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Vegan Tofu Guide

By KD Angle-Traegner / Updated April 15, 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. Then there are others who 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. You’re not alone. I’m here to help.

Let’s take an in-depth look at one of the most controversial foods.

The Origins of Tofu

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 as a result of the spread of Buddhism.

How is Tofu Made?

Tofu-making is somewhat similar to the same process used for making cheese but uses soymilk in place 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 processing 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.

 

Is Soy Healthy?

What are the health benefits of tofu? Does it belong in a healthy vegan diet?

I talked to an expert in vegan nutrition for the answers. Here’s what she had to say.

Ask a Dietitian: Is Soy Healthy?

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.

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 no more than two to three servings of whole soy foods per day.

 

Frequently Asked Questions

While cooking with tofu couldn’t be easier, there are some tricks to getting the perfectly cooked dish to the table.

Here’s what you need to know.

Frequently Asked Questions

I’ve answered some of the more common 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 the same amount of firm tofu

Eggs

To substitute 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.

 

Tofu Shopping Guide

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

Here’s everything you need to know before heading out to the store.

How to Buy Tofu

Tofu is widely available at most local grocery stores, health food stores, or Asian markets. You’ll find it in the refrigerated section, Asian section, or baking section of stores depending on the style.

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 or Extra Firm Style

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

Use in:

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

Medium Firm Style

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

Use in:

  • Soups
  • Dairy-Free Cheeses

Soft or Silken Style

Of all the forms of available, this is the most delicate. Unlike the other styles, silken tofu is 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.

Soft Style Uses:

  • Sauces
  • Dips
  • Drinks
  • Baking

Firm & Extra Firm Uses:

  • Thicker sauces
  • Soups
  • Salads
  • Entrees

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. It’s 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. Finally, it’s sliced and ready to use.

Unlike the bright white of the soy version, this style is matte yellow. With a jelly-like but firm consistency, it does not crumble when sliced or cut. Lusciously creamy and silky, delicate yet firm, Burmese tofu melts in your mouth.

Reading Food Labels:

Is Tofu Vegan?

By itself, tofu is vegan. Because of this, it isn’t necessary to look for a package with the term ‘vegan’ on it. Some brands will list it on the label, but not all brands do.

 

How to Press Tofu

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s necessary to press tofu before using it, you’re not alone. Does the water need to be removed? Sometimes, but not always. It depends on the recipe.

How to Press Tofu (And Why You Should)

If you’ve ever wondered if it’s necessary to press tofu before using it, you’re not alone. Does the water need to be removed? Sometimes, but not always. It depends on the recipe.

Typically, store-bought tofu is packed in water to retain its moisture and freshness. Pressing adds additional firmness and also helps remove excess water, which allows it to act like a sponge to soak up flavors.

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

  • Before soaking in a marinade (allows for more flavor absorption)
  • Before grilling (gives a dense texture needed for grilling)
  • Before frying in oil (for crisping and browning on the outside)

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

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

Pressing is simple, and most 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 books, and a few paper towels or kitchen towels.

  1. Put the tofu between two plates or cutting boards.
  2. Place a heavy object (cans of food, a book, or a heavy iron skillet) on top and let sit for 10 – 30 minutes.
  3. Drain water and use.

Option #1: With a Press

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

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

How to Cook Tofu

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.

How to Cook Tofu Like a Pro

Tofu is widely available at most local grocery stores, health food stores, or Asian markets. You’ll find it in the refrigerated section, Asian section, or baking section of stores depending on the style.

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.

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.

Frying

  • Press the water out.
  • 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

  • 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 Recipe Ideas
  • Mexican-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: 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, and diced potatoes spiced with black pepper, thyme, and sage. Serve with toast slathered with lots of vegan butter.
  • Perfect Kale Scramble: Onion, zucchini or yellow squash (or both), and kale spiced with black pepper, turmeric, and soy sauce.

Marinating

  • 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.

 

Homemade 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.

Vegan General Tso's Tofu from Chloe Flavor | Your Daily Vegan

General Tso’s Tofu / Photo: KD Angle-Traegner

Recipes to Try

Have a vegan recipe that isn’t listed? Contact me.

 
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.

Article Sources

  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 Credits

Article Photos: Thinkstock

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