dofu; soybean curd
Tofu is made from soybeans, water, and a coagulant, such as calcium sulfate, nigari (a natural sea salt extract), magnesium chloride (also an extract of sea salt), calcium chloride (derived from a mineral ore), vinegar, or lemon or lime juice. It has a soft texture that's vaguely similar to cheese, but its mild, slightly vegetal flavor is not at all cheesy. It's a staple of Japanese cuisine and is also a popular as a meat substitute.
Tofu comes in a variety of texture that are used for different purposes: Silken tofu is smooth and custardy. It blends into a lush, creamy texture that's good for dressings, dips, creamy desserts like cheesecake and puddings, and smoothies. Soft tofu isn't as smooth as silken, but it also blends well into dips, sauces, and soups. Both firm and extra-firm tofu are dense and hold their shape better. Their porous texture allows them to absorb marinades really well. Try cutting firm tofu into cubes or slices for grilling, broiling, sautéing, or stir-frying.
Fresh tofu comes packaged in water, and there's also shelf-stable tofu available in aseptic packages. Most grocery stores carry the fresh-water-packed tofu in a refrigerator case in the produce section. Be sure to check the expiration date before buying.
Before using, all water-packed tofu needs draining. Cut a slit in the packaging, turn upside down over the sink, and drain as much as possible before fully opening. That's all you need to do with silken tofu, since it'll fall apart with any more handling. Rinse and pat dry soft, firm, and extra-firm tofu. For a stir-fry, you may want to firm up your tofu a bit more by pressing it: Sandwich the tofu between paper or cloth towels and put it on a plate or something else to contain the water. Set a heavy skillet or pot on top and refrigerate for as little as 10 minutes or up to an hour, depending on how much drier and firmer you want the tofu to be.
Store unopened fresh tofu in the fridge. After opening, keep leftover tofu covered and submerged in fresh water. Change the water daily, keep it cold, and the tofu should last for about a week. Throw it out when it begins to smell sour. If you have leftover firm or extra-firm tofu, you can drain and freeze it, which actually gives it a meatier texture. Frozen, well-wrapped tofu stays good for three to five months.