When I first transitioned to a plant-based lifestyle, tofu was one of the foods I was most skeptical about. To be honest, I thought it was bland, weird, and just for health nuts. But, boy, was I wrong! Today, tofu is a staple in my kitchen, and I can’t imagine my meals without it. In this Tofu 101 topic of the week, I’ll share my journey with tofu, explain what it is, how it’s made, whether it’s considered a processed food, its nutritional benefits, and how it compares to chicken in terms of protein. Plus, I’ll share an amazing recipe for General Tso’s Tofu that will make you forget all about takeout.

Tofu 101 – What is Tofu?

Tofu, also known as bean curd, is a versatile food product made from soybeans. It’s a staple in many Asian cuisines and has gained popularity worldwide, especially among those following plant-based diets. The process of making tofu involves curdling fresh soy milk, pressing it into a solid block, and then cooling it—similar to how cheese is made from dairy milk.

Is Tofu a Processed Food?

Tofu often gets lumped in with processed foods, but it’s actually quite simple. The process includes soaking, grinding, and boiling soybeans, then curdling the soy milk and pressing it into blocks. Unlike highly processed foods that contain numerous additives and preservatives, traditional tofu generally contains just three ingredients: soybeans, water, and a coagulant, such as calcium sulfate or magnesium chloride. While some store-bought tofus might have additional ingredients for flavor or preservation, many options remain close to their simple, whole-food origins.

What are the Types of Tofu?

Tofu comes in several different types, each with its own unique texture and best uses:

  • Silken Tofu: The softest type, comparable to soft white cheese. It’s great for blending into soups, sauces, dips, and desserts due to its creamy texture.
  • Firm Tofu: This is the most common type, with a consistency similar to feta cheese. It’s versatile and can be used in stir-fries, baked dishes, and more.
  • Extra Firm Tofu: As the name suggests, this type is the firmest, with a texture akin to meat. It’s ideal for baking, pan-frying, air-frying, and scrambling. Extra firm tofu holds its shape well and absorbs flavors effectively.

The Importance of Pressing Tofu

One crucial step in preparing tofu is pressing it to remove excess moisture. This process is essential for achieving the desired texture, whether you’re aiming for crispy, firm tofu or soft, creamy tofu. Excess water can make tofu soggy and prevent it from absorbing marinades and flavors effectively.

How to Press Tofu:

  • Tofu Press: A tofu press is a handy kitchen tool designed specifically for this purpose. It evenly presses the tofu, squeezing out the liquid efficiently. You can find a tofu press for about $15-$25 at most retailers.
  • DIY Method: If you don’t have a tofu press, you can wrap the tofu block in a clean kitchen towel, place it on a plate, and set a heavy object like a cast-iron skillet or a stack of books on top. Let it sit for at least 15-30 minutes. This method works well, but remember to check occasionally to avoid making too much of a mess.

The Nutritional Benefits of Tofu 101

One of the main reasons I began incorporating tofu into my diet was its impressive nutritional profile. Tofu is an excellent source of protein, making it a great alternative to meat. Here’s a quick comparison to illustrate how it stacks up against chicken, both are considered lean proteins so it makes for a great comparison:

  • Protein Content: A serving of firm tofu provides about 8 grams of protein. In comparison, the same amount of cooked chicken breast contains around 31 grams of protein. While chicken is higher in protein, tofu provides a good amount for those on a plant-based diet.
  • Fat & Cholesterol Content: Chicken is slightly lower in fat but contains both some saturated fat (bad fat) and cholesterol, whereas tofu contains monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats (aka “good” fats) and no cholesterol.
  • Calories: Tofu is lower in calories, with around 76 calories per 100 grams, while chicken breast has about 165 calories.
  • Nutrition: Tofu also contains essential amino acids, iron, calcium, and other important nutrients, making it a well-rounded addition to a balanced diet.

One of the benefits of choosing tofu is that you can increase your serving size to boost your protein intake while keeping the calorie count relatively the same.

