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Fine Cooking Issue 88
Photos: Scott Phillips
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If ever there was a food with an image problem, it would have to be tofu. Though it’s been popular in Asia for centuries, many Westerners still think of it as something only vegetarians eat. Why choose bland tofu if you can have a juicy steak instead? Here’s why: Tofu is just too good for you to ignore. It’s a taste worth acquiring.

What it is:

Tofu (a.k.a. dofu or soybean curd) 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, plain flavor is not at all cheesy.

As a soyfood, it’s full of lowfat, cholesterol- and saturated-fat- free protein, and it’s high in calcium and vitamins. Not only is it good for your heart, it may also protect against cancer and osteoporosis.

How to buy & store it:

Blocks of tofu come in different firmnesses, from silken to extrafirm; the firmness influences the way you use it. It’s available plain or flavored, smoked, and even baked. Fresh tofu comes packaged in water, and there’s also shelf-stable tofu available in aseptic packages. We tend to prefer the fresh-water-packed tofu; most grocery stores carry it in a refrigerator case in the produce section. Be sure to check the expiration date before buying.

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.

How to use it:

You can eat tofu raw or cooked. Plain tofu is very mild, so it can be flavored in any way imaginable.

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, Strawberry-Orange-Vanilla Breakfast Smoothie. Soft tofu isn’t as smooth as silken, but it also blends well into dips, sauces, and soups. Crumbled, it makes a pleasing addition to tossed salads. Or try sautéing crumbled soft tofu as an addition to or substitution for scrambled eggs.

Strawberry-Orange-Vanilla Breakfast Smoothie

Both firm and extra-firm tofu are dense and hold their shape better than silken and soft tofu do. Their porous texture allows them to absorb marinades really well. Cut them into cubes or slices and try grilling, broiling, sautéing, or stir-frying them, as in our recipe for Seared Baby Bok Choy with Tofu & Shiitakes.

Even extra-firm tofu is still fragile, though, so to keep its shape as intact as possible when sautéing and stir-frying, cook it separately or wait to add it until near the end and cook no longer than five minutes. We especially like to fry firm tofu in a little oil to give it a golden crust that’s a great contrast to its inner texture. You can also crumble and sauté firm tofu for an unusual addition to chili or meat sauces.

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. They’re ready to go at this point, but you might want to further dry and increase their firmness by pressing them: 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.


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