This Can’t be Tofu!

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This anecdote appeared in the Metropolitan Diary in The New York Times while I was writing my cookbook, This Can’t Be Tofu!

Jane Block, shopping in her local health-food store, placed a container of fresh tofu in her basket. A well-dressed man approached her and in a clipped British accent asked exactly what she did with the tofu. She replied that normally she put it in the refrigerator, looked at it for several weeks, then threw it away. The man replied: “That’s exactly what my wife does with it. I was hoping you had a better recipe.”

Well, for all of you whose relationship to tofu is as earnest but as unfulfilled as Jane’s, here are some better recipes.

Disappearing Tofu and Dessert

While the recipes on Pages 48 to 50 treat tofu as a food to be enjoyed for its own intrinsic qualities, tofu also can disappear into dishes so completely that you don’t even know it’s there. For example, stir pureed silken tofu into prepared mayonnaise or into a ricotta filling intended for manicotti, ravioli or enchiladas, and you truly won’t know the difference. I have a suspicious palate when it comes to substitutes, so you can trust me on this.

With desserts, you might find soy milk a bit easier to use than tofu. Soy milk can be used wherever milk is called for in a recipe except where color is important. For example, it makes no difference in a butterscotch tapioca or chocolate pudding, but it might be off-putting in an old-fashioned vanilla custard, simply because its hue can be slightly brownish. Otherwise, soy milk can easily be used as a substitute in dishes such as cakes and French toast.

In desserts and baked goods, use 2 ounces pureed silken tofu to replace each egg called for in pancake, muffin, quick bread and cake recipes. Or add tofu along with the eggs, or just the egg whites, to your recipe. Tofu provides moisture and structure to baked goods yet doesn’t interfere with the flavor. It can even be included in a chocolate cake or pumpkin pie with no one the wiser, and tofu cheesecakes have become rather popular these days. When using pureed tofu in baked goods, make sure it’s completely smooth before adding it to a batter. Any little globs of tofu will harden as they bake and leave their visible traces, attractive neither to the tongue nor to the eye.

What’s your Tofu Type?

Before reviewing the kinds of tofu available, it’s helpful to understand how tofu is made. The process begins with a liquid that looks just like rich whole milk, only it’s made from ground soybeans. This soy milk is heated, just as cows’ milk is, then it’s either curdled or solidified with the addition of salts or acid.

Salts, such as nigari, magnesium chloride or calcium sulfate, work like rennet to separate the soy milk into curds and whey. The delicate curds are ladled into settling boxes that are perforated and lined with cloth. The whey drips out of the boxes, the remaining curds are pressed, and the result is tofu. The more the tofu is pressed, the firmer it becomes and the more nutrient- and calorie-dense, as well. The tofu is then packed in water-filled cartons. A recent addition to the market is extra-firm baked tofu, packaged in airtight plastic wrappers.

In a second process, thicker soy milk plus another substance, lactone, is added with the coagulant, which makes it possible for the soymilk to thicken in its container the way yogurt does. As there is no whey or any need for pressing, the resulting tofu is soft and silky, like yogurt. This type of tofu is called “silken tofu.” Traditionally, silken tofu can be as delicate as the most perfectly cooked custard.

Although both the regular pressed curds and the silken tofu are labeled soft, firm or extra-firm, silken tofu is always more delicate and smoother than tofu packed in water. Each type of tofu has its own best use. Here’s what you’re likely to find in your supermarket:

Water-packed tofu (regular tofu): This tofu is made by the curds-and-whey method and is available in individual cartons. It’s packed in water, which keeps the tofu fresh. My preference is for the Japanese brands; I find their textures and flavors superior. Selection is a matter of personal taste and how you plan to use the tofu.

