If you’re looking for ways to cut down on your meat intake, you’ve probably come across tofu as a commonly used meat alternative or plant-based protein.
But does tofu actually taste good? Isn’t it just a bland, boring protein that vegetarians and vegans eat only because they have to?
If this is what you’ve heard about tofu, you’re not alone! This comprehensive guide will explain how tofu is made and how to get the best flavor from this nutritious protein source.
What is tofu and how is it made?
Tofu was first produced in China during the Han Dynasty (1). The process of making tofu is similar to that of making cheese, only with soy milk instead of dairy milk. Soy milk is coagulated (thickened into a solid), and the solid pieces (also called “curds”) are pressed to remove extra moisture and shaped into the blocks of tofu you see in the grocery store.
What does tofu taste like?
Straight out of the package, tofu tastes pretty much how it looks – bland with almost no flavor at all. This may seem like a deterrent, but the bland flavor of tofu is actually one of its strengths.
Since tofu doesn’t have any noticeable flavor of its own, it’s a perfect food for taking on the flavor of whatever seasonings and sauces it’s cooked in.
Types of tofu and how to use them
Tofu is a popular food throughout the world thanks to its high protein content and versatility in many types of cuisines. There are a few different types of tofu based on how much moisture they contain.
Super firm tofu
Super firm tofu has the least amount of water present, making it very dense. It has the highest protein content compared to other types of tofu. Super firm tofu is best used in dishes where you want the tofu to hold its shape, such as in stir-fries, baked or air fried tofu slabs or cubes, and grilled tofu.
Extra firm and Firm tofu
Extra firm tofu and firm tofu have slightly more water than super firm tofu and therefore are a little softer. However, they still hold up well when pressed, stir-fried, baked, air fried, or grilled. They are also often blended to mimic ricotta cheese in dairy-free lasagna and other pasta dishes or in dairy- and egg-free quiches.
Soft tofu contains even higher water content than the firm varieties and doesn’t hold its shape well. This makes it ideal to use in creamy blended sauces or smoothies. Depending on the recipe, it may be interchangeable with silken tofu.
Similar to soft tofu, silken tofu also does not hold its shape well. However, one major difference between the two is texture.
Silken tofu has a much smoother texture and therefore is well suited to dishes that require a very smooth texture, such as dairy-free puddings and cream pies. It can also be cut into cubes and used in soups or hot pot, or simply eaten with flavorful toppings like soy sauce and fresh herbs.
How to prepare tofu
Create a meatier texture
You can give tofu a meatier, slightly chewier texture by using the freeze-thaw method. Simply pop the whole unopened container of tofu in the freezer when you get home from the grocery store, preferably for 4 hours or more, then thaw it in the refrigerator until you need it.
By freezing the tofu, the water inside it will expand and create larger pockets of air within the tofu, causing it to grow a little in size and giving it more texture. Bonus: when the tofu is drained, there will be more space inside for the tofu to absorb flavorful marinades!
Remove excess moisture
It is important to remove excess moisture from super firm, extra firm, and firm varieties of tofu so that it will better absorb marinades and sauces, making it more flavorful. This process is often called “pressing” the tofu. You can press tofu by:
- Using a tofu press
- Wrapping the tofu in paper towels or a very clean kitchen towel, placing it on a plate or cutting board, and placing something heavy on top, like a large pot or any old textbooks you may have lying around.
As with any other protein or dish, adding flavor is non-negotiable! After pressing your tofu and cutting it into your desired shape (if applicable), you have a few options for adding flavor:
- Marinate. Place tofu in a container and cover with your marinade. Set in the refrigerator and let the tofu marinate for at least 30 minutes, but preferably longer.
- Bread it and bake. Pat the tofu dry, brush with a small amount of oil, coat in seasoned bread crumbs with plenty of herbs and spices, and bake or air fry. You can do this with or without marinating the tofu first.
- Crumble the tofu and sauté. By crumbling the tofu before cooking, you are creating more surface area for your seasonings and sauces to cover, cutting down on any bland bites. Sautéing in a pan and then adding seasonings will help brown your tofu and give it more texture. You can use this method to make tofu scrambles, tofu chorizo, and more!
