Tofu

An in-depth look at one of the most controversial plant foods.

Published: May 2015
Last Update: September 2022

Reading Time: 19 minutes

A hotly debated food

Tofu is one of those foods that can spark a passionate debate among vegans and non-vegans.

Some, like me, adore tofu for its versatility and impressive nutritional profile. Others avoid it because they mistakenly believe it's a genetically modified, cancer-inducing poison.

With so much conflicting information, you're probably wondering whether to include tofu into your vegan diet. You're not alone. I can help.

First, I'll cover where it comes from and how people make it. Next, we'll cover soy nutrition and hear from real-life dietitians. Then, it's time to go shopping with a helpful buying guide. Finally, sweet and savory vegan recipes for you to try at home.

Let's begin.

Uncooked cubed tofu / Source

1. Basics

If you're new to tofu, start here.

Origins

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

After that, it spread to other parts of East Asia, likely due to the spread of Buddhism.

What does tofu taste like?

By itself, tofu has a neutral taste. While fresh versions are flavorful, commercially-available versions have virtually no flavor.

It acts like a sponge, absorbing the flavor of the ingredients in any recipe.

This versatility makes it a favorite for stir-frys, sandwich fillings, sauces, soups, smoothies, or decadent desserts.

How is tofu made?

Tofu-making is somewhat similar to the process used for making cheese but uses soymilk instead of dairy milk.

First, the process begins by soaking dried soybeans in water for a period. Then, the beans are drained, rinsed, and placed into a food processor to grind them together with water. This process creates a thick mixture.

Simmering the mixture in a large pot of water separates the soymilk from the solids. After pouring the soymilk through a sieve, a natural firming agent is added, causing curds to form.

Finally, the curds are pressed to remove the whey. It’s this action that forms the typical block-style shape.

Tofu cubes / Source

2. Tofu nutrition information

Evidence-based nutrition information from licensed dietitians.

It's made from soy (most of the time)

Long recognized as a nutrient-dense food, 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
  • Zinc

Soy also contains fiber, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids and is an excellent source of protein.

I checked with an expert on vegan nutrition, Anya Todd, MS, RD, LD to know more.

Experts agree

According to Todd, the nutrition in soy foods can vary among different preparations, so a few servings a day are appropriate.

“Soy is perfectly healthy in moderation. Two to three servings of soy foods a day is a safe recommendation.”

Research shows that people who eat one to two servings of soyfoods daily gain many health benefits, such as reducing the risk of heart disease, osteoporosis, and specific forms of cancer. (1, 2)

Author and vegan dietitian Virginia Messina, MPH, RD, concurs.

“Don’t be afraid of these foods and don’t ignore them. Plant proteins are good for you.”

Messina places tofu into the "core vegan foods" group, which she recommends including in any healthy eating plan. (3)

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 — and reduce the testosterone levels in men.

But concerns about adverse effects are not supported by the clinical literature available at the time of this writing.

Soy is one of the most researched foods — nearly 2,000 soy-related papers published annually — and based on the health benefits in these epidemiologic studies and the benefits noted in clinical trials, soy is not only safe to eat, but it’s also beneficial when eaten in moderation. (1, 2, 5)

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)

Some people will avoid tofu because they are afraid to consume GMOs.

genetically modified organism (GMO) is any organism whose genetic material has been manipulated in a lab using genetic engineering techniques. Scientists alter genes using DNA from different living organisms like bacteria or viruses to get specific traits such as resistance to disease or tolerance of herbicides or pesticides. (4)

Soybeans are the second-largest crop grown in the US after corn and are 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.

Buying GMOs

There are criticisms about the practice surrounding bioengineering and the production of genetically modified organisms. More than 60 countries worldwide have significant restrictions or outright bans on their manufacture and sale.

Here in the US, the government has approved using bioengineered crops. (4)

When buying soy tofu, unless the product has a specific GMO-free label, then there’s a good chance it’s genetically modified.

Finding non-GMO is easy for those who avoid GMO soy. Look for the information on the label when purchasing.

Grocery carts at the market / Source

3. Shopping guide

Here’s what you need to know before you head to the store.

Find tofu in stores

Widely available, you’ll find it at most local grocery stores or international markets.

Check the refrigerated section for fresh tofu in water and grocery shelves for aseptic containers of silken varieties.

What is the difference between styles?

Tofu made from soy comes in several different styles and textures based on the number of natural coagulants and water used in its production.

The variety of options could be confusing if you’ve never purchased it before. The key to a successful recipe is choosing the right style for the dish.

Here’s a primer to help you make the right choice.

Firm or extra firm style

This style has a firm to very firm texture. Generally speaking, the two types are used interchangeably.

Use in recipes like:

  • Bakes
  • BBQs
  • Braises
  • Scrambles
  • Stir-frys

Medium firm style

Medium Firm has a softer texture than either firm variety but is more firm than the soft style.

Use in recipes like:

  • Dairy-Free Cheeses
  • Dressings
  • Soups

Soft or silken style

Of all the forms available, this is the most delicate. Unlike the other styles, silken ones are made without draining or pressing. As a result, it has a smooth, creamy texture similar to custard.

Silken style comes in three additional varieties: Soft, Firm, and Extra Firm. The difference in firmness comes from the varying levels of soy protein each contains.

Use soft styles in recipes for:

  • Sauces
  • Dips
  • Drinks
  • Baking

Firm & extra firm styles are best in recipes for:

  • Thicker sauces
  • Soups
  • Salads
  • Entrees

Is soy-free tofu available?

