As I recently dipped a carrot slice into a fluffy, edamame-infused dip I'd made from a batch of homemade tofu, I wondered: Why haven't I done this before? The carrot was crisp, the herbs were fresh, but it was the tofu that was the real deal. It was like no store-bought tofu I'd ever encountered – light, delicate, creamy and not a bit rubbery.
Making tofu from soybeans has been on my radar for awhile, ever since I assisted — err, cleaned up after — my brother's attempt a few years back. He'd built a small wooden tofu press for a friend and wanted to try it out to make sure it worked. He got a big bag of soybeans from the bulk bin at the market, soaked and then ground them, boiled an enormous pot of water and did a lot of stirring and straining. It didn't seem all that complicated, and I mentally placed it on my to-cook-one-day list.
That day came, and I'm a convert. Surprisingly, making your own tofu is not hard, though it is a bit time consuming, as many do-it-yourself projects tend to be. But the results more than make up for the labor.
It's also ideal for control freaks such as myself, as you know exactly what ingredients are going in your tofu (I like to use non-GMO, organic soybeans) and can play around with the flavors to your liking (a little lemon zest or a handful of toasted sesame seeds can provide an unexpected taste).
Homemade tofu may not appeal to all — first, you have to actually like tofu, which can be an acquired taste. Just the idea of tofu — or, bean curd — can make even the most adventurous eater wrinkle his nose in disgust. I've probably alienated about half of those reading already.
I hope not, though. While it's true tofu sometimes receives a bad rap as a health food reserved for vegetarians and vegans, an odd, jiggly block of white stuff that has a weird texture, there's lots to recommend it. Tofu is relatively low fat and is a good source of protein, calcium, iron, magnesium, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium and copper and can be incorporated into either sweet or savory dishes.
A cautionary note: The health benefits of soy are debated, with various studies examining links between soy consumption and heart disease and cancer and producing contradictory results. If you're worried, remember that moderation and balance in diet is good — so switch up your tofu with other plant-based sources of protein, such as legumes or quinoa, so you don't overload your system.
About The Author
Nicole Spiridakis lives in San Francisco and writes about food, travel and her native state on her blog, cucinanicolina.com. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, chow.com and other publications.
Despite its reputation, tofu never has to be bland, and with a little ingenuity, it never has to be boring. It also doesn't have to be reserved for vegetarian diets.
I get it. I'm a vegetarian and have been for 16 years. I'm regularly asked, "A vegetarian?What do you eat for protein — tofu?" The speaker grimaces over the word. Before I knew what to do with tofu, I grimaced myself. It looked blah and unappetizing, especially when pitched as a substitute for meat or eggs. As we all know, there is no true substitute for the taste of meat or eggs.
However, when you look at tofu as its own delicious entity, a door opens. If you fry cubed tofu hoping it will resemble stir-fried chicken, you're ensuring disappointment. You'll be much happier if you can embrace the essence of the soybean.
Making tofu is fairly easy, and the process is based on the same principles used to make cheese: You coagulate soy milk and press the curds that result from boiling the milk (these ingredients, of course, are dairy-free). I prefer to make my own soy milk from dried soybeans rather than using the pre-made stuff, although I have experimented both ways (if you do use premade soy milk, make sure to buy a sugar-free variety).
Why homemade? Well, it's cheaper, for one thing, and there's less waste. And you can't beat that fresh-from-the-bean taste.
Ways to use homemade tofu range from the complicated — an unassumingly delicious "eggless" tofu spread served on toasted whole grain bread with lots of avocado slices — to the simple — a silky smooth tofu-chocolate pudding using just five ingredients — with many variations falling in between. A standard weeknight meal at my house is cubes of tofu (usually marinated just in soy sauce, though if I'm feeling fancy I might whip up something more involved) pan-fried in sesame oil with sesame seeds until golden brown on each side, then tossed with an assortment of stir-fried vegetables (garlic, mushrooms, broccoli, etc.) and served with long-grain brown rice.
