Tofu ― or bean curd ― long a staple in the Asian diet, has become mainstream in the West. Recently, it has earned even more converts due to its widely touted health benefits as a cholesterol- and lactose-free complete protein that is low in saturated fat and sodium.
But it's tofu's versatility ― a chameleon-like ability to take on the flavors of the foods it's cooked with ― that keeps people coming back for more.
Last year, 30,000 attendees of the Los Angeles Tofu Festival tasted this protein in myriad forms, from savory to sweet. Its meaty texture made it a natural as an entrée, but its creaminess was a particular asset in salad dressings and frozen desserts. Our recipes for sesame tofu dressing and banana-strawberry tofu sherbet were adapted from the festival cookbook, The Four Seasons of Tofu.
How tofu is made
Turning soybeans into tofu requires soaking, crushing, cooking, and filtering to create a soy milk. Coagulants are added to the milk to solidify it, then the tofu is molded into blocks and packaged in water or vacuum-packed without (for a longer shelf life) and refrigerated.
These traditional forms of tofu may be fairly coarse and firm to quite soft, depending on how much whey was pressed out.
In a newer method, the soy milk is poured into an aseptic package. Coagulants are added, and the package is sealed and heated. The resulting tofu is smooth and custardlike ― what manufacturers call silken.
There are no industry standards for describing the firmness of tofu; labels vary widely among brands. In general, however, use soft tofu, such as aseptic-packed silken styles, when you want a smooth, creamy texture but don't need the substance to hold its shape.
Choose firm, medium-dense tofu for all-purpose uses, such as in purées or cut into chunks (perfect tidbits for toddlers). Use extra-firm tofu (sometimes labeled nigari), which holds its shape well, in sautés and stir-fries and on the grill.