"You're going to eat THAT?" my father said skeptically when 12-year old me slapped my first slices of tofu onto my dinner plate as he reached for the plate of mom's Monday night tradition of chicken cutlets.
"Yup!" I said not letting my reservations about eating tofu show through.
I took my first bite.
"OH GOD!!! What have I gotten myself into? This shit is nasty!" I thought to myself as I continued to keep my poker face intact and finished the rest of the bland soy stuff in front of me. I had to keep up my appearances if I wanted my dad to think I could handle being vegetarian. If that meant eating tofu...I'd figure it out.
That was 12 years ago and I'm vegan now, so I have indeed figured out how to tame my tofu. I've learned what it is, how it's made, what the different kinds are, and how to work it into breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert.
WTF is Tofu?
Tofu (also known as bean curd) is a soft white food made from curdling soymilk. Sound gross? Not really. The idea of tofu being a curdled food I think is something that turns people off from it without giving it a real chance. It’s important to remember that cheese is curdled too so don’t dismiss tofu just yet.
A Brief History of Tofu
Tofu has been around for over 3,000 years now. Its origins are firmly in China, but there are some conflicting accounts of exactly where in China tofu was first created. Either ways, from China it spread to Japan and then from Japan it slowly spread to other Asian countries. Tofu didn’t reach what is now the United States (back then, the 13 colonies) until 1770 when Benjamin Franklin (yes, THE Ben Franklin) wrote to Pennsylvania-based botanist John Bartram from London about a Chinese “special” cheese he had tried, which he referred to as Tau Fu. In his letter, Franklin included soybeans which Bartram eventually learned how to grow and experiment with.
How Tofu Is Made
It’s actually pretty easy to describe how tofu is made. In short, tofu is made by curdling soymilk with vinegar, lemon, or nagiri (a naturally occurring coagulate derived from seawater), straining the curds through a cheesecloth, and then pressing the curds together to form a block. The longer the curds are pressed, the firmer the tofu is, which explains why you may have noticed tofu can be described as silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra firm. Check out the links for more info on the process and types of tofu in you’re interested. While many are familiar with tofu in the form of blocks, tofu also yields some by-products called yuba (tofu skin – which is delicious!) and okara – soy pulp leftover from the tofu making process.
Tofu in Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner
Alright, so now you know what it is, where it’s from, and how it’s made, but… what do you do with it? Something that I love about tofu versus other veggie-based proteins is how versatile it is. As it would turn out, the blandness of tofu is actually a wonderful thing because you can do so many things to it. Let’s explore tofu for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and dessert. Disclaimer: the recipes below are vegan. If that’s not your thing, feel free to use them as inspiration for other dishes that may interest you more. Add cheese, add meat, add eggs, whatever you want. The point of this article is to try and give tofu less of a bum rep and show its versatility. If you would prefer to try and incorporate tofu into your diet using some animal products, that is all good!
A Word About Tofu Prep
Before we talk about how to incorporate tofu into the different meals of the day, in many tofu recipes, you will be told to drain and press the tofu before preparing it. Many tofu blocks come in a square package filled with water. While you will always want to drain the tofu, recipes that call for marinating tofu will often say to press it as well. Basically, this means you should put the tofu on a dish and place some weight on it for 20-30 minutes to drain any excess water from it. I found a pretty good guide about when it is and when it isn’t necessary to drain your tofu, so feel free to refer to that if you are experimenting with tofu outside of a recipe.
- If you say tofu and breakfast to any vegan or vegetarian, the first thing that will come to mind is tofu scramble. You can crumble firm or extra firm tofu into a scrambled egg texture and season it in a variety of different ways to suit your palate. You can choose to add peppers, spinach, onions, mushrooms, etc. to it… whatever fits your fancy! Scrambled tofu can be eaten alone or in breakfast burritos and hashes. Here’s a recipe for a Southwestern scrambled tofu from The Minimalist Baker.
- My favorite use of tofu for breakfast is actually in a tofu frittata. The linked recipe won’t come out as fluffy as a traditional frittata, but I’ve had coworkers compliment me on it and my boyfriend loved this recipe so much that I had to make it again for him the next day after I first tried my hand at it. What I love about this recipe is you can vary it a lot. I topped mine with some zucchini, but peppers and tomatoes would also be great. I really consider this recipe a find. The link isn’t as glamorous looking as some food blog posts, but I was super happy with the outcome of the recipe – and I am my own harshest critic.
- Savory not your thing for breakfast? All good! Silken/soft tofu makes for a great addition in smoothies. Since tofu does not have much flavor, ½ cup in most recipes won’t alter the taste of your smoothie and you’ll be sneaking some extra protein into your morning routine. Here are some breakfast smoothie/shake recipes with a tofu element already built in straight from Nasoya, a common manufacturer of tofu.
- Tofu sandwich anyone? OK, this may not sound good, but my mind was changed about tofu in sandwiches when I had a bite of Cinnamon Snail’s Creole Grilled Tofu Sub back when their truck was on NYC streets daily. From that point, I have tried all sorts of tofu sandwich recipes and they do not disappoint. Here’s one of my favorites – a Tofu, Avocado, and Sprouts sandwich! On this recipe, I’d recommend caramelizing the red onions for a little more depth of flavor.
