Monday, 6 May 2013

"Treat Me Right", The Tofu Story, Part 1: Introductions

Food dislike seems to have three causes: traumatic experience, genuine dislike, and ignorance.

OH, CONTROVERSIAL. Bringin' out the "i" word.

The first of these is pretty easy to understand. I, for example, do not like raw celery because, when I was much younger (as I'm sure happened to many of us), I tried to eat a celery stick and I bit of a chunk and tried to swallow, but a strand of it kept half of it in my mouth while the other bit started to go down my throat and... well, it wasn't pleasant.

Genuine dislike is that kind of indefinable territory that plagues all arts: "I can appreciate it, but it's just not for me". This is where "personal taste" comes in to play but, unfortunately, it can be very easily mixed up with ignorance (where people play their ignorance disguised as personal taste).

Which brings us to ignorance. This is an extremely broad category, ranging from "I had a vegan biscuit once and it was awful THEREFORE ALL VEGAN FOOD IS BAD (and therefore I live on meat, eggs, milk and nothing else..?)", to "I heard from a friend that their sister-in-law's cousin heard from their husband that his naturopath that him shouldn't eat that because a study conducted on rat livers in 1947 showed that it might be dangerous, so I don't eat it."

Because the latter is about an entirely different sort of ignorance that internet is (sadly) greatly responsible for, I will leave that alone for the moment and focus on the former type of ignorance.

For the sake of sensibility, I'm excluding "universally horrible", in which I'd include dirt and other... dirt-like things, because that's beyond taste (rather like Passion Pop).

I notice that, at a close second to "vegan food", the most common case of food-dislike-ignorance (FDI?) is tofu. The amount of times people say "Oh is there tofu in this? Because I don't eat tofu." (NO IT'S A PIZZA WE DON'T JUST PUT TOFU ON EVERYTHING OH MY GOSH), or "I used tofu in place of pork at home once in the 80s and it was really bland", or "I've never actually eaten tofu, but I hear that vegetarians eat it, and so it must be gross because I hate vegetables lol".

The crazy thing is, tofu is quite possibly one of the most versatile ingredients out there, not only because it comes in so many different forms, but because it is, to a great extent, a protein rich blank canvas on which all manner of flavours can be painted. Furthermore, just as that gross supermarket tempeh pales (ha) in comparison to fresh tempeh, so too supermarket tempeh (having sat on the shelf for goodness knows how long) cannot possible be compared to fresh tofu, with its subtle sweetness and umami richness (and no, you can't just substitute any old cheap tofu and expect it to taste the same).

So, because I'm a vegetarian and therefore I Know What To Do With Tofu, I am here to give you a chance to patch things up with tofu and try again for, if not a friendship, at least a comfortable acquaintance. In order to make this more comprehensive, I will spread it out into a series (oh!) of posts, which will discuss different aspects of tofu usage:
  • Part 1: Introductions, in which I discuss the different types of tofu, and what brands to buy, and where to buy them (you're actually reading this right now)
  • Part 2: Baking & Frying Tofu, in which we discover the absolute easiest ways of preparing tofu
  • Part 3: Freezing, Boiling & Pressing Tofu, in which I explore the magic that happens when you put tofu in the freezer or in a pot of boiling water, and what to do with it once you have a block of frozen/boiled tofu
  • Part 4: Crumbling Tofu, in which the art of crumbling tofu leads to two very different, but equally delicious, preparations
  • Part 5: Some Final Notes On Tofu, in which we explore some other preparations of tofu, discover how to use the "bits" left behind by tofu making (okara), and also briefly explore non-soy tofu (Burmese tofu)
Hopefully you can join in on the series, asking questions, providing suggestions and corrections, and (hopefully) learning as well!

Until then, let us begin!

The Types of Tofu
If you're using a recipe, it will probably tell you what type of tofu to use, so stick with that. Don't go using extra firm when it asks for silken, or vice-versa.

If you're not using a recipe, it's important to know what you're going to be doing with it, so you can select the right type of tofu to get the job done. One of the greatest challenges is that there are some differences in what "firm" means depending on the maker, but get to know the brands available in your supermarkets and Asian grocery stores, and eventually you'll get used to which brand and style is best for which purpose.

