Tofu and tempeh are both made from soy beans. Tofu comes in a range of different varieties, from silken, to soft, to firm, to sprouted and everything in between. In this guide to tofu, we’ll go through them all and answer some frequently asked questions about that weird block of white stuff you see in stores.
Guide to Tofu
Before we get into all the different types of tofu maybe we should clear up what the stuff actually is. Tofu, also known as bean curd, is made from soy or more specifically, from soybean milk. White soybeans are boiled and curdled and the resulting curds are pressed into the white blocks of tofu that we see in stores. It’s high protein content makes it a great choice if you eat a plant-based diet.
Tofu itself its quite bland but easily absorbs flavour so it’s best marinated or seasoned to suit whatever dish you’re using it in. It’s blandness actually makes it great choice for baking, dressings and dips to add texture and volume, or even replace ingredients like oil, eggs and dairy.
Tofu Nutritional Benefits
Tofu is a good source of protein, which is why I include it in my diet. It contains all essential amino acids, making it a complete protein. It’s also a good source of iron, manganese, selenium, magnesium, copper, zinc and vitamin B1. Extra-firm tofu has the highest protein content but also the highest fat content. I use firm tofu most of the time unless I’m using it in baking or for sauces, then I’ll use soft tofu.
Fermented Soy Products
We’ll get into the different types of tofu below but before we do, let’s take a quick look at two other popular soy products: tempeh and natto.
What is Tempeh?
First of all, let me say that I love tempeh! Tempeh is my favourite soy product. It’s made from cooked and fermented soybeans that are formed into a patty that’s typically sold in blocks. Tempeh has it’s own unique, nutty taste, unlike tofu, which doesn’t really have a flavour of its own.
How to Use Tempeh
Tempeh is high in protein, calcium and phytochemicals and has a firm texture that’s often used as a substitute for meat. It doesn’t crumble in the same way that tofu does, so I usually cut it into slabs or cubes for adding to recipes, although it does work great coarsely crumbled into dishes like chili. You can cut it into small cubes, fry them up in a pan and add them to salads, soups and stirfries or you can make larger slabs of tempeh and add them to things like sandwiches.
I love it pan-fried until crispy or baked in a sauce and added to salads. It definitely has a unique taste that takes some getting used to but I really love it and it’s a good way to include fermented foods in your diet.
What is Natto?
Natto is one soy product you may not have heard of before. Much like tempeh, natto is fermented with a rich probiotic content, making it good for digestion and gut health. It’s made from soaking whole soy beans, cooking them and then adding bacteria to the cooked beans so they can ferment. Even more so than tempeh, natto is definitely not for everybody. It has a strong smell and peculiar, gooey, stringy texture. Sounds delicious, doesn’t it?
Natto Nutritional Benefits
However, if you can get past the smell, natto is highly nutritious and a very good source of protein, fibre, vitamins and minerals, in particular calcium which isn’t always the easiest to get if you eat a plant-based diet. It’s rich in B vitamins, iron, copper, zinc and magnesium too.
One other reason natto is so good for you is it’s rich vitamin K content. Vitamin K is important for a healthy heart as its been shown to prevent hardening of the arteries. Vitamin K has also been show to prevent age-related neurological degeneration and prevent kidney stones.
Types of Tofu
There are two main kinds of tofu: silken and regular. They both come in different firmnesses from soft to extra-firm. Silk tofu, or Japanese-style tofu is much softer than regular tofu, so it requires more careful handling. Regular tofu, or bean curd, is much more common than silken tofu. Regular tofu you is what you’d typically find in the refrigerator or produce section of most grocery stores.
Tofu varieties differ by how much water is pressed out of them. The more water that’s pressed out, the firmer the tofu gets. This is why as the firmness increases, so does the fat and protein content. There’s less water and more actual tofu, even though the size is the same.
For most recipes you’ll want to use regular tofu in either medium, firm or extra-firm. There isn’t a huge difference between the three but if you want the tofu to retain its shape, firm or extra-firm tofu is best. You can eat any tofu raw such as in my caesar salad dressing or tofu feta but I usually eat tofu cooked in some way. Crispy baked or dry-fried tofu is my go-to.
Let’s get into the different types of tofu available and what their best used for.
Extra-firm tofu is best for recipes where you want the tofu to hold it’s shape. Extra-firm tofu is sturdy and will hold together regardless of cooking method. It can be sliced, cubed, fried, baked, grilled or crumbled. Extra-firm tofu won’t absorb as much flavour as medium or firm tofu, so it can be helpful to marinate it before preparing.
Firm tofu absorbs flavour well and can be stir-fried, baked, cubed and just about anything else when you want your tofu to retain its shape. It can be also used for tofu scramble and creating dairy-free versions of certain cheeses such as ricotta.
Medium tofu is more delicate than firm and can easily fall apart when handled however it’s still great for stir-fries or marinated tofu recipes when you want the tofu to absorb a lot of flavour. It can be used in soups like miso, served cold and marinated and used in baking. I sometimes bake medium tofu but I prefer firm tofu for this purpose.
Soft tofu is best for blending into baking, smoothies, raw desserts, dips and sauces. I use soft tofu a lot as a replacement for dairy in creamy dressings such as caesar salad dressing.
Smoked tofu is simply a smoked tofu with a firm, meaty texture and smoky flavour. You can use it in sandwiches or anywhere else as an alternative to meat or dairy. It’s ready to eat right out of the package. I don’t really love the flavour of smoked tofu so I’ve only bought it a couple times. You could make your own smoked tofu if you have a smoker or gas grill.
