Understanding Tofu

Image by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com. Photo credit: Yana Gayvoronskaya from Canva.com

Much like tempeh, tofu is often very misunderstood. Even long-term plant-based or vegan eaters misunderstand tofu. I often hear concerns about whether soy is healthy and what type of tofu to use. So let’s go over tofu to take the mystery out of this health-promoting, useful, and delicious product.

Is Soy Healthy?

Tofu has been a part of a healthy Asian diet for about 2,000 years. But despite this long history, there’s been a lot of confusion about soy in Western cultures, concern that it was dangerous, would cause cancer, would feminize men and cause them to grow man boobs. But research shows that tofu and other soy products, such as edamame, tempeh, miso, etc., is extremely protective against cancer, reduces heart disease risk, and does not increase human estrogen to grow breasts in men. The confusion came from the presence of phytoestrogen, plant estrogen, found in many plants, including legumes, fruit, cruciferous vegetables, herbs, such as turmeric and hops, and whole grains and seeds. The highest concentration of phytoestrogen is found in flax seed, followed by soy. 

Alpha & Beta Estrogen Receptors

We have two types of estrogen receptors in our bodies, alpha- and beta-estrogen receptors. When alpha-estrogen receptors are stimulated, they cause rapid cell growth, including cancer cells. When beta-estrogen receptors are stimulated, they slow cell growth, even acting as tumor suppressors. Plant estrogen readily binds to beta-estrogen receptors, suppressing cell growth. Human and mammal estrogen binds to alpha-estrogen receptors, which signals rapid growth. If phytoestrogens do bind to alpha-estrogen receptors, their signaling power is very weak, up to 1/1,000 of human estrogen, so they don’t stimulate rapid cell growth—most importantly, these phytoestrogens block human and other mammal estrogen from binding to that alpha-estrogen receptor! This blocking of alpha-estrogen receptors is how drugs like Tamoxifen work, and you can get that from eating plants!

What the Research Says

Research, looking at human response, overwhelmingly supports the consumption of soy and other foods high in phytonutrients. The key is eating whole food soy, such as edamame, tofu, tempeh, natto, miso, etc. rather than isolated soy proteins found in highly processed foods. You can learn more about the research into soy in this Soy and Health fact sheet from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.

Genetically Modified?

These packages of tofu are non-GMO, which you can see circled on the label. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

According to the Center for Food Safety, 94% of the US soybean crops are genetically modified (GMO) and most of this is used for animal feed, soybean oil, and additives for processed foods. Historically, non-GMO soybeans have been used for human consumption, but to ensure you’re eating non-GMO tofu and other soy products, check to packaging to say it’s non-GMO or organic. Organic products are prohibited from containing GMO ingredients.

Minimally Processed

Tofu is often mistaken for a highly processed food, but that is truly not the case. Whether regular or silken, tofu is simply made from soy beans, water, and a natural coagulant, and thus minimally processed. Read on to see how tofu is made!

Nutrition Facts

Tofu is naturally gluten-free, cholesterol-free, and low in calories. It’s high in protein and contains calcium, iron, magnesium, and beneficial omega-3 fatty acids.

Soy Allergy

Some people are allergic to soy, including tofu. I’ll discuss soy-free alternatives to tofu in a future post.

Types of Tofu

Silken tofu (left), Regular tofu (right). Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

There are two general types of tofu: regular and silken. The differences come from how they are made, which gives the tofu different consistency and properties.

All tofu, whether regular or silken, can be classified as soft, firm, or extra-firm, which addresses the density of that tofu, not the type of tofu it is.

Regular Tofu

Regular Tofu, also called Chinese or Firm Tofu, holds up in a solid block. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

Regular tofu is oftentimes just called firm tofu which leads to confusion! It’s also called Chinese Tofu. Making regular tofu is much like making cheese (you can learn specifics about making regular tofu in my post, Making Tofu). To make regular tofu, a coagulant, usually a salt derived from seawater, called nigari, is added to hot soy milk, causing it to separate into curds and whey. The soy curds are pressed together, squeezing out the whey, creating a block of tofu. The more whey that is removed, the firmer the tofu is.

Regular tofu comes in soft, firm, and extra-firm densities. You’ll often find regular tofu in plastic tubs or vacuum-sealed in plastic in the cooler in your grocery store.

You can also find sprouted tofu, which is a regular tofu made from sprouted soybeans. It is very firm and chewy, great for sautéing and baking. Sprouting the soybeans makes the tofu easier to digest, much like fermenting the soybeans when making tempeh, which some people prefer.

Using Regular Tofu

Regular tofu is porous as it’s made from smashed together curds, and chunky, not smooth and creamy. The nigari is still present in the tofu, which can give it a bitter taste if not further pressed. To press regular tofu, you can use a tofu press or simply drain the tofu, wrap in a clean towel, and place something heavy on it for at least 15 minutes. I like to cut the tofu in half lengthwise so it’s a more stable base for the heavy pot to sit on (I had too many pots topple off a block of tofu during the pressing!).

Pressing regular tofu: Cut block in half, lengthwise; wrap in a clean towel; set a heavy pot on top for at least 15 minutes. Photos by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

I’ve used this Tofuture tofu press for years. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

Use soft regular tofu for things like tofu scramble, to mimic softer scrambled eggs. Use firm or extra-firm tofu to cut into cubes or crumble to eat as is, bake, or sauté. Baked and sautéed tofu can have a chewy consistency to mimic meat. Firm or extra-firm tofu can be used in tofu scramble as well, mimicking firmer scrambled eggs.

Veggie Tofu Scramble using regular firm tofu. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

Baked crumbed and cubed regular firm tofu. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

Silken Tofu

Silken tofu is really a soy milk custard. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

Silken tofu is soft and creamy and made like custard. It’s also called Japanese Tofu. To make silken tofu, the mineral gypsum is added to cold soy milk and this mixture is steamed until set (check out Watch it Jiggle to learn how to make your own silken tofu at home). While the gypsum remains in this tofu, it is basically flavorless, not bitter like nigari.

Silken tofu comes in soft, firm, and extra-firm densities, depending upon how firm the custard is set. You’ll find silken tofu in the same plastic containers in the grocery store cooler, but can also find it in a shelf-stable Tetra Pak box in the Asian foods aisle.

Using Silken Tofu

Silken tofu is perfect in sauces and desserts, such as my Creamy Sweet Balsamic Dressing and Raspberry Mousse, no matter what density you use. You don’t have to press it, in fact, it just smooshes if you try to press it! Firm and Extra-firm can be cut into cubes and added to miso or other soups, like my Kimchi Tofu Soup. Some people use extra-firm silken tofu in their tofu scramble, either alone or added to firm tofu, to replicate really soft scrambled eggs.

Raspberry Mousse using silken tofu. Photo by Cindy Thompson, Trimazing.com

I hope this clears up any confusion! Tofu is a very versatile product, full of calcium, magnesium, and health-promoting phytonutrients. Pick some up, give it a try, see what you like.

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