My first ever memory and experience with tofu is of a little cartoon cowboy on a package of tofu that lived in our freezer asking “What the heck is tofu?”. I think my mom purchased said tofu out of culinary curiosity or maybe it was given to her by a friend. Honestly I don’t know. What I do know is that little package of tofu with the cartoon cowboy sat in that freezer for a very, very long time. Truth be told, I don’t think my mom ever did anything with the tofu and it just went to waste. Even now my mom says she is not a fan of tofu. And I can understand why. Tofu is something only vegans or vegetarians eat as a substitute for real meat and a poor one at that. At least that is what some people, myself included, think and are lead to believe about tofu. While I still think tofu is no substitute for meat, I have come to appreciate it on its own as an ingredient unto itself.
Let’s explore first what exactly tofu is. Tofu is at its essence bean curd, specifically soybean curd. Tofu is made by processing soybeans into milk which is then coagulated using one of many different agents such as calcium sulfate or Epsom salt. After the milk separates, the curds are removed from the whey and placed into mold and pressed. The length of time as well as what coagulating agent is used affects the texture, consistency, and flavor of the final tofu. The texture of tofu ranges from soft (silken) to extra firm; each with its own set of uses.
So what can you do with tofu? Tofu by itself is pretty bland. However, this trait makes gives it amazing versatility and adaptability. The bland flavor makes it suitable for everything from main courses to desserts. Another great trait about tofu is that it actually absorbs the flavor of the food it is mixed with. This makes it perfect for marinating or cooking with a sauce. Not only is the flavor of the tofu adaptable, so is the texture. It can be drained, pressed, crumbled, or ground. The firmness of the tofu is often dependent on the application. Soft tofu, which is easily liquefied, can be used in place of yogurt, sour cream or soft cheeses. Harder tofu can be cut into shapes that can then be sautéed, fried, braised, simmered or grilled. One classic use of tofu is in stir fry. The tofu holds up well to the hot oil used in stir fries and absorbs the flavor of the sauce.
Tofu should not just be limited to the Asian culinary domain. One company, Tofutti, makes a range of soy-based, dairy-free foods. Best known for ice cream substitute, Tofutti targets some niches such as the lactose-intolerant, kosher, food allergy sensitive, vegetarian and vegan markets.
Tofu simply seasoned with salt, pepper and olive oil is a great addition to a salad. At work I once double breaded and made a chicken fried tofu with cream gravy. With the versatility of tofu, you are only limited by what you want or don’t want to do.
Images obtained from AnnMah.net.