Silken tofu is undrained and unpressed tofu and has a higher water content than other tofu varieties. I don’t see silken tofu in stores very often so if a recipe calls for it, I usually just use soft tofu. Silken tofu does come in soft, firm and extra-firm but I haven’t noticed much of a difference between them.
Silken tofu sometimes comes sold in tubes and if you can’t find it in regular grocery store, it should be available in an Asian food store. Note that silken tofu doesn’t require refrigeration so you may need to ask where it’s kept if you can’t find it. Silken tofu is not curdled like regular tofu making it much more delicate. It’s a little touchy and crumbles easily so be careful when handling it if you’re trying to keep it intact. Otherwise just toss it into the blender if you’re using it in something like a vegan cheesecake, smoothie or raw dessert.
Silken tofu is best for used in foods like dressings, sauces, smoothies and desserts. It can also be used in baking to replace things like cream, oil or eggs.
Other Tofu Varieties
In addition to the main types of tofu y0u’d find in North America, there are a ton of different kinds used in Asian cuisines. I’m not familiar with them though and have no experience cooking with them. This includes processed tofu such as fried, dried, fermented and frozen. There are also tofu varieties that aren’t made with soybeans. This includes almond tofu, egg tofu, sesame tofu, peanut tofu and even Burmese tofu which is made from chickpea flour.
How to Prepare Tofu
There are many different ways you can prepare tofu. It can be cooked by itself, added to recipes, used in baking, marinated, fried, baked, blended, breaded and more. Tofu can be cubed and tossed into soup, it can be breaded and baked, it can be fried and it can even be eaten right out of the package. This is quite common with medium tofu served topped with sauce, like you might find in Japanese cuisine. You can also toss soft and medium tofu right into a smoothie for extra protein and creaminess.
Deep fried or pan-fried tofu will of course give you the crispiest texture but oil-coated tofu isn’t something you want to eat on a regular basis. You’ll find tofu prepared this way in restaurants and of course, it’s delicious however when preparing tofu at home, I usually bake it or dry-fry it in a pan.
You can keep it simple with just a little soy sauce and spices for flavouring or it can be marinated first so it absorbs more flavour. For the most flavourful tofu, you’ll want to press and marinate for an extra flavourful and crispy final product. We’ll look at how to press tofu below.
- Mediterranean Quinoa Bowls with Tofu Feta
- Sriracha Baked Tofu Brown Rice Bowls
- Tofu Kale Salad with Coconut Peanut Dressing
- Crispy Baked Curried Tofu (Oil-Free)
- Healthy Carrot Slaw with Baked BBQ Tofu
- Crispy Baked Garlic Black Pepper Tofu
- Vegan Tofu and Cashew Fried Rice
- Sweet Potato Breakfast Burritos
- Healthy Vegan Breakfast Burritos
- Coconut Cauliflower Rice Buddha Bowl with Tofu
- Easy Vegan Butter Chicken with Tofu
- Vegan Kale Caesar Salad with Roasted Chickpeas
Can you freeze tofu?
You sure can! Frozen tofu can be stored for up to 3 months. Cut it into chunks and freeze on a parchment-lined tray. Once it’s solid, transfer it to a freezer-safe container or bag. Frozen tofu can be defrosted in the fridge. Freezing tofu does change the texture slightly but I don’t notice too big of difference.
Do you have to press tofu?
I don’t usually press tofu however pressing tofu does allow it to absorb more flavour and get crispier if you’re baking or frying it. I usually forget and want to get started cooking right away so I skip this step. Pressing it is really easy though and if you have the time, I’d definitely recommend adding this step to the process when preparing firm, extra-firm and medium tofu. You wouldn’t want to press soft or silken tofu as it would just be smushed.
To press tofu, wrap it in a dishcloth and place a few heavy objects on top of it. It may leak a little so I’d suggest placing it on a plate. I usually use cookbooks as my heavy object. Let it sit like that for 20-30 minutes to allow any excess water to be squeezed out. After pressing, use the tofu as normal.
How do you store tofu?
Store unopened tofu in the refrigerator until ready to use. It typically has quite a long expiry date when unopened so just check the package for the best before date. Once you’re opened the package, you can store any leftover tofu in the fridge for up to 1 week.
Place the leftover tofu in a sealed container covered with water. You can change the water daily to keep the tofu as fresh as possible though it’s not a big deal if you miss a few days.
Is tofu gluten-free?
Plain tofu is naturally gluten-free. It contains soybeans, water and a curdling agent, all of which are gluten-free. If you’re purchasing a flavoured, breaded or otherwise prepared tofu, check the package for gluten-containing ingredients.
Should I buy organic tofu?
Personally, I always buy organic tofu. It’s just one of those foods I feel more comfortable eating organic and fortunately organic tofu is about the same price as it’s non-organic counterparts.
Should I buy non-GMO tofu?
Most tofu found in stores is non-GMO. We hear a lot about genetically modified soy and yes, upwards of 90% of soy crops are GMO but most of it is the soy used for animal feed. If you’re concerned, look for tofu with a non-GMO certified label. Any tofu I’ve ever bought has the non-GMO label on it. It’s not hard to find.
What is sprouted tofu?
Sprouted tofu is made from sprouted soybeans making it easier to digest. I buy sprouted tofu when I can find it. Other than digestibility and a slightly difference in nutrition, it’s the same as regular tofu as far as cooking and preparation methods.
I hope that answered most of you questions about tofu! If you have any other questions about, please let me know in the comments.