What Is Tofu? | All About Tofu, Nutrition, Benefits, Protein, Types, Ingredients, Health
Curious about tofu? Here is some information compiled from quality sources about how food manufacturers make tofu, what ingredients go into tofu, and how to choose, buy, and prepare the different types of tofu varieties.
Learn about tofu taste, nutrition, protein content, fiber, benefits, calories, and is tofu healthy or not??
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Table of Contents
What is Tofu Made of?
Tofu is made from mature white soybeans.
The beans have been soaked in water, ground up and cooked and then filtered to make a milk.
How Long Have People Been Eating Tofu?
There is written evidence to show that soymilk existed in China by 82 AD, and may have existed several centuries before that time. Evidence about tofu is less clear.
A theory is that tofu was invented about 2000 years ago by a Chinese cook who accidentally curdled soy milk when he added nigari seaweed as part of salting it.
Types of Tofu
There are two types of tofu: Regular and Silken.
Curdled milk. To make Regular (harder) tofu the milk is curdled and then the liquid is pressed out of it.
This is much the same way that traditional dairy cheese is made by curdling and solidifying milk.
The liquid (whey) is discarded, and the curds are pressed to form a cohesive bond. Regular tofu is also called soybean curd or bean curd and comes in different hardness varieties.
To make Silken (softer) tofu the soymilk is coagulated without curdling the milk.
It is left unpressed and because curds never form, Silken tofu has a smooth and silky appearance.
How is Tofu Made?
Here is a description of the process to produce tofu, from a video that shows one manufacturer in detail.
Soy Beans (the seeds that grow in the pods of the soy bean plant) are soaked in water, as they absorb the water they double in size and soften.
The swollen beans are are crushed and filtered to make a soy soup / slurry.
The ‘soup’ is transformed into a paste by being cooked in a steam cooker for a few minutes.
Then, a spinner separates the milk from the pulp (called soy meal).
The soy meal pulp goes off to be sold for cattle and pet food, the milk stays behind to be transformed into tofu.
While still hot the milk goes into a coagulation tank to be thickened into curd.
It is at this point that flavors may be added.
A coagulant like calcium sulfate, magnesium sulfate, or traditionally nigari is added to the soy milk along with water to activate it.
After about 15 minutes the milk congeals into soybean curd = tofu.
Nigari is the dried liquid (mostly magnesium chloride) that remains after common table salt has been removed from seawater.
Once curdled the soymilk it is still hot and soggy and is run through a filter to drain it as much as possible.
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Now the bean curd is relatively dry and is transferred into large trays lined with cheesecloth and pressed, which squeezes out most of the remaining liquid, and molds the tofu into firm large blocks.
Pressing it longer squeezes out more liquid and makes the tofu firmer.
The large blocks are cut to be smaller store sized blocks and are packaged.
To kill any bacteria, packaged blocks are heated for about an hour and then cooled in a cold water bath.
Is Tofu Healthy? Is Soy Healthy?
The Chinese honored soybeans as one of the five sacred grains essential to the existence of civilization—the others were rice, barley, wheat, and millet.
They considered the soybean to be both a food and a medicine.
Extremely versatile and high in nutrients, soy foods such as soymilk, tofu, miso, and tempeh are all derived from the soybean, a legume that was first cultivated in northern China about 3,000 years ago.
However, the nutritional value of any given soyfood can vary greatly, depending on how it was processed. With only about 164 calories per 4 ounces of firm tofu, tofu is a good, high-protein substitute for meat and whole-milk products.
Tofu is high in fat, with almost 10 grams per 4 ounces, though the fat is mostly unsaturated.
Tofu is healthy because it is high in protein, is an excellent source of calcium and iron and contains all the essential amino acids your body needs. It is cholesterol free, sodium free, it contains healthy fats, carbs and a wide variety of vitamins and minerals with a low number of calories.
Tofu Contains Many Nutrients
One 3.5-oz (100-gram) serving of tofu contains:
- Calories: 70 cal.
- Protein: 8 grams.
- Carbs: 2 grams.
- Fiber: 1 gram.
- Fat: 4 grams.
- Manganese: 31% of the RDI.
- Calcium: 20% of the RDI.
- Selenium: 14% of the RDI.
- Phosphorus: 12% of the RDI.
- Copper: 11% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 9% of the RDI.
- Iron: 9% of the RDI.
- Zinc: 6% of the RDI.
Several national dietary guidelines, including Canada’s Food Guide, recommend soy foods as part of a healthy diet.
