Tofu is commonly known as the "healthy" alternative to meat for vegans and vegetarians, but what is tofu? How do you cook with it? Is it actually healthy, or is it just healthier than red meat? What's the word on this bean curd? Fortunately, tofu is as simple as is it versatile, and it's incredibly versatile (even in situations where it's not acting as a meat substitute). Let's breakdown this legendary plant-based protein.

What Is Tofu?

bowl of stir fry tofu cubes and herbs in a blue and white asian bowl on blue background with a pair
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Tofu is, in the simplest terms, a solid white block made from coagulated soy milk. Its origins can be traced back to China over 2,000 years ago, and it has been a classic component of Asian cuisine ever since then.

To make tofu, soy milk is boiled before a salt or acid-based coagulant and is added to curdle the soy milk. The resulting curds are then pressed together, resulting in a nutrient-dense block that's high in protein, iron, calcium, and contains enough of the nine essential amino acids that it's considered a complete protein.

Types Of Tofu

pan fried tofu, bean sprouts, bell peppers, and herbs on a stack of taco-sized tortillas
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There are a few different types of tofu available, each of which comes with a different texture that's best used in certain types of recipes. They're sorted by their firmness, which is determined by how long the soy curds are pressed before they're packaged and shipped to stores.

Extra-Soft Tofu

The least dense of the tofu types, this type of tofu is incredibly soft and moist, so it makes a perfect addition to soups or stews for a melt-in-your-mouth addition. It usually has a vaguely milky taste, a smooth texture, and a look similar to fresh mozzarella cheese.

Soft Tofu

Also known as "silken tofu" due to its silky texture, this type requires great care when handling as it can break easily. This tofu goes well with smoothies, dressings, or as a substitute for scrambled eggs. Similar to extra-soft tofu, it has a lightly milky taste and a slightly less smooth texture with identifiable curds.

Firm Tofu

Firm tofu tends to be packed with water, meaning it requires draining before cooking. Cooking with firm tofu works best when it's been marinated, fried, or sautéed with other ingredients, as tofu generally tastes fairly bland by itself. Firm tofu is great to use in place of chicken or beef in meat-based dishes, but it's just as capable as being the star in non-meat recipes.

Extra-Firm Tofu

Extra-firm tofu is the firmest (surprise) of all the types. To achieve this dense firmness, most of the soy whey is forced out of the tofu. Some liquid still remains after packaging, so it needs to be wrapped in a towel and placed underneath a baking sheet with heavy cans on it or a heavy pot before it is used. This tofu is perfect when cut into cubes, marinated overnight, and then cooked in oil. Tossing the tofu while cooking will help it retain its shape. It also works well when breaded and baked to add a crispy texture, and it can be fried for a delicious snack.

Tofu Health Effects

sliced tofu on a board with soybeans and herbs

Benefits

Tofu is commonly used in traditional Chinese medicine, but its effects as a "cooling agent" or "detoxifier" have no actual scientific basis. Fortunately, tofu's actual health benefits are fairly well established.

Like we mentioned earlier, tofu contains an abundance of essential vitamins, minerals, and healthy fats while remaining low in calories. A diet consisting of a regular tofu intake can keep your heart healthy, improve blood flow by contributing to adequate iron levels, reduce some side effects of menopause, and aid in preventing excessive weight gain. Regularly eating soy products such as tofu has even been linked to lowering the risks of gastric cancer. Like we mentioned earlier, tofu is considered a complete protein, meaning it's a perfect replacement for other complete proteins like red meat, fish, or milk.

Potential Risks

While soy isoflavone (a chemical compound that naturally occurs in soy products) supplements are a source of debate regarding possible drawbacks, soy foods are considered healthy in normal dietary levels. Excess soy can lead to digestive issues, such as stomach pain and diarrhea, and soy allergies can cause hives, swelling, or, in rare cases, a life-threatening reaction. Fortunately, most children with soy allergies tend to outgrow it before they hit their teens.

Tofu, and soy in general, have been inaccurately referred to as possible risk factors for cancer or as having negative effects on the thyroid. A 2016 review published in the Chinese Medicine Journal concludes, "Isoflavones play a protective role against the development of [prostate cancer]." The European Food Safety Council found that isoflavones caused no increase in rates of breast cancer, uterine cancer, or thyroid irregularity.

tofu cooked into a healthy stir fry with rice, green onions, and other vegetables

Additionally, some commercially made tofu is made with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and while no study has indicated any negative effects from consuming GMOs, those uncomfortable with the idea should use brands specifically labeled as non-GMO.

Balance Is Key!

Tofu is generally considered a very healthy choice, loading up your body with iron, protein, vitamins and minerals. A regular, controlled diet can help reduce the risk of certain diseases and strengthen your immune system. Much like any other food, some care is needed when consuming large amounts of tofu and soy-based products, as overconsumption can irritate the digestive system.

How Do You Use Tofu?

With your knowledge of the different types of tofu, you can begin experimenting in the kitchen with this soybean product! Since tofu can be fairly bland, the most important thing to remember when dealing with tofu of any type is to make use of some tasty seasonings!

Extra-soft tofu will go nicely in soups and stews as a nice bit of protein, and its moist texture pairs nicely with a classic broth. Soft tofu makes for an incredible egg substitute, especially when scrambled with garlic powder, turmeric, and cumin.

Firm and extra-firm tofu types are best when cut into cubes and marinated overnight. You can toss them in dishes as a source of protein -- they go very well in stir-fry, salads, and tacos, and they can be even ground up and made into burgers! One of our favorite uses is in our vegan chili recipe where firm tofu takes the place of what would be beef in a traditional chili.

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