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The Great Big Vegan Guide to Tofu

By KD Angle-Traegner on January 7, 2018

Tofu is one of those vegan foods that can spark a passionate debate among diners. There are some — like me — who adore tofu for its versatility and impressive nutrition profile, while others avoid it because they mistakenly believe it’s a genetically-modified, cancer-inducing poison.

With so much conflicting information available, you’re probably wondering whether to include tofu into your vegan diet. To answer that question, let’s take an in-depth look at one of the most controversial foods, tofu.

The Origins of Tofu

Tofu has a long history. Also known as bean curd, tofu is food made from soybeans that originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. Tofu production was then introduced to Korea and later Japan around 710 – 794 AD.

After then tofu spread to other parts of East Asia, likely as a result of the spread of Buddhism.

How is Tofu Made?

Tofu begins by curdling soymilk — milk made from soybeans — and then pressing the curds into blocks.

The tofu-making process starts with soaking dried soybeans in water. After that the soybeans are drained, rinsed, and placed into a food processor to grind them with water, creating a thick mixture. 

This mixture is set in a large pot of water and simmered to separate the soymilk from the solids. After pouring the soymilk through a sieve, and a natural firming agent is added causing curds to form. Curds are pressed to remove the whey, and it’s this action that creates the typical tofu block-style shape.

Is Soy Healthy to Eat?

Let’s talk soy and our health. Long recognized as a nutrient-dense food by registered dietitians and medical doctors, soybeans contain all of the essential amino acids as well as an impressive list of vitamins and minerals like calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, phosphorous, potassium, selenium, B vitamins, and zinc. Soy also contains fiber, omega-3 and six fatty acids, and is an excellent source of protein.

Not too shabby, nutritionally speaking. But don’t take my word for it, I’m not a dietitian, that’s why I turned to an expert on vegan nutrition, Anya Todd MS, RD, LD to get her thoughts on soy.

According to Todd, the nutrition in soy foods can vary among different preparations, so she recommends consuming whole soy foods like tofu to guarantee the highest amount per serving. “Bottom line, soy is perfectly healthy in moderation. Two to three servings of whole soy foods a day is a safe recommendation.” In fact, research shows that people who eat one to two servings of soy foods like tofu per day gain many health benefits such as reducing the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and specific forms of cancer. (1)

But what about those other scary soy articles about soy isoflavones, cancer, and genetically modified soy? Glad you asked.

Soy Isoflavones

Soybeans contain phytoestrogens called isoflavones. Some people claim that these soy isoflavones act like the female sex hormone estrogen in the body and can potentially increase the risk of cancers — especially breast cancer — as well as reduce the testosterone levels in men.

But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by the clinical or epidemiologic literature available at the time of this writing. Soy is one of the most researched foods — nearly 2,000 soy-related papers are published annually — and based on the health benefits in these epidemiologic studies along with the benefits noted in clinical trials soy is not only safe to eat, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (1, 2)

Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs)

Some people will avoid tofu because they are afraid to consume GMOs. A genetically modified organism (GMO) is an organism whose genetic material has been manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes using DNA from different species of living organisms like bacteria or viruses to get specific traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of herbicides or pesticides. (3)

Soybeans are the second-largest crop grown in the US after corn, and they’re also one of the top genetically-modified crops. These numbers are significant because even if you’re not eating soy foods directly — if you’re eating animals — you’re most likely still consuming soy. Currently, 85 percent of all GMO soybeans end up in animal feed for farmed animals where it eventually ends up on your plate.

There are criticisms about the practice surrounding the bioengineering and the production of genetically modified organisms. In more than 60 countries around the world, there are significant restrictions or outright bans on the manufacture and sale of genetically modified organisms. Here in the US, the government has approved the use of GMOs. (3)

When looking at soy tofu, unless the product has a specific GMO-free label, then there’s a good chance the product is genetically modified. Look for organic tofu or tofu labeled explicitly as using non-GMO ingredients.

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How to Buy Tofu

Tofu is widely available at most local grocery stores, health food stores, or Asian markets. You’ll find tofu in the refrigerated section, Asian section, or baking section of stores depending on the style of tofu. By itself, tofu is vegan, so it isn’t necessary to look for a package specifically labeled ‘vegan,’ but some will list it on the label. 