- Blend the tofu into a sauce or cheese substitute. You can use a food processor or blender to make white or rose sauces for pasta or a dairy-free alternative for ricotta cheese.
- Add a dipping sauce. This is a great addition when baking or air frying tofu into “popcorn tofu” or “tofu nuggets”. My favorites are sweet chili, BBQ, and vegan ranch!
- Add flavorful toppings to cold silken tofu. Soft and silken tofu are sometimes eaten simply with flavorful toppings such as soy sauce, fresh herbs, sweet chili sauce, roasted cherry tomatoes, ponzu, lemon or lime juice, green onions, kombu, ginger, kimchi, nori, or many others!
You can also buy pre-seasoned tofu at the grocery store and online in a variety of flavors.
Can you eat raw tofu?
Yes, tofu can be eaten raw! As long as it has been kept refrigerated prior to eating, the risk of food poisoning from eating raw tofu is low. Raw tofu can be cubed and mixed with seasonings to make vegan feta cheese or added to smoothies.
Who should avoid eating tofu?
For most people, tofu is a convenient and nutritious source of plant-based protein. However, it is best to avoid eating it if you:
- Have a soy allergy. Since tofu is made from soybeans, it is not safe to consume for people who are allergic to soy.
- Have phenylketonuria (PKU). PKU is a genetic disorder in which the body is unable to properly use phenylalanine, an amino acid. Amino acids are what make up protein. Since tofu is high in protein, eating it could cause too much phenylalanine to build up in the blood for people with PKU, causing intellectual, neurological, and behavioral problems (2).
- Take monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). NOTE: this only applies to fermented tofu, also called “stinky tofu”. Most tofu found in grocery stores is not fermented, and therefore is likely safe for individuals taking MAOIs. Only fermented tofu contains significant amounts of tyramine, a nutrient that is recommended to limit while taking MAOIs.
Perhaps you like the idea of using tofu in a recipe but have a soy allergy or can’t find tofu at the store. Not to worry! There are a few alternatives you can use instead.
A few soy-free tofu alternatives that are similar in texture include:
- Pumfu. This is tofu made with pumpkin seeds instead of soybeans! Available commercially online and in specialty stores.
- Hemp tofu. Made with hemp seeds instead of soy. Also available online and in specialty stores.
- Chickpea tofu. Also called Burmese tofu, this can easily be made at home using chickpeas.
- Seitan. Seitan is a protein-rich meat alternative that is made using vital wheat gluten or flour, so please note it is not gluten-free. Seitan has a meaty, chewy texture that may substitute well in place of tofu for some dishes. It does not need to be pressed like tofu.
- Tempeh. Tempeh is a fermented soybean product rich in protein that was originally produced in Indonesia. It is more dense than tofu and while it doesn’t require pressing, you can add flavor in the same ways you would for tofu.
10 tofu recipes (main dishes)
- Herb Crusted Baked Tofu
- Vegan Bolognese
- Crunchy Tofu Fish Fillets
- Vegan Mexican Egg Casserole with Tofu Eggs
- Tofu scramble
- Kung Pao Tofu
- Tofu and Broccoli Stir Fry
- Tomato Basil Tofu Pasta
- Chik-fil-a Style Tofu Nuggets
- Vegan Butter Chicken with Tandoori Tofu
10 Tofu Dessert Recipes
Did you know that tofu can even be used to make delicious desserts? Since tofu is naturally bland, it can be sweetened and used in a variety of desserts that will satisfy any sweet tooth.
- Vegan Dark Chocolate Tofu Cheesecake with Peanut Butter Pretzel Crust
- Vegan Tofu Chocolate Protein Mousse
- Dairy Free Cheesecake
- Taho (Filipino Sweet Tofu Dessert)
- Vegan Tofu Tiramisu (8 ingredients)
- Vegan Key Lime Pie
- Vegan Vietnamese Coffee Flan
- Vegan Chocolate Pie
- Strawberry Mousse (vegan)
- Coconut Cream Pie with Blackberry Chia Jam
Tofu is a great source of protein containing all the essential amino acids. If prepared with calcium (often listed in the ingredients list as calcium sulfate), it is also a great source of calcium. Tofu also provides fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium. It is low in saturated fat (3).
