Thursday, September 25, 2008

Veggie Might: Don’t Fear the Bean Curd (Tofu!)

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

With the popularity of shock-cuisine shows like No Reservations and Bizarre Foods, eating insects, entrails, and genitalia is all the rage. Not that it’s anything new. My family has been eating livermush for years, but no one is signing my dad up for sixteen episodes on TLC. My mom just regaled me with a delightful story of her first haggis experience, and well, I doubt Bourdain is interested in a sidekick who also enjoys canned olives.

But I don’t get it. Why is feasting on guts and bugs considered adventurous, but no one on Top Chef would dare cook a vegetarian entrée even when given an all vegetable menu? Is tofu really that disgusting? I mean, come on. Zimmern will eat tuna sperm.

I realize our nation is historically dependent on a meat-based diet, and there is no end to the pleasure in discovering what crazy stuff other people eat, but there has also been a trend in the last couple of years to scale back and eat more healthily.

Well, I’m going to do my part to encourage the move to more plant-based deliciosity for the veg and omni alike. My first, shocking look into what vegetarians eat is a breakdown of that mystery block of supreme ridicule: tofu.

Tofu is soybean curd, [cue mild groaning sounds] the gunk that comes from coagulating soymilk [cue louder groans], a process that originates in China. Similar to cheese in process and consistency, tofu is pretty bland. But what makes it so great is its versatility.

Tofu comes in three varieties: soft, silken, and firm. Soft and silken (the Japanese variety) are great for blending into soups, sauces, or if you just like soft food. Firm is better for sautéing, baking, frying, grilling, broiling, and so forth.

I’ve found that just tossing tofu into your favorite meat-based recipes and expecting it to adapt is like trying to emulsify oil and vinegar with a spoon. Harharsnorksplarzz! Can’t be done!

Most people have a tofu horror story. They were served a dish with bland, soft, slimy tofu that squished through their teeth and slithered down their throats (if it made it that far), and they vowed to never eat the stuff again. But, Dear Reader, this is not the fault of tofu but an unfortunate case of mismanaged expectations.

In our culture, we think of tofu as a meat substitute, a protein proxy to replace all that divine flesh we were brought up on. In others, tofu is its own thing, just tofu: a super-healthy, soy-derived delicacy.

In Chinese and Japanese cuisine, the smooth, creamy texture Westerners blanch at is commonplace. Most people either like it or don’t. Bean curd skins, however, are chewy and have a nice bite. Try that if you like your nonmeat protein a little more meat-like.

I do like mine chewy and savory, with what Mark Bittman calls The Umami Factor. “Just as people have sweet teeth, or people adore salty food, there are those of us who can’t get enough of umami, a word used to describe the flavor one might otherwise call ‘savory-ness’ [sic].” (Confidential to MB and his editors, “savoriness” is a real word, despite what MS Word spell check says. See Merriam-Webster and American Heritage, 4th Ed.)

Here are a few tricks and tips for working with tofu that will rock your socks off the way testicles and fried bugs do it for the “bad boys” of food TV.

Buying Tofu and Storage
1. Water Pack
It’s the most common packaging that everyone recognizes. Brands like Nasoya and House are the most popular, at least here in the Big City. Check the expiration date before buying, so you know how long you have to use it. Tofu will spoil, generally speaking, within a few days.

2. Aseptic (Vacuum) Pack
This is the most practical packaging if you’re not sure when you’re concerned about shelf life. The most common brand is Mori-Nu. The vacuum pack will last seemingly forever. Or at least a few months if the package remains sealed. Check the expiration date.

3. Fresh
Just like finding a good butcher, vegetarians know where to get good fresh tofu. The Korean grocery in my neighborhood sells excellent, firm, fresh tofu that is much cheaper than the supermarket packaged varieties. Two blocks, which is about 14 oz., go for a dollar. The same amount at the supermarket can cost between $2.59 and $3.99 depending on the store.

4. Storage
  • Keep tofu in water; it’ll last longer
  • Change water daily to extend fridge life
  • Once package is open, you’ve got three–four days before it goes bad.
  • You’ll know it’s bad when it smells sour or starts turning orange.
Prep Methods
1. Freeze & Squeeze
  • Start with firm tofu. Drain water from package.
  • Wrap tofu in plastic wrap or freezer paper.
  • Freeze for 8 hours or overnight
  • Thaw completely
  • Squeeze out water from thawed tofu cake
This method results in a super chewy, meaty texture that lends itself to crumbling. It’s great for chili, pasta sauce, and eggless salad—anything in which you would use ground meat.

