5 Easy ways to use tofu

  • 4 Minutes Read
  • Oct 27, 2015

Tofu is plant protein at its best: easy to use, nutritious and adaptable to many different types of recipes.

5 Easy ways to use tofu

Many years ago, a friend attempted to make a Thanksgiving pumpkin pie using tofu instead of evaporated milk. The result was pretty disagreeable: pumpkin custard with chunks of white tofu sticking out. Not the best use of tofu. I think about that every year, as a reminder that tofu is not just another form of dairy food. It's unique and is best used in recipes that let tofu be tofu.

You might be wondering: why add tofu to my diet? Tofu is a high protein plant food. Unlike meat or dairy, it's also high in fiber and phytonutrients, and contains healthy fats. Lite tofu is low fat, and lower in calories. It's incredibly convenient to use, without all the messy trimmings or left-over bits you get with chicken or a steak or roast. Compared to pricey cuts of meat, it's also inexpensive.

Tofu is made from soybeans, specifically from soy milk that has been coagulated, similar to the way soft dairy cheeses are made. The resulting curds are pressed into a cake. Most grocers carry 2-3 types of tofu: soft (or silken), firm, extra firm. Soft/silken tofu has a higher water content, making it more crumbly. It blends well into smoothies or dips, and can be prepared as an "egg" salad. The higher water content also means this style of tofu is lower in calories, fat and protein for a given weight compared to firm tofu.

The firmer the tofu, the more water has been pressed out. Firm styles are the best choice for slicing or cubing. You can brown them in oil and add to a stir fry, salad or casserole. Or season with a spice or herb marinade and grill sliced tofu.

Despite the fact that tofu is prepared like cheese, it does not behave like real cheese in cooking. First, tofu hasn't got much flavor, so slices of tofu on a sandwich will be bland and tasteless unless you've seasoned them. Second: tofu does not melt. In fact, heat can make it more firm. So using tofu on a burger (probably a veggie burger) or in a vegan lasagna will yield a very different result, possibly not to your liking.

The best way to use tofu is in dishes that make use of tofu's unique properties. One of the most important qualities of tofu: it absorbs the flavor of the foods it's added to. So it goes well with dishes that have strong flavors. Another important quality: unlike raw meat, it's ready to eat. When using tofu in a hot dish, all you need to do is heat it through, so you can add it at the end of cooking.

  1. Stir fry with vegetables: Slice firm or extra-firm tofu into 1/2 inch slices. Brown briefly in hot peanut oil. Add the slices to a vegetable stir fry that you've seasoned with soy sauce, ginger, garlic, sesame oil and a splash of rice wine vinegar.
  2. Curry: Tofu works well in curry, and can be substituted for meats like chicken. Cube firm or extra firm tofu and drain on paper towels. Briefly sauté some vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, red pepper, onion, zucchini. Add a can of coconut milk and a cup of vegetable broth or other soup stock. Season with curry powder or curry paste or curry spices like cumin, coriander, ginger and turmeric. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the tofu pieces and heat through.
  3. Smoothie: Add silken/soft tofu to a fruit-based smoothie, using fruit juice for the liquid base, and a variety of fresh fruits.
  4. Salad: Add tofu to a salad to boost protein, whether a tossed green salad, chopped salad or grain or noodle-based entrée salad. You can use tofu right out of the package, or add a touch of flavor by browning firm tofu cubes briefly, and draining on paper towel.
  5. Soup: add very thin sliced firm tofu, or crumbled silken tofu, to a broth-based soup, preferably an Asian style soup. You can also add tofu in slices or cubes to a creamy soup like potato, celery or tomato.

These are easy ways to use tofu that take advantage of its unique characteristics. More adventurous people might make that "egg" salad, using crumbled silken tofu, finely chopped celery or shredded carrots, and seasoned with mayonnaise. Pickle relish can add another flavor boost.

Another adventuresome use: in spaghetti sauce in place of meat, to boost the protein of your meal. Start with well-seasoned marinara sauce . Add crumbled silken or firm tofu, depending on your taste preferences. The tofu should disappear into the flavorful sauce. Finally, you can grill sliced tofu. Just remember, the longer you cook it and the hotter the grill the tougher it might get. Eating grilled tofu might not compare to eating a grilled steak or chop. A better way to serve it is burger-style. That way you can dress up your grilled tofu with plenty of flavorful toppings and condiments, like fresh tomatoes or roasted chilies, sauteed mushrooms and onions, avocado, BBQ sauce, salsa, ketchup or mustard.

Soy Phobia?

Once upon a time, soy was touted as an all-purpose health food, able to cure disease with a single serving. Heart disease, cancer, thinning bones: researchers jumped on the soy bandwagon and attempted to prove it was a miracle food. Decades later, there's not much evidence for that, although some research suggests it can help women going through menopause and is linked to lower risk for breast and endometrial cancers.

Recently another opposite train of thought emerged, claiming soy is completely unhealthy. Internet sites tout the alleged dangers of soy, saying it's lurking in all our food, in bizarre unnatural forms, used for food additives, causing all the diseases it was originally supposed to cure. One screed blames soy for dozens of problems, yet provides no links to any of the "thousands" of studies that allegedly back up those claims.

Let's do a reality check on that hysteria. If soy is so dangerous, the hundreds of millions of people in Asia who rely on soy foods every single day should have withered away centuries ago. Yet today those are some of the healthiest populations on the planet.

Let's do another reality check: a diet high in food additives derived from soy is a highly processed diet. And a highly processed diet is never a good idea, not because the additives may come from soy, but because it's an unbalanced diet, lacking all kinds of nutrients from whole foods, not to mention high in sodium and fats. If you created food additives from some other source - corn, wheat, broccoli, apples - you'd still have a highly processed diet that was less than healthy.

If you just don't like soy, then don't eat it. Don't base your decision on bad information. According to the National Institutes of Health, soy foods are considered safe, and may help with some diseases. Tofu is one such soy food, easy to use, high in protein, fiber, phytonutrients and healthy fats.

Foods & Recipes->"Beans, Peas, & Soy"
Donna P Feldman MS RDN is author of "Feed Your Vegetarian Teen", writes about food and nutrition at Radio Nutrition and is co-host of the Walk Talk Nutrition podcast series.

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