How to prepare tofu

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Want to know how to prepare tofu? You’re in the right place.

I was once at a swanky wedding where the bridal couple had insisted on having a vegan reception dinner (kudos!) much to the parents’ disapproval. What was served up? A big block of tofu with some sauce poured over, and a side of steamed broccoli. Hahahaha. I guess the chef took offence at being asked to omit the meat—or maybe he just needed a bit more training. Not sure if I felt worse for the couple on their big day, or for the guests at feeling deprived…

Tofu is a good source of protein and a versatile ingredient for plant-based cooking, but you really need to know how to prepare it. Here are some things that every wannabe cook should know about tofu: 1) there are different kinds; 2) they have basically no flavour (that’s what a marinade is for); and 3) the texture (whether soft or firm) is pretty boring (but you can change that).

1) There are different kinds of tofu:

  • Silken tofu: A soft, unpressed tofu with a high water content. It’s great for blending into a dish to create a creamy texture, or to use as an egg substitute.
  • Medium tofu: A bit more dense than silken tofu, holds its shape a bit better, but still a bit delicate. Good in soups or for making a tofu scramble.
  • Firm tofu: This has had more water pressed out of it, so it’s a bit more sturdy, ideal for adding to a stew, or to make a vegan ricotta.
  • Extra-firm tofu: Pretty dense stuff, it slices well but will take longer to absorb a marinade, so use it to add texture to an already-flavourful dish.

If you want to use tofu as a side (perhaps baked or fried), you’ll probably want to use a marinade to give it some flavour. But, because tofu has quite a high water content (82-88% in medium or firm tofu), the first trick is to remove some of the water and make space for the marinade. Here are some methods to try:

  • Place it between clean kitchen towels on a chopping board, with another board on top, and a couple of books. Leave it for 15 minutes, and let the towels soak up the water.
  • Dry-fry the tofu in a non-stick pan over medium heat (no oil!) pressing with a spatula—you’ll hear the water droplets squeal as they evaporate 🙂
  • Freeze the tofu, then defrost it before using. Because water molecules expand when frozen into ice crystals, they create little pockets that stay that way when the tofu thaws. The water trickles out (or you can squeeze it out), leaving a sponge-like texture that absorbs marinade beautifully.

2) Add flavour to the tofu:
In the same way that people flavour their meat, you can flavour your tofu. Once you’ve pressed, dry-fried or frozen the water out, make a marinade and let the tofu sit in it for a while. The longer it sits, the stronger the flavour. Try 20 minutes, or leave it in the fridge overnight. Then you can fry, grill or bake the tofu, alone or with veg.

3) Give the tofu some texture:
Tofu has a pretty mundane texture—which can be a great thing if the rest of your dish has different textures. But if you want to up the ante on the tofu texture, try these tricks:

  • Freeze and thaw. Like I mentioned above, this will give it a spongy, chewy texture that you won’t get from fresh tofu.
  • Crisp it up by coating your tofu cubes with cornstarch before baking or pan-frying. You could also try nutritional yeast instead, for extra flavour!
  • Fry it in some oil until the outside is nice and crispy.

How are you feeling about your tofu prospects now—better? If you’ve also had some disappointing experiences, give tofu another chance! It’s just a bit misunderstood 🙂

By the way, I just read an article by Dr Michael Greger (published yesterday) on soy and hormone levels. Did you know that soy consumption is protective against breast cancer, by two mechanisms? First, by acting as estrogen-blockers, and second, by stopping breast cancer cells from producing estrogen in the first place. Fascinating stuff—read more here.

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