Refrigerated tofu: in the packet, out of the packet, not resisting to the knife, and the clean slice inside the block

Silken: the texture of a soft-boiled egg or a panna cotta, silken tofu can be used to replace eggs (in some cases: e.g. in baked goods, in quiche, with some extra ingredients added, etc), can be blended with other ingredients to make a mousse or custard, or can be used to make a soft tofu scramble. Unlike other tofu styles, silken tofu is not make by pressing the curds (so almost no whey is lost) and is usually set in the container in which it is sold. It is very delicate and will fall apart under little strain. Because silken tofu is almost always set in the contain in which it is sold, the tofu will be moulded to the shape of that container (whereas other tofus will have some space around them as they are pressed and then placed in the container they're bought in). There are two kinds:
  • Tetrapack (usually either Morinaga (in Australia) or Morinu (USA)): shelf stable for up to six months (if unopened), has very little taste, so perfect for creamy desserts, or other applications where you want no "tofu" flavour to come through. Usually, this will be sold on the shelves in the Asian food section, and not in the fridge with the other tofu. While it is available either as "firm" or "soft", most recipes I've seen call for "firm", and I've never seen the "soft" kind available in in Australian supermarket. To ensure as little flavour as possible comes through, blend/process until it's smooth, then add other ingredients.
  • Fresh / refrigerated: sold in the refrigerated section of the supermarket with the other tofu, this has some flavour (the more fresh ones especially), so is appropriate for dishes where you do want the tofu to stand out a little more. Always choose the fresher one (not always more expensive! I recommend some brands at the end of the post), or stick to the tetrapack variety: I find the cheaper brands often have an unpleasant taste and can sometimes have a grainy texture.
Soft tofu: broken in half (curds very visible), under the pressure of the knife, and a clean cut (curds also visible)

Soft: pressed for the shortest time, soft tofu holds its shape better than silken tofu, but is still quite delicate. It doesn't take much pressure to break a block and, when broken, the curds are very visible. Squeeze too hard, and the block will essentially fall apart. This is best to use in dishes such as curries or soups where they merely sit in a sauce or broth (e.g. in miso soup). This is the type most often used in Asian restaurants (especially salt and pepper tofu, though sometimes silken is used).

Medium: this elusive type of tofu seems to be assigned to tofu that is halfway between "firm" and "soft". As I've said before (and will say again), though, there's so much variation in what is considered "firm" and what is considered "soft" that this is a really grey area. Furthermore, I'm not sure that I've ever seen "medium" tofu in a supermarket in Australia, though I believe I may have seen it mentioned in some books (I could just be making that up, though). If you do see it, give it a squeeze and see where it falls on the hardness scale and then decide what to do with it.

Firm tofu: very tight curds, clean cut.

Firm/Extra Firm: these are probably the most-used types of tofu in Western food. The difference between "firm" and "extra firm" will change by brand: some "firm" tofu will be closer to soft tofu (some brands will call this "medium"), while others will be almost indistinguishable from extra firm. Again, get to know your brands. (Extra)Firm tofu crumbles very well: if you try to "snap" a block in half, both halves will hold their shape, with the bumpy curds apparent at the break point.

Different brands of firm tofu will often quite differ in texture: even two brands that are as hard as each other may have slightly different textures. Some brands are quite dry (great for crumbling), others are slightly grainy, others are more elastic. Becoming familiar with different brands will help decide which brand of firm tofu is best for what you're doing.

Pressed tofu: the "domed square", no bend under knife pressure, split open, and a clean slice with some gaps from the curds visible (the green was because I was also chopping basil, not because I used mouldy tofu! Which I don't.)

Pressed: this is the hardest of all types of tofu. It is almost dry (but inside is quite smooth and elastic in texture), and holds its shape even under much stress. It is the least likely to be found in grocery stores; you will most likely have to go to an Asian supermarket, where it can be found in the refrigerated section. Earth Source are one of the few brands I have seen that make a pressed tofu, so if a local store stocks Earth Source, ask if they can get in their pressed tofu. The curds are barely visible (if at all), and you can nearly bend a block back on itself before it breaks. It is easily recognisable by its "domed square" appearance.

Tofu Buying Guide
It can be extremely confusing buying tofu, as every supermarket seems to carry different brands (especially now that Woolworths has replaced all other brands with their own "Macro" brand, which I'm yet to try, though I hear good reports), but keep an eye out of the different types above written on the label, and eventually you'll become familiar with the different brands.

For most preparations, buying cheaper tofu won't really matter, because the taste will be disguised in the sauce or marinade. When taste is important, though, for example when making simply "fresh" dishes (the kind that use uncooked tofu with a touch of soy sauce, for example, or tofu in a simple broth), quality is an imperative. Thankfully, this does not always translate to price. If you become familiar with your local supermarket, you may find a good quality tofu there, otherwise try health food stores, specialty stores, and Asian supermarkets. Many Asian supermarkets will have fresh tofu available in their fridges, and often this will be much better quality than any you will find in a supermarket (because it's fresher).