Did you know? Soy beans contain 40% protein, more than double the protein in beef or fish.
Tofu contains the healthy Omega-3 fat, 2 grams for 1 1/2 cups of tofu. Omega-3 fat is an essential fatty acid, the body cannot manufacture it, and it is required for health. Omega-3 fats are anti-inflammatory.
Studies have shown that consuming tofu regularly instead of meat and dairy results in significantly lower total cholesterol, triglycerides, and low density lipoprotein (bad cholesterol).
The micronutrient content of tofu varies, depending on the coagulant used to make it. Nigari or magnesium sulfate adds magnesium, calcium sulfate increases the calcium content.
Check the ingredients list for calcium sulphate, and read the Nutrition Facts table to see how much calcium is in the tofu. Different brands may have different amounts of calcium.
Source: Book: The Engine 2 Seven Day Rescue Diet – author Rip Esselstyn
Other Benefits of Tofu
Isoflavones are compounds found in soy products, and they are known to exert direct and indirect antioxidant effects. Isoflavones can directly scavenge free radicals, thereby preventing premature aging. These beneficial compounds also prevent the effects of free radicals indirectly by suppressing phagocyte radical production.
Tofu contains fibre, which greatly contributes to digestive health – animal products contain zero fibre.
There has been controversy about soy and breast cancer. The medical community was warning women with breast cancer to avoid soy because of plant oestrogens in it.
Contrary to this advice, the latest studies are finding that soy is preventative for breast cancer and also helps people with breast cancer to survive longer.
Recent studies now show that women who have had estrogen-sensitive breast cancers do not need to avoid soy isoflavones.
The latest recommendation for breast cancer patients to consume soy foods is consistent with the fact that breast cancer occurs much less in countries where soy consumption is high.
What about GMO Tofu?
Is genetically modified soy safe? The genetically modified beans appear to be safe, but the chemicals sprayed onto them are not.
The genetically modified genes in GMO soy were not detectable in the human body, leading researchers to conclude that they are harmless. Note: genetically modified corn proteins were found in humans, but those were also found to be harmless.
Research has found risks to people may not be from eating a genetically modified plant, but from eating the pesticide residues that were sprayed on the GMO plants.
80% of GMO crops are bioengineered only for pesticide resistance. The top 5 biotech companies are chemical companies that manufacture pesticides.
Monsanto’s Roundup Ready soybeans are the #1 GM crop, genetically engineered to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup—also sold by Monsanto—allowing farmers to spray fields with the Roundup herbicide glyphosate, which then kills the weeds while leaving the soy standing.
Monsanto’s Roundup has been shown to have adverse effects on human placental tissue.
Glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup didn’t seem to have much of a toxic effect on human cells even at high doses, or have much effect on a hormone-regulating enzyme, leading Monsanto-funded reviewers concluded that regardless of what hazards might be alleged based on animal studies, glyphosate is not anticipated to produce adverse developmental and reproductive effects in humans.
But pure glyphosate isn’t sprayed on crops.
The Roundup formulation – which includes a variety of adjuvants and surfactants meant to help the glyphosate penetrate into tissues – was found to be 100 times more toxic than glyphosate itself.
Similar results were found for other major pesticides. It took until 2014, but 8 out of 9 pesticide formulations tested were up to one thousand times more toxic than their so-called active ingredients, so when you just test the isolated chemicals you may not get the whole story.
When the study was repeated with what’s actually sprayed on GMO crops, there were toxic and hormonal effects.
Roundup turned out to be among the most toxic pesticides researchers tested, contrary to a popular belief that RoundUp is harmless.
What about conventional non-GMO soy where glyphosate is sprayed on the soil to kill weeds between crop cycles?… No residues on the plants.
What about Organic Soy? No residues.
At this point, steering away from GMO soy because GMO plants are sprayed with a larger dosage of chemical pesticides than non-GMO plants, might make sense.
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Types and Varieties of Tofu and Which Kind of Tofu to Use for Cooking
When buying tofu, you must decide what brand and what hardness will be the best tofu for your recipes.
From soft to extra firm, common tofu textures are broken into two categories: Silken (Soft) and Regular (Firm) Tofu.
Extra firm tofus are best baked, grilled and in stir-fries, while silken tofu is suitable for sauces, desserts, shakes and salad dressings.
One manufacturer’s Firm tofu may be more or less dense than another’s.
Silken Tofu has the highest water content and resembles pudding or white jello and can be available in soft, firm or extra firm.
Prep: Just drain if it is stored in water and optionally blot it with a paper towel.