Other options include folding seasoned, crumbled tofu into soft tacos, baking thick slabs in the oven with carrots and onions, incorporating into quinoa-veggie burgers, sneaking into a summer vegetable lasagna, paired with raw, shredded cabbage and bean sprouts in a refreshing hot-weather salad and on and on.
Of course, if you're pressed for time, you may use store-bought tofu with good results.
Recipe: Homemade Tofu
Do not be intimidated by the length of this recipe. There are a few steps, but they're not difficult and certainly don't need to be overwhelming. In terms of the coagulant — used to turn the soy milk into tofu during the process — you have several options: Epsom salts, lemon juice or apple cider vinegar. I prefer lemon juice, but it's worth experimenting to see what works best for you (or use what you happen to have on hand). If you think you'll make a lot of batches of tofu, it's worth investing in a tofu press, but it's not necessary. An empty cardboard milk carton or a loaf pan can be used to form the blocklike shape, or simply press in a colander. I try to use my homemade tofu as quickly as possible to take advantage of its freshness. It holds up well in a variety of recipes, both sweet and savory. You may buy dried soybeans online, at Asian markets, and occasionally at natural food stores.
Makes 1 large block of tofu
1 1/2 cups dried soybeans
41/2 cups water
Coagulant (options:2 teaspoons Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate), 4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice or 3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar)
In a large bowl, soak the dried soybeans in 4 1/2 cups water for about 8 hours (or overnight).
After soaking, grind the soybeans with their soaking water in a food processor, until the beans are ground fine.
In a large pot, bring 5 cups of water to a boil and add the ground soybeans. Reduce to medium heat, and keep the mixture almost at a boil, stirring continuously to prevent sticking. As the mixture seems about to boil, reduce heat to low and cook the beans for an additional 8 minutes or so, stirring continuously, until a layer of foam forms on top.
Place a cheesecloth-lined colander over a bowl. Strain the bean mixture through the colander and reserve the liquid (aka the soy milk). Gather up the sides of the cheesecloth and twist it closed to squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Discard cheesecloth and solids.
In a small bowl, mix together coagulant with 1 cup water and stir until dissolved.
Rinse out the cooking pot, pour in the soy milk and cook over low heat, stirring continuously. When the temperature of the soy milk is between 150 and 155 degrees, remove the pot from the heat.
Add half of the coagulant mixture to the soy milk, stirring with a spatula in a whirlpool pattern. After stirring vigorously for about 6 times, bring spatula to a halt standing upright in the soy milk and wait until turbulence ceases. Then add the remaining coagulant mixture and stir gently in a figure-eight pattern. When the soy milk starts to coagulate, cover the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes. (It may not look as though it's coagulating at first, but don't fear: It is.)
Line a colander with cheesecloth and set the colander over a bowl that can support it. With a soup ladle, transfer the coagulated soy milk into the cloth-lined colander (or tofu press or loaf pan).
Fold the cloth over the top of the coagulated soy milk, and place a plate and then a weight of about 1 1/2 pounds on top. Let stand for about 15 minutes to press out any excess water.
Place in refrigerator to chill and firm slightly, about an hour. Serve the tofu immediately, or store it in fresh, cold water in the refrigerator for up to three days.
Recipe: Hiyayakko (Japanese Cold Tofu)
This dish practically begs for a base of freshly made tofu, as it's simply a block of tofu served raw and lightly dressed with a bit of garnish on top. You may experiment with garnishes, but I like to go ultra basic, with finely chopped green onion, grated fresh ginger and a sprinkling of sesame seeds. (The traditional version calls for bonito flakes, which are made from aged and dried mackerel, but I use sesame seeds to keep it vegan.) Use a light hand with the soy sauce so it doesn't overpower the delicate flavor of the tofu.
Drain the water from the tofu. Cut the block in half and, optionally, into 1/2-inch cubes. Put each serving in a small bowl and drizzle with 1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons of soy sauce, or to taste. Pile on the toppings of your choice. Serve immediately.