Fun with Frozen Tofu

It’s a common practice to freeze slabs of firm, Chinese-style tofu in order to alter its texture so it resembles ground meat. The water in it expands as it freezes, filling the tofu with pores and pockets of air that give it a crumbly, fluffy texture when thawed. (You can quickly defrost the tofu in warm water, then squeeze out the excess moisture.) But you don’t have to crumble tofu just because it’s been frozen. You can defrost it and cut it into slabs, then marinate it or cook it in a saucy dish. The additional pores that it’s gained in the freezer are great at pulling in a marinade or highly seasoned sauce.

However, as many times as I have cooked with frozen tofu, I’ve never found the results texturally appealing; in fact, quite the opposite. And certainly I’ve never been as happy with the results as when I use fresh tofu. On the whole, if you want a crumbly hamburger-like texture, you’re better off starting with a fresh block of firm or extra-firm tofu packed in water, breaking it up with your hands, then drying it out in a skillet with a little oil, salt and pepper. You’ll end up with a texture and a taste that are more appealing.

Usually this type of tofu comes in one block, but sometimes it comes in four smaller blocks, each weighing about 5 ounces. Usually, one carton is enough for two to four servings.

Firm or regular: This is my all-purpose tofu. It’s strong enough to withstand frying, sautéing and grilling but tender enough to take the place of soft tofu. Even when fried crisp on the outside, it will be creamy on the inside. It’s not quite as smooth as the soft tofu nor is it as grainy as the extra-firm. If you’re going to buy tofu but don’t know how you’re going to use it, you’ll be safest buying regular or firm tofu.

Soft: Use soft tofu when you want to serve very simple dishes that have nothing more than a little sauce or garnish, tofu in salads or tofu that you scramble like, or with, eggs. Soft tofu also is good in a smoothie, added to baked goods or used in place of mayonnaise and other creamy-textured sauces and dips. Soft tofu has the most delicate taste and custard-like texture. As you would expect, it requires more careful handling, unless it’s to be pureed.

Extra-firm: Pressed longer than soft or firm tofu, this is the tofu you can marinate forever, throw on a grill without fear of its breaking apart or use where you want the crumbly texture of ground pork or hamburger. In short, you can handle it roughly. When people say they don’t like the texture of tofu, I am fairly sure that extra-firm is the kind they’re referring to because it’s a little coarse and lacks the delicacy of softer tofu. However, it’s ideal when you need tofu that won’t fall apart or when you’re planning to break it into crumbles.

Silken tofu: Made like yogurt, this tofu sets into a single smooth unit; there is no whey. Most often, silken tofu comes aseptically packed in a 10-ounce box that needs no refrigeration. While many stores feature silken tofu in the produce section, it also can be found in the aisle where curry pastes, noodles and soy sauce are sold. It is not surrounded with water, though once opened (if you haven’t managed to use it all at once), you can keep it for two or three days by covering it with cold water.

Although silken tofu comes labeled soft, firm and extra-firm, even the extra-firm is fairly soft and tender. However, it can be fried successfully and will fall apart only marginally in a stir-fry. Soft silken tofu tastes good and looks beautiful when floating in a miso soup, and firm and extra-firm both work well mingling among salad leaves with their pungent dressings. When adding silken tofu to salads, I often simmer it first in salted water for 2 minutes, which improves the flavor and firms the texture.

The soft silken tofu is ideal for pureeing and using in dishes where you plan to have it disappear, as in salad dressings, mayonnaise or smoothies, or if you wish to scramble it with eggs or treat it like the Indian cheese, paneer. However, you can use firm and extra-firm silken tofus, as well.

The Myth of Marinating

Along with the notion that tofu will become whatever you wish by virtue of its seasonings comes the idea of the marinade, the liquid means of transformation. I always have felt that marinades are terribly overrated and don’t really accomplish much except to flavor the very outside of the tofu itself. When I was the chef at Greens restaurant, we used to keep blocks of firm Chinese tofu submerged for days in an extremely strong marinade of red wine, mustard, dried mushrooms, soy sauce and other ingredients, but it never did much more than affect the appearance and taste of the tofu’s outermost surfaces. When we cut into it, it was pure white; the marinade clearly never penetrated the tofu.