- In the colder months, I love a nice miso soup. For those who have had miso soup, but were never really sure what was in it, you know those little squishy white cubes in the soup? That was tofu, most likely soft or silken. Simple Vegan Blog has a quick and easy recipe for miso soup. In addition to miso soups, tofu can be a great addition to roasted veggie soups and curries.
- Salad. I’ll be honest with you… I fucking hate salad. BUT, vegan entrepreneur and chef extraordinaire Chloe Coscarelli changed my mind about some salads last November when I took a cooking class with her. She made a Caesar salad that totally blew my mind. Where’s the tofu you ask? Well, it’s in the dressing! I’ve made this dressing (and the croutons) over a dozen times in the last year and I never get sick of it. My mom, co-workers, and friends all like it and none of them are vegan. They all claim to dislike tofu as well. This recipe is super simple and I’m happy I was able to find it on the interwebs to share it with you.
- What’s for dinner? At my apartment, odds are at some point, there’s a stir fry a’brewin’ during the week. While stir fry generally means some veggies, a grain, and a protein tossed together in a wok with Chinese or Japanese flavors, I’ve made Italian and Mexican stir fry recipes that have been awesome as well. My protein of choice for any stir fry is tofu and linked is my very own recipe for tofu cutlet cubes that works great in stir fry dishes. As for some stir fry inspiration, check out this list.
- Vegan BBQ is indeed a thing that exists. While I actually think that the best vegan barbecue is made from seitan (another vegan protein I’ll post about at another time), tofu makes a pretty mean BBQ too. This recipe from Oh My Veggies is three ingredients and super simple. Pair it with some mashed potatoes and collard greens or slap it on a sandwich and serve with a pickle and macaroni salad.
- I’m Italian, so I really couldn’t get through this post without including a pasta dish. Oh She Glows has an awesome recipe for stuffed shells where the ricotta is made from tofu. A cool thing about this recipe is that you can re-purpose the tofu ricotta for eggplant rollatini, lasagna, or baked ziti. While tofu ricotta doesn’t taste exactly like its dairy counterpart, the texture is spot-on and the tofu works well with the sauce and pasta.
- Silken tofu makes a mean chocolate mousse. This easy recipe from Food.com is only four ingredients: silken tofu, chocolate chips, almond milk, and vanilla extract. Something that I love about chocolate mousse is that you can use it in other desserts. For example, you could spread some mousse in between the layers of a cake for a chocolate mousse cake or fill a pie crust with it. Looking for dairy-free chocolate chips? Enjoy Life, Trader Joe’s, and Bakers all make vegan semi-sweet chocolate chips.
- Cheesecake. Dairy-free? I know you think I’m nuts, but I promise that it is possible! There is a brand of vegan cream cheese that I swear by that makes kickass cream cheese that is tofu-based. It is appropriately called Tofutti. I have made chocolate chip cookie cheesecake, pumpkin cheesecake, and New York style cheesecake using Tofutti and have always been met with positive reviews. Curious? Food Network posted a vegan cheesecake recipe using vegan cream cheese and Food Network does not generally post sub-par recipes.
- Vegan cream cheese can also be used in truffle making. Combining cream cheese with Oreos makes for a delicious truffle filling that you coat with melted semi-sweet chocolate. Check out the recipe here. I’ve done this recipe a bunch of times and the fun thing about it is that because there are so many variations of Oreos (Berry, Birthday Cake, Mint, Golden, etc.), you can do something different every time or make an assortment if you have a stash of different Oreos on-hand, which I always do. These are great as holiday gifts and a lot cheaper than buying truffles from Godiva.
Tofu: Healthy or Not?
I’m hoping I inspired you to give tofu a shot in one of the many forms I listed above. You are probably thinking about how you’ve heard from your Dr. Oz watching co-workers about how tofu and other soy-based products are actually not good for you. I could honestly dedicate a whole other article (which I plan to) on whether or not tofu and other soy products are healthy or not. I am not a dietitian or anything, but I after reading quite a few articles, I can tell you that tofu has numerous health benefits. Consuming tofu can lower the risk of cardiovascular diseases, breast and prostate cancers, osteoporosis, and liver disease. It also helps to lower cholesterol. Tofu is very low in calories, sodium, sugar and saturated fat while containing 9-10 grams of protein per half cup. While that may not be as much as some animal proteins, considering it is so low in everything else, tofu a pretty no-frills source of plant-based protein. It is also a gluten-free and cholesterol free food.
The downside to tofu? Well, at this point, so many soybeans are genetically modified that some of their nutritional qualities have gone down, but that is the case with so many foods, so I personally do not find this alarming. There is also research out there stating that soy-based foods are bad for men. Soy is put into so many products that if it were truly bad for men, there would be more research about it and many more health problems associated with it. However, soy in excess for men is not a good thing. Men’s Health published an article in 2009 about a man who developed “man boobs” and saw a spike in estrogen levels due to his consumption of soy. The issue was that he was drinking about three quarts of soymilk a day which, let’s be honest, is not normal. So basically, soy is fine in moderation and if possible, opt to buy organic soy products to get the best nutritional value.
Interested in tofu now? It can usually be found in the produce section of most grocery stores. If you have any questions or comments on any of the recipes listed above, feel free to comment!