The Soy Health Debate

You can’t talk Tofu 101 without addressing a common concern about tofu’s soy content, with many people wondering if consuming too much soy is bad for you. Soy contains phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that can mimic the hormone estrogen in the body. This has led to worries that high soy intake might disrupt hormonal balance or increase the risk of certain cancers, particularly breast cancer. However, extensive research indicates that moderate soy consumption is generally safe and may even offer health benefits. Soy is rich in protein, fiber, vitamins, and minerals, and some studies suggest it can lower cholesterol levels and reduce the risk of heart disease. Additionally, populations that consume high amounts of soy, such as in many Asian countries, tend to have lower rates of certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases. As with any food, it’s best to enjoy soy, including tofu, in moderation as part of a balanced diet. The fears surrounding soy often stem from outdated or misinterpreted studies, and for most people, tofu can be a nutritious and healthful addition to their meals.  Want to dig a little deeper?  Take a look at this GoodRx article IS SOY BAD FOR YOU? HERE’S WHAT THE SCIENCE SAYS.  Common sense says take a look at this issue and come to your own conclusions and talk to your doctor to determine what is right for you.

Tofu 101 and My Journey

Initially, I found tofu’s perceived texture and blandness a significant “ick.” However, the more I tried it, the more I began to love and crave it. I realized that tofu’s mild flavor is one of its greatest strengths—it acts as a blank canvas, absorbing the flavors of whatever it’s cooked with. Here are some tofu 101 tips and tricks I’ve learned to make tofu not only palatable but delicious:

1. Preparation: Properly preparing tofu can make a world of difference. I usually start by draining and pressing the tofu to remove excess moisture. This step is crucial, especially if you want your tofu to have a firmer texture.

2. Marination: Tofu absorbs marinades exceptionally well. My go-to marinade includes soy sauce, rice vinegar, and a bit of cornstarch to help with browning. Letting the tofu sit in the marinade for at least 30 minutes can enhance its flavor significantly.

3. Cooking Methods: There are various ways to cook tofu, each yielding different textures and flavors. For a crispy exterior, I recommend pan-frying or baking. Air frying is another excellent method that results in a crunchy texture without much oil. For a softer, creamier consistency, try incorporating silken tofu into soups, sauces, or desserts.

4. Seasoning and Sauces: Don’t be shy with seasonings and sauces. Tofu pairs well with a wide range of flavors, from spicy to savory to sweet. Here are a few ideas for your tofu adventure. Just use your imagination or do a quick google search to find an easy recipe.

  • Throw together a General Tso’s Tofu with rice and a veggie for a complete meal in minutes.
  • Mix up a Tofu Scramble with any veggies you have on hand. 
  • Combine a few simple ingredients (olive oil, panko breadcrumbs, nutritional yeast, garlic & onion powders, and salt & pepper) for the perfect Crispy Tofu Nuggets where the taste is way better than the name!
  • Or make a Silken Tofu Chocolate Mousse with 1 cup silken tofu, 1/2 cup melted dark chocolate chips, 2 tbsp non-dairy milk, 1 tsp vanilla extract, and 1 tbsp maple syrup blended until smooth and creamy, and refrigerate at least 1 hour before serving.

Your Tofu 101 Journey

Transitioning to a plant-based diet doesn’t mean you have to give up on delicious, satisfying meals. Tofu has become a beloved ingredient in my kitchen, not only for its nutritional benefits but also for its versatility and ability to take on bold flavors. If you’re skeptical about tofu, I encourage you to give it a try. Take a look at our TOFU 101 BEGINNER PLANT BASED MEAL GUIDE for prep and cooking methods along with a few easy recipes to try. With the right preparation and an open mind, you might find yourself, like me, falling in love with this humble yet mighty food.

For more detailed recipes and tips on preparing tofu, check out resources like ORGANIZINGAPLANTBASEDLIFE.COM, which offers printable meal guides and cooking techniques to help you get the most out of your plant-based journey.