Silken Tofu is good for: Use Silken Tofu for spreads, smoothies, shakes, dips, salad dressings, creamy sauces and some desserts like pie fillings.
You can blend soft silken tofu as a good lactose free substitute for light cream or milk and the firm or extra firm silken tofu varieties are a dairy free replacement for sour cream or yogurt.
Egg Substitute: Silken tofu can also be used as a vegan egg substitute in some baking (depending what the egg was bringing to the recipe). ¼ cup blended silken tofu = 1 egg.
Extra Soft / Soft Regular Block Tofu
Delicate tofu, can hold it’s shape just barely. It has a mild milky flavour.
Prep: Pressing soft tofu is not recommended as you will end up squishing it. Just drain if it is stored in water and optionally blot it with a paper towel.
Soft Tofu is good for: Similar applications to Silken Tofu, can be blended and made into sauces and smoothies. Battering and deep frying, a method that fully envelops the cubes, produces tender nuggets. Although you will not see any fried recipes on this blog.
Note: Because it has a high water content, soft tofu is not recommended for shallow frying unless you do not use oil, the sputtering and spit-back can be dangerous.
Medium / Medium Firm Regular Tofu
Will hold it’s shape, has a rougher texture than soft and can crack when handled. Has a droopy appearance due to moisture.
Medium Tofu Prep: Can be gently pressed to reduce water. It will squish out of it’s shape somewhat easily.
Medium Tofu is good for: mimicking cottage cheese and ricotta cheeses. Use in gently simmered soups like miso soup or serve cold.
Medium Tofu Tips: Add it to your recipe at the end of cooking to reduce breakage and crumbling.
As firmness increases, the cooking time to bake or fry out the excess water goes down.
Holds together well, even in a stir fry or recipe where you are stirring a lot. How well it holds together can change with the brand.
Firm Tofu Prep: Press firmly to reduce water.
Firm Tofu is good for: Fairly good for stir frys and pan fried tofu. It will be more moist than extra firm tofu, so do not stir too much, and add at the end of cooking if you can to reduce crumbling.
Extra Firm Tofu
Holds it’s shape very well. Does not absorb flavours as quickly or easily as softer tofu. Contains the least amount of water of any tofu.
Extra Firm Tofu Prep: Press to reduce water.
Extra Firm Tofu is good for: Extra firm tofu is the best tofu for making crispy tofu, to bake (like making tofu sticks) or grill. Excellent for stir frys, glazing and, pan frying. It can be crumbled and used like ground meat as it will hold up without becoming runny.
Try the different textures to determine what you prefer. In our house, we buy mostly Extra Firm Regular Tofu and Soft Silken Tofu. I’ve found the Extra firm will work in almost all recipes, but medium can be too soft for some, such as tofu sticks or stir frys. However, medium tofu has a more gentle appearance and softer feel when eating, so adds subtlety and variety to recipes.
Chinese Style Tofu is a regular soft tofu (not a silken), often sold in a pillow shaped package.
Japanese Style Tofu is less compressed (it is a silken) than Chinese Style and is sold in square sided blocks.
Dried Tofu Skin - Also Called Yuba
Yuba is made by lifting and drying the thin layer formed on the surface of heated soymilk once it has cooled.
It has a high protein content and is most commonly found as brittle, brown sheets that must be reconstituted before use.
Once softened, it can be added to stocks, soups, stews, and the like.
Lite tofu is lower fat.
What Does Tofu Taste Like?
Tofu alone is relatively tasteless to adults, it is a neutral flavour and mild and bland. I say adults because for my kids, and all kids we have cooked for, they love the taste of plain tofu, so it must have taste for them!
To me it tastes mildly bitter, and is not salty, and not sweet and the firmer varieties have a satisfying texture. The silken variety tastes a bit watery to me and I need to add salt or garlic or onion or some other foods to fill out the flavor of the softer tofus.
Tofu is like a sponge, it absorbs the flavor of whatever it comes into contact with.
How to Prepare Tofu for Cooking
Great! You have your tofu home, now what are you supposed to do to prepare tofu before you eat it?
Cut open or tear open your tofu package, if it’s packed in water I like to do this over the sink. I let the liquid drain out and then I put it on a cutting board, or for the soft silken varieties I cut it into squares right in the package and pull them out right into my blender or food processor with the same dull knife.
Pay Attention to the Best Before Date on Your Tofu Package
In our house we throw tofu away on the day after the best before date because it seems to start to smell bad and the package swells up very quickly after that date.