The three brands in Australia that are fantastic and reasonably widely available are Blue Lotus, Healthy Pulse, and Earth Source (all of which I've discussed in previous posts). All of these are high quality, aren't grainy, and taste fantastic. Blue Lotus is available in many supermarkets (or ask them to get it in if they don't have it), and they also make an absolutely stunning smoked tofu (and really need a new website). Healthy Pulse (the tofu used at Brisbane's Sake restaurant) is made on the Gold Coast and is the freshest you are likely to find in a shop, though it isn't available in a huge amount of places (in Brisbane, it's available at Genki Mart in Alderley, but I'm not sure of other retailers). They also sell okara, which can sometimes be difficult to find. Earth Source is biodynamic and is also one of the few makers of pressed tofu that I've found outside of Asian supermarkets.

Alternatively, make your own (either use fresh soy milk sold in Asian supermarkets (check the label to make sure there's no sugar added) or make your own soy milk (follow the link for stove-top instructions; scroll up for microwave instructions)).
Coagulating soy milk, homemade soft tofu and homemade firm tofu.
The next few posts will be on how to prepare tofu, so please stay tuned (and chime in with your own tofu taming tricks below!)

I'll tag all of these posts "thetofustory", so if you want to see all of them together, just click on that label.

UPDATE: It should be noted that there are also several other kinds of tofu that I haven't outlined above, namely tofu that has already undergone some other process (e.g. fermenting or frying), or which has been made with different ingredients added (e.g. premarinated tofu, or "fancy" tofu (where you place vegetables between the curds before pressing the tofu, so they are sandwiched inside the block (I just like using the word "fancy")). I will briefly discuss these in the final post, just so we have all our bases covered!


  1. I agree with you that the variations of tofu dishes are endless and so it is quite useful to read about tofu. I had hoped you might take us through how to make it - I have done it once years ago and am determined I will do it again one day because it really does taste great fresh. Will look forward to the rest of this series of posts

    1. Well, I might have to add a final section where I talk through the process of making it! :P It really is incredible when it's fresh: if I had nothing else to do, I would absolutely make all the tofu I use from scratch, but unfortunately... Oh well, maybe one day haha. And until then, Healthy Pulse is practically as fresh as home made! I hope you enjoy the rest of the posts :)

  2. People I've come up against who "hate" tofu have all referenced the texture, and shudder as they speak about it. I can understand this since certain textures (overcooked spinach, mushy asparagus) make me gag, too. The thing they refuse to listen to is that the texture of tofu is so changeable, depending on preparation. Deep-fried tofu, frozen and thawed tofu, slow-baked tofu are all so different and completely unlike the raw stuff. (I love tofu in any form so preparation style is just fun for me.) Ignorance and attitude and a mental block against tofu based on an unpleasant experience is hard to overcome, but bravo for trying! This is a very nice primer for anyone interested in learning more about the versatility of bean curd.

    1. Yes! Texture is a big one. Which is crazy because in its uncooked state, it has a heap of different textures, and once you cook it, it becomes even more different! Hopefully people will find this series, useful: I don't imagine it will convert anyone who is dead against, but hopefully people who are tofu-curious, or tofu-suspicious but willing to learn more and try things, will find some value in them!

  3. Hi, James! <3

    Long time no see! I think this is a great topic for a series of posts. Looking forward to the next one! Just curious, when you buy tofu, do you always press it before using, no matter what? Or do you sometimes use it as-is? Or am I getting ahead of things here?

    Many thanks!


    1. Hello Claudia!

      It has indeed been a long time! I hope people find them useful: we shall see!

      Generally, pressing tofu is a great first step, because it gets all the water (and an excess whey) out, allowing the other flavours to come in, but the next post shows a recipe where it doesn't need pressing... BUT I'VE ALREADY SAID TOO MUCH! :P

      I hope you enjoy them :)


    2. Looking forward to it! I always press tofu before I use it, but it will be interesting to see your recipe where pressing isn't necessary. :-)

  4. Being Asian (Chinese and Indonesian) descent, I can't imagine my life without tofu. For some reason though I never warmed up to the tofu sold in major supermarkets (woolies etc). I always buy my tofu from Asian supermarkets because I found tofu sold in woolies are too hard and bland, to be honest.

    I eat tofu raw, steamed, fried in many different forms with different type of tofu.

    There are millions different tofus to choose from, yellow tofu, brown tofu, even the hard and soft ones are also divided to different types. Oh how I love them! I eat them every day whenever I go back to Indonesia in different presentation.

    If you want to have tofu adventure, Taiwan is definitely the place. I went there last year and it was heaven for tofu lover like me. :D


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