2. Press & Go
  • Start with firm tofu. Drain water from package.
  • Place tofu cake between two dinner plates
  • On the top plate, place a couple of canned goods, cast iron skillet, or heavy cookbook.
  • Leave for 20–45 minutes.
  • Occasionally drain water from bottom plate.
This method squeezes out the excess water from the tofu, but preserves the consistency, allowing it to be sliced or cubed neatly. The texture is firmer and chewier than the straight out of the container, but not as much as the freeze & squeeze method. Pressed tofu is great for stir-fry, sautéing, and baking.

3. Flavor Save(u)r
Tofu is a flavor sponge. It will soak up any spice, marinade, or sauce that comes near it. Plus, its porous texture makes marinating a snap. Soak your tofu in your jus du jour for just a few minutes and you’re good to go.

Cooking Methods
1. Pan Frying
Who doesn’t love fried food? Fried tofu is no different. Slice some pressed tofu, dredge in a little seasoned cornmeal, and dunk into a smidge of olive oil. Just like Dad’s fried catfish but without the bones. I make this all the time when I’m craving something umami.

2. Stir Fry
This is what most people think of when they think tofu: Asian-style stir fry with bland, slimy tofu chunks. No more! Toss your tofu cubes in a baggie with a little bit of cornstarch—just enough to lightly coat all the pieces. That will hold your tofu together, keep it from sticking to the pan, and keep your marinade from peeling off. Hey, it happens.

3. Sauté
In a similar category as stir fry, sautéing tofu with veggies and combing with a grain or pasta makes a terrific, tasty meal. But you don’t have to limit yourself to the Asian flavor palette. A favorite of mine is a basic olive oil, garlic, tofu, and kale sautéed and combined with quinoa. Mmm…mmm…Now I’m hungry.

4. Scramble
Tofu scramble is THE staple of a vegan breakfast. It uses silken or soft tofu, great spices, onions, and makes the house smell fantastic. And you can’t go wrong Post Punk Kitchen’s recipe.

5. Baking
Baking is a great way to keep fat and calories low and imbed delicious marinades and rubs. You can pretty much prepare tofu for baking the way you would meat: season, put it on a baking sheet, pop it in the oven, and voila! Here’s a great recipe from one of my favorite veg food blogs, VeganYumYum, for Smokey Miso Tofu. It makes a yummy sandwich or salad topper.

Now you’re read to face the tofu without hesitation. Get out there and whip up some killer soy-based meals that you and your friends will actually eat. And remember, just because some chefs are afraid of the curd, you don’t have to be.

  • Vegetarian Times Cookbook, The Editors of Vegetarian Times, Collier Books, New York, 1984
  • How to Cook Everything Vegetarian, Mark Bittman, Wiley Publishing, Inc., New Jersey, 2007
  • “What the Heck Is Tofu Anyway?”
  • “Tofu”
  • Vegetarian Resource Group,
  • Post Punk Kitchen,
(Photos courtesy of Flickr members Wm Jas and galoshes.)

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Anonymous said...

I was listening to "don't fear the reaper" when I found this post. :-)

Brigid said...

Great post! However, you have a malapropism—your second option under "Buying and Storage" should be aseptic pack, not ascetic pack. Aseptic=germ-free. Ascetic=abstaining from worldly pleasures. In fact, tofu is a wordly pleasure! Just today, I had a dish of yaki udon with silken tofu for lunch. It was delicious!

A said...

I became a vegetarian at age 11, in the mid 90s when vegetarianism wasn't quite as popular as it is currently, particularly in northeast PA where I grew up. My first attempts at preparing tofu failed horribly. I remember turning it into something that reminded me of rawhide chews once.. It wasn't until a few years later when I discovered homestyle bean curd at a local Chinese restaurant that I realized that it could be very yummy when done properly. Of course, my idea of "properly" isn't necessarily anyone else's, and it's always a toss-up at restaurants whether I'll like it or not. I do cook with tofu at home a lot, though, and I've learned how to prepare it in ways that I enjoy. Plus, the grocery store near me sells pre-flavoured tofus that are really good, and I like to use them cold in salads.

Anonymous said...

I have been a vegetarian for about 8 years now and just recently learned the various ways to cook tofu. Like you said in your article I used to just throw it in a stir fry pan and saute it to death.

I have recently discovered the wonderful world of baked tofu and I am not looking back!! Thank you for this article, I'm sending it to my mom because I know she will also love it.

This is a great blog. Thank you.

Leigh said...

Thanks for calling me out! And after I scolded Mark Bittman! I love your correlation of tofu with asceticism. It does give me much pleasure, indeed.

Thanks for the props everyone. If you have anymore tofu tips, I'd love to hear them!

tabiji said...

Pan fried tofu and bean curd are the best!