If the package is swollen before this date, it may have gone bad due to lack of proper refrigeration, when in doubt, throw it out.
Open and Drain Your Tofu
You do not need to rinse individually packaged tofu. Tofu in a sealed package is preservative free and sterile, so there is nothing you are trying to rinse off.
Tofu purchased in bulk could have come in contact with contaminants and should be rinsed off.
How to Press Tofu – Do You Need To?
Because tofu has a high water content, it’s wise to remove excess liquid to make room to absorb new flavors.
That being said, I press my tofu if I want it to be more firm in a recipe, I do not press my tofu if I want it to be moist.
Many recipes call for pressed tofu. How to press tofu:
A quick way to press tofu is to place the tofu on an absorbent paper towel or dish towel and wrap it up around the top. Place a flat surface on top such as a dish or baking sheet and press on it gently to squeeze water into the towels.
Some people put a dish under the tofu as well and instead of using paper towels tip the dish so the liquid can drain off. Less waste this way.
Go easy until you know how much pressure to put. Medium and softer tofu will start to crack and squish out the sides if you put too much pressure. You can also place a heavy item on top of a plate such as large can of tomatoes and let it sit 5 – 10 minutes while you prep your recipe.
Once it is pressed, pour the water into the sink, you will be left with a drier, more firm tofu block.
Only press medium, firm and extra firm tofu. Softer varieties will just squish and you will be left with a mess.
How to Cut and Cube Tofu for Baking, Stir Frys and Dipping
After pressing and draining your medium, firm or extra firm tofu, stand it on it’s small end on a cutting board and press a knife down the wide side. Cut one or two times, so that you get two or three even wide planks from the block depending how many cubes or tofu sticks you want to end up with.
Fit the tofu planks back together into the block shape and lay them flat like in the package, press a medium or long knife through it lengthwise to make 2 – 3 cuts and long rows. Turn it and press your knife through 4 – 6 times to make 16 or 24 rectangles or 45 – 84 cubes (if my math is right!).
Adjust the size of your cuts to make larger or smaller cubes or rectangle sticks.
Tip: Don’t cut the cubes too small or the slices too thin. That will lead to the tofu overcooking and becoming hard and brittle rather than moist and crispy.
Rectangle shaped tofu sticks are good for coating, baking, dipping and eating with your fingers.
Small or large cubes are a good shape for tofu in stir frys. Smaller cubes are easier to divide up to a family as some will be in each scoop of the stir fry.
Flat thin squares increase the surface area for sauce to coat and are a good tofu shape for pan frying or baking in a dish.
How to Prepare Tofu for Salad
You can use baked tofu or raw tofu in a salad.
How to Thaw Frozen Tofu
Frozen tofu can be defrosted in the fridge, microwave, or by boiling it in water.
Take it out the night before and let thaw in the refrigerator. After it thaws, tofu soaks up marinades more easily since it becomes more porous from the frozen expanded water. It also changes consistency, and becomes chewier.
After freezing, the curds are so compact and water pockets so enlarged that liquid drains freely from the tofu with a gentle squeeze.
Tofu Food Safety, Avoid Food Poisoning
Will expired tofu make you sick?
A package of fresh tofu will last 3-5 days beyond the date stamped on the package, depending on it’s preparation method and how the tofu has been stored.
Since the soy liquid is thoroughly heated prior to making tofu, killing most bacteria and viruses in the soy, properly processed and handled tofu is not likely to be contaminated.
It is not common, but there are a few ways tofu could cause foodborne illness. One of these is contamination of the tofu by unclean equipment at the food processing facility. Another way is at your house by a food preparer with unwashed hands, sneezing or coughing on foods, or if the tofu touches pathogens from another food, such as raw chicken.
Tofu may also be exposed to pathogens if stored in contaminated water. There are more safety concerns if you will be purchasing tofu sold in bulk. Tofu stored in a large bin of water could come into contact with unwashed hands or contaminants. Also, unclean water can infect the entire batch of tofu.
How to Store Tofu
Store your tofu according to the directions on the package, some require refrigeration while others can be stored at room temperature.
Once opened if you are not using it right away, rinse the tofu, cover it with water and keep it in a refrigerated container. To keep the tofu fresh for up to a week, change the water often.
Unopened tofu can be frozen in the original package for up to five months.
Store leftovers in your refrigerator promptly, as bacteria grow best when exposed to 40 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit (4.4 – 60 degrees Celsius).
How to Freeze Tofu
I haven’t tried freezing tofu yet. The next time I have a package that is about to expire I will try it.