Yes! Tofu made from soybeans is the most common form, but it's not the only one. The following brands offer soy-free options:

Another choice is Burmese tofu. It's of Shan origin, made from water, flour made with yellow split peas, and the Burmese version of chickpea flour known as besan flour. It melts in your mouth, lusciously creamy and silky, delicate yet firm. You won't find this version in stores, it's made at home.

Kitchen pots and pans / Source

4. How to cook tofu

Cooking with tofu couldn’t be easier, but there are some tricks to getting the perfectly cooked dish to the table. Here’s what to know.

Frequently asked questions

Before we get cooking, let's get the answers to the most commonly asked questions about tofu.

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

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

Or,

  • Press in a tofu press

Typically, store-bought tofu is packaged in water and found in the refrigerated section of the 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 has a chewy and toothy texture.

Here are more 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 the remaining water

Absolutely! Here are some tips to help get you started:

  • To replace cream, blend an equal volume of soft or silken tofu. To replace soft cheese, use the same amount of firm tofu
  • To substitute an egg in a recipe, use the measurement 1/2 cup of silken tofu is equivalent to 1 egg.
  • To create dairy-free mayonnaise, use soft or silken tofu.
If you’ve ever wondered if it’s necessary to press the tofu before using it, you’re not alone. Does the water need to be removed? Sometimes, but not always. It depends on the recipe.

There are a few instances where you will always want to press before:

  • Soaking in a marinade (allows for more flavor absorption)
  • Grilling (gives a dense texture needed for grilling)
  • Frying in oil (for crisping and browning on the outside)

Sometimes, simply draining the storage water is all that is needed. This method is suitable for dishes like

  • Dips
  • Soups
  • Scrambles
  • Sauces
  • Smoothies
  • Desserts

Pressing is simple, and almost anyone can do it. There are two options for pressing: using or not using a press.

Option #1: Without a Press

All you need are two plates, a couple of books, and a few paper or kitchen towels.

  • Put the block between two plates or cutting boards
  • Place a heavy object (cans of food, a book, or a heavy iron skillet) on top and sit for 10 – 30 minutes
  • Drain water and use
Option #2: With a Press

There are several types of presses, each different, both in design and price. They share a fair amount of ratings, making it easy to pick one that suits your kitchen and budget.

  • Open and drain water from the package
  • Place entire block in press and lock lid in place
  • Let sit for 10 – 20 minutes (the longer it sits, the more water removed)
  • Drain liquid, unlock, and remove the lid and it’s ready to use

Cook like a professional

The key to a successful tofu recipe is choosing the right style for the dish. It's so versatile, it can be made into almost anything.

Here are a few popular preparation methods.

Marinating

  • Slices up to 1/2 inch should marinate for 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.

Baked basics

  • Cut into 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.

Frying

  • Press the water out
  • Dry thoroughly with paper or a 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 the tofu looks beautiful golden puffed-up
  • Drain on paper or a kitchen towel to remove excess oil after cooking

BBQ & grilling

  • Cut into 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 for five minutes on each side, basting with extra sauce while cooking

Filling & scrambles

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

Tofu scramble flavor inspirations

  • Mexican-Style: Onion, green pepper, red pepper, corn kernels, black beans spiced with black pepper, oregano, and chili powder. Turn it up 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: 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 Scramble: Onion, mushroom, green or red pepper, diced potatoes spiced with black pepper, thyme, and sage. Serve with toast slathered with lots of vegan butter.
  • Perfect Kale Scramble: Onion, zucchini, yellow squash (or both), and kale spiced with black pepper, turmeric, and soy sauce.

5. Vegan tofu recipes

Ready for cooking inspiration? These recipes will surely satisfy you.

Savory vegan tofu recipes

  1. General Tso Tofu
    Your Daily Vegan
  1. Baked Tofu Nuggets
    Running on Real Food
  1. Chinese-Inspired BBQ Tofu Burgers
    My Pure Plants
  1. Breaded Tofu Cutlets
    Vegan on Board
  1. Curried Tofu Salad
    Veggie Inspired

Sweet vegan tofu recipes

  1. Raw Peanut Butter Pie
    This Healthy Kitchen
  1. Baked Vegan Cheesecake with Berries
    Rainbow Nourishments
  1. Chocolate Mousse Cake
    Nutriciously
  1. Vegan Cannoli Cones
    Plant Powered Couple
  1. Lemon Tart
    My Quiet Kitchen

Truth in advertising

I am committed to providing accurate information to the vegan community. Meticulously researched, the topic explored in this guide contains the information available at the time of publishing.

I don’t just say it; I source it too.

Please contact me if you find incorrect data.

Article Credits

  1. Messina, M., & Messina, V. (2010). The Role of Soy in Vegetarian Diets. Nutrients,v2(8), 855–888. Retrieved from http://doi.org/10.3390/nu2080855
  2. Norris, J. (2100). Soy: What’s the Harm? VeganHealth.org. Retrieved from http://www.veganhealth.org/articles/soy_wth
  3. Messina, V. (2016).  Veganrd.com. Your Vegan New Years' Diet: Don't forget the protein. Retrieved from https://www.theveganrd.com/2016/01/your-vegan-new-years-diet-dont-forget-the-protein/
  4. Learn About GMOs. Non GMO Project. Retrieved from https://www.nongmoproject.org/gmo-facts/
  5. Todd, A. (2018) Personal Interview. Dietitian website at http://www.anyatodd.com/

Photo Credits

Uncooked cubed tofu / Thinkstock
Cubed tofu / bageta0123
Shopping carts / Markus Spiske
Kitchen pots and pans / Mazda Mehrad
Recipe photos via recipe creators and used with permission.