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One question I get asked fairly frequently is what to do with tofu; it seems people are curious and want to try it but get stumped with how to prepare it.  Let’s start with some basics.

What is tofu?

Tofu is made from soybeans which are soaked and ground into a smooth paste or milk.  The soy milk is then heated and curdled to create curds and whey which are separated.  The curds are pressed into molds to form blocks of tofu.  

Tofu is a good source of plant-based protein, particularly as it contains all 9 essential amino acids (called a ‘complete’ protein).  Amino acids are the building blocks our bodies use to make proteins.  There are 22 amino acids; our bodies can make 13 of them but the remaining 9 must be derived from diet (hence why they are called ‘essential’).  That’s why it’s important to eat a variety of different protein sources if you are reliant on plants for your protein.  Including tofu means you have a source of complete protein in your diet.

For clarity, meat and dairy protein are also complete, containing all 9 essential amino acids.

Tofu is also rich in iron, calcium, other nutrients, low in saturated fat and is cholesterol-free.

Types of tofu

There are two main types of tofu available where I’m based in Southern Spain, as follows:

Firm/extra firm tofu – this is found in the fridge in the supermarket and is usually sitting in liquid.  It has a wet spongy consistency.  Most commonly this is sold unpressed, but I have seen it sold already pressed so check the packaging – if it says nothing it’s probably unpressed.   You can also buy this smoked which can work really well in certain dishes, but check the packaging to see whether it is properly smoked or smoked flavouring only.

What is pressing?  This is done to squeeze the water out the tofu and firm up the consistency by compressing it.  I press tofu every time I use it as it makes it much easier to cook with and a more palatable texture.  There are two options for pressing.  The first is to use a tofu press, which can be bought easily and cheaply, for example on Amazon.  If you are planning on using tofu regularly I think this is a good investment.  The second is to drain the excess water off the tofu and squeeze it lightly between your palms.  Then wrap it in 6-7 squares of kitchen towel and place it on a plate.  Place another plate upside down on top and then weigh it all down with something heavy – 2 or 3 big cookery books usually do the job.  The longer you leave it, the firmer the texture will become but I’d suggest at least an hour.  If you want to make, for example, kebabs, then 3-4 hours is preferable.

This is the texture of firm tofu, unpressed:

Firm tofu texture

This is firm tofu being pressed with books:

Silken tofu – I’ve only seen this in Asian food shops and it comes in a small tetra pack (not in the fridge), usually also labelled firm.  Silken tofu has a completely different texture to firm tofu, it has a smooth, slightly wobbly jelly-like consistency.  You can’t press silken tofu – it would disintegrate if you tried!  It needs no preparation before using except draining off any excess liquid that may be in the packet.

Cooking with tofu

Tofu is really bland but it takes on flavour very well making it ideal for strongly flavoured foods like stir-fries and curries.  Think of it as the chicken of the plant-based proteins!  Here are some ideas:

Firm tofu

  • Make a slurry from 2 tbsp soy sauce and 2 tbsp cornflour.  Slice the tofu into 1.5cm cubes and gently mix into the slurry so it’s all coated. Pan fry in a little oil until it’s golden and crispy all over.  Use to top noodles or stir-fries or in salads.  You can add extra flavour by adding spices into the cornflour e.g. cumin seed, smoked paprika, chilli flakes.
  • To stir-fry cut into 1-1.5cm cubes and fry in a little oil until golden/slightly charred.  Remove from your wok/pan, stir-fry your vegetables, and then add the tofu back to the pan to warm through before serving – I normally add it when I add my sauces to the stir-fry.
  • To marinate, slice the tofu into 1.5-2cm cubes then gently mix in the marinade of your choice.  Leave for at least an hour and then put under a very hot grill or air-fry for about 15 minutes, turning so they cook on all sides.  Have the cubes on the side of a vegetable curry, put them in a tortilla wrap or add to a salad.  For a curry marinade mix 2 tbsp tikka paste (or other curry paste) + 2 tbsp dairy or plant based yoghurt.  For a mexican marinade mix 1/2 tsp smoked paprika, 1/2 tsp cumin seed, 1/2 tsp ground coriander, 1/2 tbsp soy sauce with 2 tbsp olive oil.  For a mediterranean marinade mix 1 tsp lemon juice, 1/2 tsp oregano or mixed herbs, 1 clove of garlic (crushed), pinch of salt and 2 tbsp olive oil.
  • Cut the tofu into the size of your choice and add at the end of other dishes such as curries, pastas or hearty soups.  Smoked tofu works really well in paella.
  • Add to salads and nourish bowls, either pan fried or plain (if plain make sure you have a good flavourful dressing).  If eating plain I prefer to cut it up a bit smaller in 1/2 – 1 cm cubes.

Silken tofu

The main dishes I use silken tofu for are outlined below but I have also used it in mac & cheese, stroganoff and in desserts.

  • Scrambled tofu as an alternative to scrambled eggs.  Put the tofu in a bowl with 1/2 turmeric, 1/4 tsp smoked paprika, 1/3 tsp chilli flakes (optional), 1 tsp soy sauce, 1 tbsp nutritional yeast (optional), plenty of black pepper.  Squish it up with your hands until the texture looks like scrambled egg.  This can be spread on a lined baking tray and put in the oven at 160oC for 10-15 minutes, or pan fry it in a little oil.  You are looking for it to dry out a bit and reach your preferred scrambled egg texture.  You can add other flavourings if you wish e.g. curry or mexican.  Serve as part of a cooked breakfast/brunch or have it in tortilla wraps or tacos.
  • Add it to soup near the end of cooking, just before you liquidize the soup.  It adds a creaminess to soup so works well in tomato soup, leek and potato soup etc.

I hope that these ideas give you some inspiration and motivation to try tofu and add a new and nutritious plant based protein to your diet.

 

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