Tofu is a protein packed powerhouse that is incredibly versatile, as it can be used for a savory dish or a sweet treat. Especially when hearing of it for the first time, many people perceive tofu to be bland and flavorless. It makes sense at first glance that its unique texture and shape of a plain white block turns people away. Tofu has recently gained popularity in Western areas, though it’s been a staple in China, where it originated, dating back 2,000 years. It is actually made in a similar way to dairy cheese: curdling soya milk, packing it into a block, then cooling it.
Taking a closer look into tofu sheds light on why it is a beloved meat substitute to vegans. Soybean protein is healthier and in most cases less expensive than meat.
Speaking on complaints of tofu being tasteless, we must remember that because we are so accustomed to eating meat, we forget that without any spices or flavors, it too has an unappetizing taste. It is rare for a person to enjoy eating meat without at least a sprinkle of salt, if not a couple dashes of colorful spices, all which are sourced from vegetables, for instance, chili or garlic powder.
Anything; beans, legumes, and meat alike, is quite unappealing when cooked plain.
Since vegan staples like tofu are somewhat new to many, I wanted to share a guide with a few tips I stick with to ensure the most scrumptious of meals and some beneficial tofu information.
One thing I almost always do is marinate the tofu I am using. You can do this overnight if you are using tofu for a breakfast tofu scramble in the morning, or through the afternoon if you are cheffing up a tofu stir-fry for dinner. Marinating tofu allows the spices you are using to infuse themselves into the tofu, stripping away any ‘bland’ feelings.
Another tip is to use onion and garlic in tofu dishes. This works perfectly because tofu is typically used in stir fry, fried rice, or as an egg substitute. Onion and garlic have powerful flavors that elevate your tofu dishes, especially if you simmer the tofu in olive oil with onions and garlic with the lid on.
That brings me to my next point which is doing a slow simmer when cooking tofu. I typically cook tofu for 20 minutes or so on low heat in whatever spices and veggies I am using, ensuring I am using a pan with a closed lid. Slowly simmering gives the tofu the time and correct environment for being a sponge for the aroma and tang of the flavors it is sharing the cook-pot with.
This one is more of a mini tip, but I love to add roasted peanuts to tofu when I cook it with more Chinese-style spices. It’s a really good combination and adds an extra boost of protein!
Finally, one of my favorite lightning fast methods: air frying tofu! My new obsession has become our air fryer. I am one of those people who tries to air fry everything in sight, because honestly it has never not been absolutely delicious. Air fried tofu is delicious in fried rice, noodle soups, stir fries, or as something easy and nutritious to snack on. To air fry, I favor extra firm tofu because it behaves best in the air fryer and resembles the texture of meat when cooked.
Some of my favorite ways to season air fryer tofu
- I generally season the tofu with paprika, chili powder, onion powder and a spritz of avocado oil before tossing it into the air fryer.
- Soy sauce, sesame oil, garlic powder, and a dash of salt.
- To make a sweeter version, I recommend maple syrup, soy sauce, hot sauce, some rice wine vinegar, and a bit of olive oil.
Navigating the different types of tofu
The levels of tofu ranging from softest to firmest are silken, medium-firm, firm, extra-firm and super-firm. The firmness of the tofu is determined by the amount of water content. For instance, the more water, the softer (more silken) the tofu. As you move towards firmer tofu, the tofu becomes less porous, meaning it cannot absorb flavors as fully.
- Silken tofu is particularly good for dressings, sauces, pudding or egg substitutions, as it can be easily pureed. It is also commonly used in soups such as miso soup because of its delicate texture.
- Medium-firm tofu is still porous enough to absorb flavors while also being firm enough to stand on its own, making it great for saucy recipes.
- Firm/extra-firm tofu has a firmer body making it great for stir frying and grilling. In my opinion, the more firm the tofu, the better of a meat substitute it is.
- Super-firm tofu is perfect for pan frying and frying (such as in oil or in an air fryer)
- Firmer tofu is generally healthier with a higher iron and protein content per serving.
What about a possible soy-estrogen link?
Soy contains phytoestrogens, or plant-based estrogens, specifically a high concentration of isoflavones. These phytoestrogens do not have the effects that human estrogen does on the body. So, consuming soy products such as tofu is not linked to cancer. In fact, research shows that isoflavones lower the risk of many diseases such as heart disease and diabetes.
In fact, some studies show that consuming even small amounts of dairy daily can increase one’s risk of getting breast cancer by 80%.
Soy protein sources such as tofu are considered high-quality sources of plant protein. “Unlike some plant proteins, soy protein is considered a complete protein, containing all nine essential amino acids that the body cannot make which must be obtained from the diet” (Harvard School of Public Health).
Research shows that soy protein can reduce levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol, improve kidney function, reduce bone loss, prevent liver damage, and prevent diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
Due to its versatility, tofu is so much fun to cook with, and I always use tofu to experiment with a ton of different cuisines.