From stir-fry to Pad Thai, tofu jerky to tofurkey, tofu is one of the most popular meat-free food options available today. In fact, it’s sourced from soybeans, second only to corn for the title of the largest crop grown in the United States.
Though tofu is so often regarded as a meat substitute reserved for vegetarians and vegans, it’s so much more than that. It can be enjoyed by meat eaters, too, and can be cooked in a variety of different ways, making it a great addition to anyone’s kitchen.
How tofu is made
To make tofu, soybeans are soaked in water and ground until smooth, basically creating soy milk. The soy milk is then coagulated to create soybean curds. The curds are collected and pressed into a compact shape, and finally sold as tofu. The amount of moisture pressed out of tofu determines how soft or firm the final product is. More on that in a bit.
The issue with soybeans and GMOs
One of the main issues with tofu is soybean production, since a large percentage of the national soybean crop is genetically modified. Here’s more on why that can present a problem.
What are GMOs?
GMOs, or genetically modified organisms, are plant and animal food sources (and other organisms) that have been modified using recombinant DNA or gene modification. This is also called gene-splicing.
The purpose is to create new combinations of plant, animal, viral, and bacterial genes that are deemed as superior and can be more easily mass produced. This process is done in a lab, since these modified genes can’t occur in nature. Organisms might be modified for any of the following reasons:
- To resist herbicides and fungi
- To better tolerate pesticides
- To resist worms like nematodes
- To provide a longer shelf life
Why GMOs get a bad rap
The topic of GMOs is still relatively new, so there haven’t been any long-term studies on how consuming GMOs may be impacting national health. Even as of 2015, there hasn’t been a consensus from the scientific community on how safe GMOs are, but there are definite questions about it.
The topic raises red flags for many reasons:
- Bacteria-resistant foods could breed stronger bacteria, which could do even more damage to natural, organic crops
- Farmers could become more dependent on chemical companies to keep crops healthy
- The variety of food available could decrease, as new foods are made in a lab and not in nature
The bad news is that soy is one of the most genetically modified crops in the world. As of 2007, 59 percent of the world’s soybean crop was genetically modified. That percentage rose to 82 percent in 2014.
With such serious health, environmental, and agricultural concerns, finding soy (and therefore tofu) that hasn’t been genetically modified is important. Here’s where to start:
Look for a seal of approval
The “Non-GMO Project” seal, that is. Products with this label have been thoroughly vetted by a reputable third party and certified to not contain any GMOs.
Seek out USDA Certified Organic products
These have the most natural ingredients, and never include any kind of pesticides or other chemicals. You can find a good selection at most local grocery stores and farmers markets.
Use search engines and other trusted portals, like the Non-GMO Project’s Verified Products page, to find brands that are confirmed to not genetically engineer their products.
The nutrition of tofu
As long as you have a quality non-GMO source of tofu, you have an incredibly nutritious product. What makes it so healthy? A big part of the equation is protein. Soybeans are complete proteins, like egg whites or chicken, meaning they contain all the essential amino acids that the body cannot produce.
Protein and amino acids help the body repair itself, making new cells and fixing damaged ones. The human body can’t make all of these amino acids, so they need to come from food.
Tofu is also a gluten-free and low-calorie food, and a good source of calcium, manganese, and omega-3 fatty acids, which are all essential in keeping the body healthy.
- Calcium helps blood clot and strengthens bones
- Manganese helps build the body’s connective tissue and regulates sex hormones
- Omega-3 fatty acids help to reduce inflammation in the blood vessels, making sure blood flows smoothly and less plaque builds up along artery walls
Given that tofu has all these nutrients, and is a plant-based food, it’s an excellent choice for people that don’t eat meat.
The different kinds of tofu
Another great thing about tofu is that there’s a different texture to fit every preference and meal requirement. Looking for something that feels more like meat? Firm tofu is the way to go. Want to supplement a salad dressing with some healthy tofu mixed in? Silken tofu is the best bet. Once you know what texture the meal calls for, finding the perfect tofu is easy.
Silken tofu lives up to its name with its creamy, velvety texture. It has the most moisture of all the tofu options, made up of soy milk that started to coagulate before curds could really start forming. This also means it doesn’t have a sturdy shape and can just be scooped out of its container. This isn’t the tofu of choice for baking or frying, but it’s a great option for blending into salad dressings, sauces, smoothies, and other desserts.
Soft tofu has more shape than silken tofu. Think of silken tofu as mostly liquid, while soft tofu has had just a little more moisture pressed out, so it’s just a bit drier and more formed. It’s sold in the classic white block shape tofu is mostly known for and packaged in water to help keep it moist. Soft tofu is popular for scrambling and stir-frying, to mimic the look and feel of cooked eggs.
Firm tofu and extra firm tofu
The general rule is: the firmer the tofu, the more it mimics the look and feel of meat. Firm and extra firm tofu undergo more pressing to remove even more water than their counterparts. As such, these types of tofu hold up well when used for pan-frying or baking, and they hold flavors well, making them great matches for marinades. The firmer texture can also be used in sandwiches and wraps, crumbled into salads and featured in soups or chili.
How to cook and enjoy tofu
Tofu can be prepared just like any other food. It’s a very versatile product, so as long as the right texture is used, the sky’s the limit for how to enjoy it. Here are some of the options:
- Cut into cubes and boil or steam it as you would poultry or meat
- Cut into slices and pan-fry for a crispy option
- Let sit with a favorite marinade and then bake, grill, or broil
- Blend to liquefy and add to puddings, cheese dips, and dressings
- Use as a meat extender, adding it to dishes like meatballs, meatloaf, ground beef or ground turkey
- Serve as a tasty and healthy alternative to eggs and dairy
Tofu recipes to try
Taking the plunge with tofu can be a lot of fun. Looking for inspiration? Start with these delectable recipes to see just how amazing tofu can taste.
Crunchy and just a bit nutty, this appetizer recipe calls for baking tofu in sesame oil to create a delicious alternative to crackers. Once they’re ready from the oven, then you can dive into the tangy dipping sauce, made with honey and ginger for sweet and savory notes. With only five minutes of prep time needed and 20 minutes to bake, this is a quick and easy way to take tofu out for a delicious spin.
This recipe provides more proof that tofu can be used for more than miso soup. Tofu is the star of this bowl, bringing a healthy dose of protein to an otherwise meatless meal. Throw in some pomegranate seeds and baby bok choy to round out the dish with a refreshing crunch. With just a touch of natural sweetness from orange juice and maple syrup, and a little bit of heat from chili powder and cayenne pepper, this dish is a standout from the first bite to the last.
When you do want to use tofu in a soup base, try this “instant” idea. All the ingredients you need to make this classic Thai bowl are included in a mason jar so you can take it on-the-go for a portable lunch or whip up in no time when you get home from work. All you need to do is add hot water and you’ll be ready to eat. The combination of fish sauce, coconut aminos, ginger, lemongrass, and jalapeno really spice up the added tofu.