This is one of my go-to weeknight meals. It takes about 10 minutes to prepare and is light yet satisfying. The noodles slip down hot, salty and delicious, while the tofu adds heft. You could add other vegetables here, too — broccoli or edamame might be nice — or serve alongside a piece of seared ahi tuna if you're especially hungry. This is not a complicated dish, and it's certainly not fancy. It is, however, absolutely addictive. Udon noodles are thick, wheat-flour, Japanese noodles. Look for them in organic markets such as Whole Foods or at Asian supermarkets.
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Makes 2 servings, easily doubled
2 bunches udon
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 block fresh tofu (or one package firm tofu), cubed
2 teaspoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, sliced
10 shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced with stems removed
4 cups spinach
4 tablespoons (or to taste) soy sauce
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
Cook the udon according to package instructions.
Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat the sesame oil. Add the tofu and sear and fry, 2 to 3 minutes per side, turning over once to cook each side evenly. Tofu should be fairly well-browned on each side. Remove from heat and place tofu in a bowl.
In the same frying pan, heat the olive oil and saute the garlic over medium heat. Cook for a few minutes then add the mushrooms. Reduce heat to low, add a scant splash of water, and simmer until garlic and mushrooms are soft. Add spinach and stir well until wilted. Season with soy sauce and sesame seeds.
Drain udon and toss with vegetables. Add the tofu and stir well to combine.
Recipe: Bourbon-Glazed Baked Tofu With Spicy Roasted Red And Sweet Potatoes
I live in a city apartment and have neither backyard nor deck, therefore no access to a grill. This is my attempt to create a smoky, summery, barbecued tofu using just my little urban oven. I incorporated bourbon in the glaze as a nod to my husband who usually likes his over ice (he liked it this way, too) and maple syrup to play off the whiskey's natural sweetness. The spicy potatoes are a must. To really up the ante, try making a garlic aioli in which to dip them, and serve corn on the cob with herbed butter to round out the meal.
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Nicole Spiridakis for NPR
Makes 4 servings
For The Potatoes
1 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried paprika
1/2 teaspoon dried cumin
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon dried cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
2 russet potatoes, scrubbed, unpeeled and cut lengthwise into thick wedges
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into thick wedges
2 tablespoons olive oil
For The Tofu
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 red onion, finely chopped
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 small tomato, chopped
1 shot (1.5 ounces) bourbon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 block fresh tofu (or one package extra-firm tofu), cut into thick slabs
Heat oven to 425 degrees.
For the potatoes, whisk spices together in a small bowl. In a large bowl, toss the potatoes with the 2 tablespoons olive oil and the spice mixture. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and spread the potatoes in an even layer. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until slightly crisp.
To make sauce, heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a medium-sized saucepan. Saute the onions and garlic over medium heat until the onion softens. Add the tomato and cook for a few more minutes. Add the bourbon and cook for 2 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and reduce heat to low. Simmer 5 minutes and remove from heat.
Brush the surface of an oven-proof dish lightly with the sauce, lay the tofu down flat in the dish and brush generously with the rest of the sauce to coat. Bake for about 30 minutes until slightly browned.
Recipe: Edamame Herbed Tofu Dip
This herby, edamame-infused dip couldn't be easier to make. Throw all the ingredients in a food processor or blender and whip until well combined. I like to serve it with an assortment of fresh vegetables, such as carrots, radishes, celery. Sometimes I'll roast a red pepper and add it to the mix in addition to or instead of the edamame, spread it thickly in a pita bread pocket along with avocado slices and call it lunch.
1/2 cup sliced green onions, white and green parts
1 clove garlic, sliced
4 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano
Place tofu in a food processor and puree until smooth. Add the rest of the ingredients and pulse until combined. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
Recipe: Chocolate-Tofu Pudding
I like a good, rich chocolate pot de creme as much as the next person. But in the interest of health, I don't have that particular treat every day (more like once a week). Still, I do like a dessert after dinner, and I always like chocolate. This chocolate-tofu pudding is a revelation. It contains not a drop of cream (if you're vegan, make sure to get vegan chocolate chips) but is appropriately decadent nonetheless.