How to Cook Tofu
How to Cook Tofu
Tofu gets a bad wrap in the West. Often described as a flavorless meat substitute with an awful texture, tofu is the easiest food to make fun of, a common “yuck” ingredient for kids and adults.
I love tofu when it is prepared properly. If you’re looking to eat less meat for health reasons, to lose weight, or to be environmentally conscious, tofu is a great way to get protein. However, tofu is not a “meat substitute” by any means, and requires a completely different storage and preparation method from anything we commonly eat in the western hemisphere.
What Is Tofu?
Alright, don’t get grossed out when I tell you this, but tofu is basically mashed soybean curd. Sounds delightful, right? It is meant to have very little flavor or odor, allowing cooks to impart whatever flavor, texture, and odor they want. It originally comes from China and is still a big part of the Chinese, Japanese, and pan-Asian diet. Tofu is catching on in America thanks to an interest in all things Eastern, though in this country it is usually deep-fried and served with a peanut sauce or soy sauce. Trust me–there are lots more ways to enjoy tofu.
Here are some quick tips for buying, storing, and cooking tofu. I’ve come up with these after years of getting tofu wrong. Learn from my mistakes and avoid these typical tofu pitfalls.
Fresh Is Best–In Japan and China, where tofu is a staple, it is most often eaten fresh. The Japanese put a huge premium on tofu made and cooked the same day–a near impossibility outside of Asia. If you can’t get fresh tofu, buy organic tofu from a health food store or specialty store. Look for tofu that is as fresh as possible, weeks away from its “sell by” date. Use all tofu that you buy as quickly as you can, and avoid vacuum sealed tofu packages, as the flavor won’t be nearly as intense and nuanced as fresh tofu.
Proper Tofu Storage–This is vitally important. The biggest mistake I was making with my tofu was not storing it properly. I usually buy tofu in pretty big quantities, since I use it as a protein substitute three or four times a week. I was buying vacuum sealed tofu and leaving it in the vacuum sealed package to dry out and lose flavor. If, like me, you are using a little bit of tofu at a time and buying in large doses, you should drain, rinse, and store your tofu in water in a sealed container. Store tofu this way for two or three days, but no more. A nice little trick I’ve found is to add two or three ice cubes to the storage liquid to cool down the tofu before storage. It seems to last longer and make the tofu more flavorful over time. Adding a couple of ice cubes to the storage container chills the tofu faster and extends storage time. If you must store tofu for more than two or three days, take it out of the container, change the water, and clean the container. Ideally, you should never store any tofu at all, but my shopping budget doesn’t always allow for that.
Eat Small Quantities–Remember that tofu is essentially concentrated protein. Don’t try to eat a block of tofu at a time. I mix my tofu up with grains, vegetables, and even other proteins from time to time. Unlike meat, a serving of tofu is just four tablespoons. Tofu is not really a “substitute” for meat, in that you cut a piece of tofu the size of a steak and serve it for lunch. Tofu is a different food item altogether from meat, and you should treat it that way.
Before you serve tofu at your next dinner party or bring a tofu dish to a potluck, check and see if there are any people with soy allergies. Soy is one of the more common food allergies, so even when you cook it for your family and friends, try a tiny portion and work your way up to four tablespoons.
You can ruin any food by cooking it the wrong way. If you’re a steak-lover, I’m sure you’ve had poorly-prepared steaks before. Just because some people don’t know how to cook tofu doesn’t mean tofu isn’t a delicious food.
For almost every cooking application, you want to use “firm” or “extra firm” tofu. When you buy your tofu, check the label. If it says “silky” or “silken,” let it alone for now. For some people, even “extra firm” tofu is too soft. In this case, wrap your block of tofu in a dishtowel, and lay a brick or a heavy pan of water on top to squeeze out extra moisture. I place a heavy brick on top of all my tofu for ten minutes before trying to cook it. I like it super-firm.
Raw tofu may contain bacteria, like any food, so even if you plan on serving it raw, steam it for five minutes to make sure it is clean. Raw tofu is perfect for toddlers–it is flavorless and odorless and full of protein. My two year old daughter loves the stuff. Just be sure to steam it before you serve it. Raw tofu is also known to create gas, and a little steaming will clear that right up.
Fried tofu is easy–slice your tofu into inch-square pieces, marinate it (I use soy sauce and a little ginger) for five minutes or so, then fry on both sides in light oil until it is crispy. These fried tofu pieces can be added to any recipe. My favorite is pasta with a light tomato sauce and fried tofu. It’s a delicious meatball replacement.
If you want to flavor up your tofu even more, spices like cumin, garam masala, curry, and hot peppers are perfect additions. Anything with a strong flavor, like garlic and ginger, works well. My family likes a tofu stir fry with mixed veggies. Add the mix to rice or rice noodles for an authentic and delicious light Asian meal.