Folks tend to pitch their tents into two tofu camps: love it or hate it. Since it’s obvious from my previous emails where I come down (love it), my job is to make tofu shine for the doubters. If that describes you, then let’s see if we can troubleshoot what’s not working.
First, the tofu itself: It’s important to understand the difference between silken and firm tofu. This can be confusing since silken, almost-white tofu—which is custardy and is packed in a shelf-stable 12-ounce box—comes in “extra firm,” “firm,” and “soft” textures. (Subtle distinctions that rarely matter as far as I’m concerned.) Silken tofu is best used for pureeing, spooning into soups like eggs, using as a dessert ingredient, or making into sauces. In my recipes—and most others—silken tofu is called out specifically, with some direction about the firmness. For a shockingly good example of the wonders of silken tofu, check out this Mexican Chocolate Pudding.
The default tofu are the fresh bricks, which are often packed in water in airtight tubs or without water in vacuum-sealed pouches; in bulk, the bricks are partially submerged and open to the air. This is the “firm” tofu in my recipes and refers to the porous, slightly spongy, solid blocks of egg-colored tofu (usually 14-16 ounces) packed in water. It’s made by curdling soy milk like cheese but is obviously quite different. (There’s a great DIY tofu recipe below, which is really cool and, in terms of equipment, requires little more than a good instant-read thermometer and dish with some holes in it.)
Second question is the blandness: there, I said it. Tofu is mild, with a faint taste of beans so it requires more salt than you think and hopefully some other seasonings—and fat, this is important, too—in order to give it flavor. (These awesome Tofu Pancakes are a perfect vehicle for all sorts of savory flavors.)
Third is texture: As is, you just cut the brick in cubes or sticks and heat it in liquid or stir-fries, but generally the simplest preparations are for the enthusiasts. Doubters should start with something chewy and/or crisp: Look for recipes that cook the tofu first so the water filters out and it develops a more crisp crust. Like this Tofu Jerky—perfect for snacking, sandwiches, or stir-fries—or this Tofu “Chorizo,” which can be used for much more than tacos.
Two more inside tips: Freeze tofu for a minimum of overnight or up to a couple months. Let it thaw in the fridge, then squeeze the liquid out of it by pressing the whole brick between the palms of your hands. It will be darker, denser, and totally different then how it went into the freezer. You might prefer using that for scrambles and stir-fries (though it wouldn’t work as well for purees). The second technique is to bake the whole brick in a 400-degree oven until it develops a crust, then turn it once when it releases easily; this should take about 40 minutes total. Then you can use it for sandwiches, stir-fries, salads, or soups.
I’m hesitant to recommend any particular tofu brand. Your first choice should always be from a local producer; even supermarkets carry these now and you can almost always find freshly made tofu in Asian markets. Tofu is so popular now that places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods offer their house brands and there are several larger regional producers. The ingredients should be minimal: water, soybeans, calcium chloride (or nigari, a type of coagulant that promotes curds), and/or calcium sulphate (another coagulant). It might be pressed so there’s less water inside and it’s more compact, or increasingly you’ll see tofu baked or fried and seasoned (which I prefer to do myself).
Check out the recipes and get back to me. If tofu still isn’t doing it for you, we’ll keep at it. Enjoy the weekend.
One of my favorite snacks from VB6 is now an ongoing project, as I continue to play with jerky variations. It’s a portable, chewy snack that’s the next best thing—flavor, not healthwise!—to a Slim Jim. And it’s easy to make, too.
We produce reported pieces, profiles, interviews, and rants about what’s broken in the food world (there’s a lot) and how to change things for the better. People sometimes tell me to just keep politics out of it. Respectfully: No. Food is political. We can’t and won’t ignore that.