu in a clean kitchen towel, place it on a cutting board and balance heavy objects on top, like pots, bowls, cookie sheets. It does become a delicate process, as often the objects go tumbling. If you have a brick laying around, it’d work too.

Tofu can be cut into just about any desired shape, like slices, slabs, crumbles or cubes. The ingredient is so versatile, it can be seared, fried, grilled, steamed, stewed, braised, baked, roasted, deep-fried and even pan-seared or scrambled.

For crispy tofu, drain, press and cube it – then toss it in a light dusting of cornstarch. Pan sear, air fry or bake, then add sauce or put in a stir fry.

Tofu may seem like a vegan cliché, but it truly is a versatile food with an excellent nutrient profile. Join the 28-day challenge for some excellent uses of tofu and to address some of the controversy over soy in general! We start at the beginning of the month.

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