One-fourth of a block of firm tofu prepared with calcium sulfate contains the following nutrients:
- 117 calories
- 14 g protein
- 7 g fat
- 2 g carbohydrate
- 2 g fiber
- 553 mg calcium
- 2 mg iron
- 47 mg magnesium
- 154 mg phosphorus
- 192 mg potassium
- 1.3 g zinc
Thanks to its impressive nutrition profile, tofu is a great choice for:
- Vegans and vegetarians. Tofu is an excellent source of plant-based protein, making it a great meat alternative. Plant-based diets that are not well planned are at risk of being low in some nutrients that can be found in tofu, namely calcium, iron, and zinc.
- Athletes and bodybuilders. Tofu can be helpful for athletes and bodybuilders looking to maintain or increase muscle mass since 1/4 of a block contains 14 grams of protein with all of the essential amino acids. This means it is an excellent protein source for building muscle.
- Older adults. Older adults may benefit from consuming tofu. As people age, they tend to lose muscle in a process called sarcopenia. For this reason, it is recommended that older adults get more protein in their diet and incorporate some strength training, which can help them maintain or increase the muscle they have. The calcium in tofu may also be beneficial for reducing osteoporosis and bone loss in older adults.
Tofu can play an important role in a heart healthy diet, considering it is low in saturated fat and can help reduce LDL cholesterol.
Soy foods like tofu are currently approved by the FDA to include a health claim on the label stating that foods high in soy protein can help reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. However, the FDA is examining more recent studies on soy and is reconsidering the approval of this health claim (4)
There has been a common misconception over the years that tofu can cause breast cancer. On one hand, this concern is understandable considering that soy contains estrogen-like compounds called isoflavones. However, isoflavones from plants do not act the same way estrogen does in the human body.
This is supported by observations that consumption of soy foods is associated with a lower risk of breast cancer, may actually help prevent breast cancer from coming back, and may help people live longer after a breast cancer diagnosis. This protection from breast cancer may be stronger when soy is consumed beginning in childhood (4,5).
Tofu may actually be helpful for women going through menopause! Some women eating soy foods like tofu have experienced a reduction in both the number and duration of hot flashes (5).
Type 2 Diabetes
Soy foods like tofu may reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus (6). Tofu is also helpful in managing blood sugar levels for people with type 2 diabetes since including protein at meals and snacks can help blunt large spikes in blood sugar.
For postmenopausal women or women in the early stages of menopause, tofu may have beneficial effects for osteoporosis. The isoflavones in soy have been shown to increase bone mineral density in the spine and decrease bone loss (7).
Keep in mind that these studies used isoflavone supplements and not tofu itself, so it is unclear how much tofu would be needed to see similar benefits, if at all. However, tofu is likely a good choice for bone health in general due to its high calcium content when processed with calcium (be sure to check the ingredients).
In summary, tofu is a food traditionally made from soymilk and has a neutral, bland flavor straight out of the package. There are different types of tofu with varying degrees of firmness and moisture content.
You can change the texture and flavor of tofu by using the freeze-thaw method, pressing it to remove excess moisture, marinating it, cooking it with a sauce, or blending it into a sauce or creamy dessert.
Tofu is very nutritious, providing high quality plant-based protein, calcium (if set with calcium), fiber, iron, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, and potassium. It is low in saturated fat.
Tofu also has a variety of health benefits, including a decreased risk of cancer, type 2 diabetes, and potentially cardiovascular disease and osteoporosis. It also helps reduce LDL cholesterol and hot flashes experienced by women going through menopause.
If you would like personalized guidance in transitioning to a vegan diet or ensuring you’re getting the nutrients you need on a vegan diet, consider seeing a vegan registered dietitian for expert advice! Check out my services.