I'm going to say it, plain and simple: Tofu is beautiful, tofu is multifaceted, and tofu is delicious.

Too often and for far too long has tofu endured the reputation of being a bland, boring, inspiring ingredient under the white American gaze. Famed chef Daniel Patterson said of tofu in 2006, "To my American mind, tofu meant dull, bland hippie food. Who knew that it had such a sexy and elegant cousin?" Heck, even our own editors at Delish believe in the "tofu is boringly bland" narrative.

The sexy cousin chef Patterson was referring to is yuba, AKA tofu skin: It's the cream of the crop that rises to the top of soymilk when boiled, which is a key first step in tofu production. Yuba is, in essence, very much tofu. And today, we will be taking a look at tofu and all its relatives through my lenses.

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What is tofu?

what is tofu  delishcom
June Xie

Tofu, or dòufu (豆腐) in Chinese, literally means "bean curd" or "bean ferment." It's made through a 3-stage process:

  1. Soak cleaned soybeans, grind them down with the water, then boil the mixture to make cooked soy milk.
  2. Add a salt coagulant like calcium sulfate (AKA gypsum), magnesium chloride or calcium chloride (AKA nigari) to transform soy milk into curds.
  3. Press the curds to form tofu blocks.

Tofu, to me, is like the OG vegan cheese. The first step resembles many homemade vegan milks like almond milk and oat milk; the heating and coagulation process is very similar to how cow's milk products like ricotta and mozzarella come into being. Depending on the variations in technique and treatment the soy undergoes, different tofu products materialize.

Many think of tofu only as the stuff that comes out of a white plastic container, which ranges from fragile silken textures to super firm blocks. And don't get me wrong, boxed tofu is amazing and versatile: it's relatively low in fat and calories, high in calcium (or magnesium, depending on which coagulant was used) and iron, and super affordable as a plant-based protein. However, most tofu explainers out there start and stop with boxed tofu and don't dare to enter the expansive world of tofu products that are at your blessed disposal should you desire to wade into the deep end of soybean bliss. Today, we're going to swim out of the kiddie pool, dive into all that "dòufu" encompasses, and discuss all the different ways in which you can use it.

Boxed tofu

what is tofu  delishcom
June Xie

Tofu is bland in the same way that mozzarella, ricotta, and butter is bland: the flavor is very pure and nuanced but very present to the discerning palate. As with all ingredients, you need to nurture and work with it to draw out its character and imbue it with the flavors you want to taste.

Starting with the softest variety, we have silken. Silken tofu is unpressed for the most part, giving it a very delicate texture. The extreme creamy-tenderness makes it super pleasant for raw applications: it's nicely cooling on a hot summer day, drizzled in sesame oil, chili oil, soy sauce, and vinegar, potentially served alongside a simple smashed cucumber salad. It's also the tofu of choice when making classic dishes like mapo tofu or when making vegan versions of sweet staples like smoothies and cheesecake.

Slowly moving towards the sturdier end of the spectrum, we have medium. Medium tofu is pressed to remove some water content from the silken stage, giving it more body and definition. It is still quite soft, making it ideal for applications that call for minimal handling and cooking, like hot & sour soup.

Finally, we reach the family of firms. Nowadays, in your refrigerated section, you may find three kinds of firm tofus: firm, extra firm, super firm. As their names suggest, firm tofus are substantial and can be roughed around a bit during the cooking process. They are excellent baked, tossed into stir-fries, marinated then grilled, or torn and scrambled.

To keep your tofu fresh, refrigerate it after purchasing. Once opened, keep it in a covered container in the fridge and use within 4 to 7 days. Some people prefer to keep it immersed in water to keep it fresher, as one would with feta cheese.

For longer storage, freeze it. Just note that freezing your tofu will alter its texture greatly: once frozen and defrosted, you can squeeze out much of the remaining water content and transform the tofu into a sponge that's ready for flavor injection and marinade absorption to the max. Use this trick to your advantage.

Fried tofu puffs

what is tofu  delishcom
June Xie

Deep-fried and deliciously cavernous inside their golden exterior, fried tofu puffs are great in soups and stews like vegan sweet potato curry or punchy one-pan deals like sweet & sour cashew stir-fry. They are soft with a slight chew, and function as excellent textured flavor absorbers in brothy or saucy dishes.

Smoked tofu

what is tofu  delishcom
June Xie

For folks who want a more flavorful tofu straight out of the package, smoked tofu is the way to go. If you have the chance to go to a Chinese supermarket, you'll find in the open refrigerated section various kinds: tofu sheets, tofu noodles, tofu slabs, all embued with a caramel color. They have a light hint of smokiness—around 25% to 40% of the smokiness of generic, commercially available smoked Gouda—and can sometimes be salted and seasoned with spices to varying degrees.

These can be cubed and tossed into a simple salad in place of animal protein, or served as an appetizer or side dish on their own, doused with a little chili oil.


what is tofu  delishcom
June Xie

Indeed, yuba can be quite sexy and elegant. In most Chinese grocery stores, it's sold in dried form, and looks like brittle cream-colored folded plastic sheets. Once rehydrated in cold water overnight, it turns soft and malleable. The flavor is like concentrated soy cream, rich almost to the point of being vaguely sweet; the texture is somewhere between al dente pasta and a very thin, slightly overcooked omelette. You can use it anywhere you would use block tofu, and I love it especially in hot & sour soup alongside slivers of crunchy wood ear.

Fermented tofu

what is tofu delishcom
June Xie

Sold in jars of brine, fermented bean curd known as fǔrǔ (腐乳) is a salty and pungent affair. Treat these little cubes like you would a potent condiment: as with fish sauce and Vegemite, if you use too much, you're bound to hate it. Fermented bean curd is soft and spreadable like room-temperature butter and I love to mix a bit into my steamed rice as a quick snack or scoop half a cube into a bowl of congee alongside other toppings like pork floss and century eggs.

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