Tofu made from soy comes in several different styles and textures based on the number of natural coagulants and water used in its production, so if you’ve never purchased tofu before it could be confusing.

The key to a successful tofu recipe is choosing the right style for the dish. Here’s a primer to help you make the right choice.

Extra Firm or Firm Style Tofu

Extra Firm or Firm has very firm to firm textures. Generally speaking, the two types are used interchangeably.

Use in:

  • Stir-fry
  • Baked
  • BBQ
  • Braised
  • Scrambled

Medium Firm Style Tofu

The Medium Firm style tofu has a softer texture than Firm or Extra Firm but more firm than Soft.

Use in:

  • Soups
  • Dairy-Free Cheeses

Soft or Silken Style Tofu

Unlike the other styles, Soft and Silken style tofu — the most delicate of all tofu textures — comes in three additional varieties: Soft, Firm, and Extra Firm. Because soft and silken styles are not drained and pressed like other tofus, it breaks apart very easily.

Use in:

  • Creamy Dips
  • Sauces
  • Smoothies
  • Egg-Free Mayonnaise
  • Desserts

Soy-Free Tofu

Tofu made from soybeans is the most common form, but it’s not the only one. Hemp tofu is a real thing, and if it isn’t available in stores near you, don’t worry. You can always make hemp tofu at home.

Burmese Tofu Recipe from My New Roots | The Great Big Vegan Tofu Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Homemade Burmese Tofu from My New Roots

Another soy-free option is Burmese tofu. Burmese tofu is of Shan origin, made from water and flour made with yellow split peas and the Burmese version of chickpea flour known as besan flour.

The flour is mixed with water, turmeric, and salt and heated until reaches a creamy consistency. Next, it’s transferred to a tray and placed aside to set. Unlike the bright white soy tofu, this style is matte yellow.

It has a jelly-like but firm consistency and does not crumble when sliced or cut. It’s lusciously creamy and silky, delicate yet firm, and kind of melts in your mouth.

How to Cook Tofu Like a Pro

Baked Basics

  • Use Firm or Extra Firm Style.
  • Cut into 1/2 inch thick slices and marinate, if desired.
  • Place in a single layer in a glass baking pan.
  • Bake at 375° for 35 minutes or until golden brown, flipping occasionally

BBQ + Grilling

  • Use Firm or Extra Firm Style.
  • Press using one of these methods.
  • Cut into 1/2 inch thick slices and marinate, if desired.
  • Place in a single layer in a glass baking pan.
  • Add sauce over the top and marinate for a minimum of 30 minutes.
  • Broil or Grill 5 minutes on each side, basting with extra sauce while cooking.

Frying

  • Use Firm or Extra Firm Style.
  • Press using one of these methods.
  • Dry thoroughly with paper or kitchen towel.
  • Cut into 1/2 inch thick slices or cubes.
  • Heat high-heat oil in a frying pan.
  • Add in small batches, frequently stirring until tofu has a beautiful golden puffed up look.
  • Drain on paper or kitchen towel to remove excess oil after cooking.

Scrambles + Fillings

  • Use Medium, Firm, or Extra Firm Style.
  • Using a fork, break apart into small bite-size pieces.
  • Add a small amount of oil to a heated pan and add tofu. Cook until lightly browned.
  • Add chopped vegetables and spices of your choosing to the pan.
  • Cook for 3 – 5 minutes or until vegetables are cooked through.

Tofu Scramble Inspiration

  • Mexican-Style: Firm or Extra Firm Style, onion, green pepper, red pepper, corn kernels, black beans spiced with black pepper, oregano, and chili powder. Turn it up a notch with fresh cilantro and a squeeze of fresh lime juice. Top with sliced avocado or a spoonful of your favorite guacamole or salsa.
  • Italian-Style: Firm or Extra Firm Style, onion, eggplant, banana peppers, roasted red peppers, and kalamata olives, spiced with black pepper, oregano, basil, and topped with a sprinkle of pine nuts.
  • Hearty Tofu Scramble: Firm or Extra Firm Style, onion, mushroom, green or red pepper, and diced potatoes spiced with black pepper, thyme, and sage. Serve with toast slathered with lots of vegan butter.
  • The Perfect Kale Scramble: Firm or Extra Firm Style, onion, zucchini or yellow squash (or both), and kale spiced with black pepper, turmeric, and soy sauce.

