Chefs, Cooking, Eat Good Food

Tofu, A Building Block

Tofu is a blank canvas. A healthful, plant-based ingredient, tofu is a building block for both sweet and savory dishes.

Soybeans are a complete protein, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids that cannot be produced made by the human body. They are also high in calcium, iron, magnesium, and manganese. Tofu is made from just soybeans, water, and a coagulant.

We love creamy, silken tofu for desserts and dressings, and firmer varieties for grilling, stir fries, and sautés.

Soybeans (Glycine max) are thought to be native to China, where they have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. The first written record of tofu in Chinese literature occurred in the 10th century.


  • It has been speculated that tofu-making is an adaptation of Mongol cheese-making.
  • In Japanese cuisine, tofu is formed using a box traditionally made from Japanese cypress (hinoki), called a tsukuriki.
  • Nigari (magnesium chloride), a traditional Japanese curdling agent, is made by allowing saltwater to evaporate.
  • The consistency and flavor of tofu can change slightly depending on the coagulant used to bind the soy milk. Other options include freshly squeezed lemon juice and gypsum (calcium sulfate), most commonly used in Chinese-style tofus.

Cultivation and Harvest

  • Soybeans are part of the Fabaceae family, which includes peas, beans, alfalfa, and peanuts. The plants can grow up to three or four feet tall, and are similar to bush beans in that they require warm soil.
  • The top soybean producing countries worldwide are the United States, Brazil, Argentina, and China. Soy is the second largest cash crop grown in the U.S., with over 84 million acres planted in 2014.

Environmental and Human Health Impact
Within the U.S., 94% of all soybean crops are genetically modified, up from 17% in 1997.  These seeds, which have been developed to survive the application of specific herbicides such as Roundup (glycosphate), have prompted the development of “superweeds” that are resistant to such herbicides. Make sure to look for organic and/or locally made tofu, or make your own at home from organic soybeans. (In the U.S., the use of genetic engineering is prohibited in organic products.)

While soybeans are healthful in their original state, they are often pressed into oil which is then hydrogenated and used in processed foods and for frying. In addition, soybeans are often soaked in a bath of hexane, an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin, to separate the oil from the protein. Products labeled “organic” are not allowed to contain any hexane-derived ingredients. The Cornucopia Institute’s Organic Soy Report and accompanying Scorecard has more information on soy food brands and how they rate.

While the press has called out the “feminizing” effects of estrogen in soy, there has been no scientifically proven direct link between the product and the increased risk of diseases such as breast cancer. In fact, men may even benefit from some dietary soy, as it can decrease the risk of prostate cancer.

Tofu: Buying Guide
Tofu comes in a variety of different forms and textures. Some of the most common types include:

  • Plain (block): usually snow white or off-white in color, plain tofu can be grilled or stir-fried
  • Silken: a consistency similar to soft ricotta cheese or yogurt, making it a perfect emulsifier for dressings, vinaigrettes, and sauces
  • Frozen: this variety is spongier and great for soaking up sauces
  • Fermented and pickled: tofu can be fermented with soy sauce, miso, rice wine, vinegar, and more
  • Crumbled: makes a great addition to veggie burgers and an alternative to scrambled eggs

Store tofu in a covered container of water in the refrigerator for one or two weeks. Make sure to change the water daily to maintain freshness.

At a Glance: Cooking Tips

  • Before cooking firm tofu, make sure to drain out as much liquid as possible.
  • Looking for a quick, nutritious pudding? Try blending silken tofu with some sweeteners such as coconut milk or honey and some additions like lavender or lemon zest.

Japanese cooking instructor and author Sonoko Sakai recently returned to SHED for a hands-on workshop on how to make soy milk and tofu at home.


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