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.
Tofu, also known as bean curd, is a high-protein plant food made by coagulating soy milk and pressing curds into solid white blocks of varying firmness. Known for its ability to absorb flavors and mimic foods, it's a fan favorite and staple in a well-rounded vegan diets.
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.
Evidence-based nutrition information from licensed dietitians.
Quick section summary:
Is tofu safe to eat?
In a word, yes. Studies and clinical trials have proven results that soy foods are not only safe but also have many health benefits, too. Nutrition experts recommend two to three servings of whole soy foods per day.
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:
Soy also contains fiber, omega-3, and omega-6 fatty acids and is an excellent source of protein.
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)
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.
A 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)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.