My research indicated that if we drain and/or press the tofu first, it won’t be as wet and messy when you thaw it. But it could become more easily freezer burned.
Apparently, you can freeze the block of tofu whole, or cut it into the sizes you want beforehand and separate them. The pieces will stick together though, so might not be worth it.
From what I’ve read, freezing separates out almost all the moisture, and turns tofu into a spongy substance that quickly absorbs sauces.
Feel free to let me know what you recommend when it comes to freezing tofu in the comments.
Eating Raw Tofu – Does Tofu Need to be Cooked?
Tofu can be eaten raw. Soft and silken tofu are great in salad dressings, or as a sour cream or yogurt substitute in dips and spreads. Regular (harder) tofu can be served raw in salads.
Some sources recommend that to be safe you boil uncooked tofu for five minutes before eating it. Personally I am going to ignore this advice.
We eat raw pieces of tofu when cooking all the time and we use raw silken tofu in dressings and desserts and have never had any stomach issues.
Tofu vs. Tempeh – what is the difference?
Tofu and tempeh are both made from soybeans, but the process is quite different.
Tempeh contains whole soybeans that are aged and cultured and become stuck together into a firm substance that can be sliced.
Tempeh is healthier than tofu because it is closer to the original whole food, it is less processed. It has a nutty drier texture and a stronger flavour than tofu.
To make tempeh, soybeans are cooked, usually with grains like rice or millet, and then aged with a special culture that breaks the cooked beans down and binds the mixture into a firm substance that can be sliced.
When you look at tempeh, you can see the individual beans bound into a solid paste that makes up the slice or brick.
Tempeh contains more protein than tofu, and has a stronger taste. Some are flavored to be smoked or like bacon.
My Experience With Tempeh
My kids are still warming up to tempeh, because it tastes stronger and has a bit of the texture of eating beans. They enjoy it when cut it up into very small pieces (smaller than their usual tofu cubes). They liked the bacon flavoured one we recently put on pizza.
I have trouble finding plain tempeh where I live, I am in the process of looking for more sources of it because we would like to eat more tempeh and less tofu, since tempeh is less processed. I plan to experiment with a number of marinades on it, as I have read marinated tempeh is fabulous.
If you are lucky, you can find plain tempeh in health food stores and in many supermarkets near you, either refrigerated or frozen.
Where Can I Buy Tofu?
You can buy tofu at your local supermarket or grocery store or health food store in a refrigerated section. It comes in packaged bricks or blocks.
In Asian Markets tofu is often sold in bulk with blocks floating in tubs of water.
What is a Substitute for Tofu?
A tofu substitute you can use is edamame – which are green soybeans. They are soft, yummy beans that are very satisfyingly chewy and rich – kind of like an avocado and a peanut, but much less oily. I find they fill me up quite quickly probably due to their protein, fiber and the fat content (the essential kind of unprocessed fat we need to eat a little of each day).
Edamame are not processed like tofu, they are whole foods. Edamame are a specialty soybean grown specifically to be picked and used in their immature stage. Edamame has small, fuzzy, dark green pods and a mild flavor. These soybeans have a higher protein and fat content than other beans. Their protein is complete, meaning that it provides the essential amino acids needed in one’s diet. Soybeans are equivalent to animal products in terms of protein quality.
If you are lucky, you can find two types of edamame in your frozen vegetable section: shelled or still in their pods. The package directions will indicate if they are already cooked and ready to be thawed and eaten or if you need to steam or microwave them first.
The edamame in pods are great as a snack — you have to work to pop each slippery soybean out. My daughter loves to sit and shell them for herself.
The pre-shelled edamame are faster and can be used instead of tofu in your cooking.
A half-cup serving of shelled edamame (or 1 1/8 cup edamame in the pods) contains:
- 120 calories
- 9 grams fiber
- 2.5 grams fat
- 1.5 grams polyunsaturated fat (0.3 grams plant omega-3 fatty acids)
- 0.5 gram monounsaturated fat
- 11 grams protein
- 13 grams carbohydrate
- 15 mg sodium
- 10% of the Daily Value for vitamin C
- 10% Daily Value for iron (quite high for a plant food – about as much as a 4-ounce roasted chicken breast.)
- 8% Daily Value for vitamin A
- 4% Daily Value for calcium
All health content on veganenvy.com is provided for general information only, and should not be treated as a substitute for the medical advice of your own doctor or any other health care professional. If you have any concerns about your general health, you should contact your local health care provider.
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