A more effective use for a marinade is as a cooking liquid. Pour it over the tofu as it cooks, and the marinade will reduce and leave a lustrous, flavorful sheen. Here’s the basic method:

1. Drain, then slice or cube the tofu. No need to use the serious pressing method; just blot dry the tofu to remove some of the water. Assemble your marinade ingredients. Many marinade recipes are similar to each other, consisting of garlic, ginger, scallions, soy sauce, sugar and maybe some molasses or dark vinegar. The sugar or molasses give the tofu its glossy sheen.

2. Heat a large nonstick or cast-iron skillet. Spray the skillet with peanut oil from your own mister or a spray such as Oriental Mist. Add tofu and sear until golden on both sides. Even if you don’t use oil, the tofu will color, but it’s best if it colors a lot, and for that you need oil. If you use enough oil to shallow-fry, the tofu will get a crisp, golden crust.

3. When the tofu is nicely colored, pour the marinade over it and continue cooking until it has reduced to a glaze. As the marinade cooks down, the sugars caramelize, leaving behind some very delectable tofu. Serve the tofu as is or garnish it with toasted sesame seeds and slivered scallions. You also can slice the tofu and add it to a noodle or rice salad or a stir-fry.

Tofu Tips and Tricks

Draining and pressing: Draining means pouring off the water the tofu is packaged in. Pressing refers to wrapping it in cloth or paper towels or letting it sit on toweling to force out the excess water. The reasons for pressing the water out are:

1. To make room for other liquids and seasonings to be absorbed;

2. To prevent excess spattering when deep-frying;

3. To prevent diluting sauces and dressings.

You don’t have to fret about this, nor do you have to do it every time. I find tofu can sit on some toweling while I’m assembling other ingredients, and that’s plenty of time to remove excess water. For tofu that’s to be deep-fried, you have to do a serious pressing or the water will spurt dangerously in the oil. If you’re not deep-frying tofu, look to the simpler methods that follow.

Serious pressing: Wrap an entire piece of drained tofu in an absorbent dishtowel. Set the tofu on a cutting board and weight it down with something heavy, such as a large can of tomatoes. Rest one end of the board on a plate or something else so the board with the weighted tofu is tilted toward the sink. The excess water will drain off and flow into the sink. Leave for 20 to 30 minutes.

Towel drying: This method is especially good for sliced tofu that’s going to be shallow-fried. Use a cloth dishtowel or several layers of paper towels. Lay the sliced tofu on the toweling, cover it with a second layer and press gently to wick off the excess moisture. Leave it like this while you prepare the rest of your ingredients.

Pan drying: This process dries and firms the tofu so it won’t fall apart in a stir-fry. Slice or cube the tofu without pressing or towel drying first, then put it in a nonstick skillet over medium-high heat, adding a little oil if you wish. The water in the tofu will evaporate, and eventually it will brown slightly, even if you haven’t added any oil to the pan. This will dry and firm the tofu.

Oven drying: Place sliced or cubed tofu in a very lightly oiled pie plate and cook at 375 degrees until all the water has evaporated and the tofu feels slightly firm when pressed with your finger. This will take 20 to 25 minutes. After 10 to 12 minutes, the tofu will have released a lot of water. Carefully pour it off, then return the tofu to the oven to finish drying.

Tofu Resources


2441 W. 205th St., Ste. C102

Torrance, CA 90501

(310) 787-0200

Nasoya/Vitasoy USA

1 New England Way

Ayer, MA 01432

(800) 848-2769

White Wave

1990 N. 57th Ct.

Boulder, CO 80301

(303) 443-3470

Wildwood Natural Foods

416 E. Riverside Dr.

Watsonville, CA 95076

(800) 499-8638

From the book This Can’t Be Tofu! by Deborah Madison, ©2000 by Deborah Madison, published by Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc.

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