Marinating

  • Use Medium, Firm, or Extra Firm Style.
  • Slices up to 1/2 inch should marinate at least 10 minutes inside a refrigerator.
  • For slices greater than 1/2 inch, marinate at least 2 hours inside the refrigerator.
  • For maximum flavor, marinate overnight.

TIP: Freezing and thawing prior to use will help absorb marinades more than tofu that has only been pressed.

Vegan Tofu Recipes

If you have never made a tofu recipe at home before, you’ll be surprised to learn how inexpensive and easy it is to get a delicious meal to the table. Here are a few recipes to get you inspired.

Tofu Ramen Recipe from Olives for Dinner | The Great Big Vegan Tofu Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Quick & Easy Tofu with Ramen from Olives for Dinner

Recipes to Try

Do you have a vegan tofu recipe that isn’t listed here? Please contact me.

Frequently Asked Questions

While cooking with tofu couldn’t be easier, there are some tricks to getting a perfectly cooked dish to the table. From draining to pressing to storing, there are some things you should know. I’ve answered some of the more common tofu questions to help you become a total tofu ninja. Let’s get to it.

Tofu has no flavor at all and acts like a sponge which will absorb the characteristics of the ingredients in any recipe. This versatility makes it perfect for stir-frys, a sandwich filling, in sauces or soups, in a smoothie, or even in a decadent cheesecake.

Pre-made tofu comes packaged in water that you’ll drain before using. It can also be pressed to add additional firmness. Pressing also helps the blocks soak up marinades better than non-pressed.

  • Drain the water from the package.
  • Place the tofu between two paper towels and place on a plate.
  • Press the tofu by using a couple of cans, a book, or a pan for about 10 – 20 minutes.

Or,

Typically, store-bought tofu is packaged in water and found in the refrigerated produce section of a grocery store. The water keeps the tofu fresh and prevents it from drying out. Once opened, tofu should be stored in fresh water and kept refrigerated in an airtight container. Remember to change the water daily.

There are several signs that tofu has spoiled. Spoiled tofu has an unpleasant odor (or taste) and can be discolored. Be sure to check the Use By or Best Before Date and discard any tofu that has passed those dates.

Yes, you can! Freezing tofu changes its consistency, making it more firm and dense. After it thaws it is has a chewy and toothy texture. Tips for freezing tofu:

  • Drain the tofu before putting it in the freezer
  • Tofu can either be pre-cut or stored in plastic
  • Freeze overnight (or until you are ready to use it)
  • Thaw in the refrigerator
  • When soft, press out remaining water
Absolutely! Here are some tips to help get you started:

Dairy Replacements

To replace cream, blend an equal volume of soft or silken tofu. To replace soft cheese, use an equal volume of firm tofu

Eggs

To replace an egg in a recipe, use measurement 1/2 cup of silken tofu is equivalent to 1 egg.

Mayonnaise

To create dairy-free mayonnaise use soft or silken tofu.

Vegan Tofu Guide | Your Daily Vegan

Truth in Advertising

 I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. To that end, I have meticulously researched each topic presented in Your Daily Vegan. These guides contain the information available at the time of publication and are reviewed and updated when needed.

Changes to the guides are dated and listed at the end of every guide. Please contact me if you find out-of-date or incorrect information.

References

  1. Messina, M., & Messina, V. (2010). The Role of Soy in Vegetarian Diets. Nutrients,v2(8), 855–888. http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080855
  2. Norris, J. (2100). Soy: What’s the Harm? VeganHealth.org. http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_wth
  3. Learn About GMOs. Non GMO Project. https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
  4. Todd, A. (2018) Personal Interview. http://www.anyatodd.com/

Photo credit: Thinkstock

This guide is authored by KD Angle-Traegner. Last update January 2018

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The Great Big Vegan Tofu Guide - While cooking with tofu couldn’t be easier, there are some tricks to getting the perfectly cooked tofu dish to the table. Here's what you need to know.