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Tofu may be a diet staple for vegetarians and vegans, but to many others the blocks of soy found in the grocery store's produce section can be a daunting, mysterious ingredient.
Why choose tofu in the first place? What makes one kind of tofu different from the other? Why is tofu healthy? And how do you cook with tofu?
With these tasty tofu strategies, there's no need to eat bland, spongy soy. Following these tips and tricks will ensure you get the best flavor and texture out of your tofu, whichever type you choose to use.
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In addition to protein, tofu is a rich source of fiber, iron, calcium and more. It also contains much less saturated fat than many animal protein sources. It's low in calories and happens to be cholesterol-free, gluten-free and dairy-free—good news for those following gluten-free or vegan diets.
Tofu is made of soybean curd (unlike tempeh, which is made from fermented soy and seitan, which is made of wheat gluten). Tofu and other soy products also contain isoflavones, plant-based compounds with estrogenic activity that have been shown to potentially reduce risk of breast and prostate cancers, heart disease and osteoporosis.
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As if the health benefits weren't compelling enough, tofu is also very budget-friendly. A package of tofu typically costs under $2 per pound, whereas meat and poultry tend to range from $3 to $4 per pound (even more for more sustainably raised meats). It's also super quick-cooking and thus a great ingredient to have on hand when you're in a time crunch.
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One of the best qualities of tofu is its versatility. Its relatively mild flavor makes the culinary possibilities virtually endless. Though it's often used in Asian-inspired dishes, such as Sesame-Maple Roasted Tofu, tofu also works well in Italian dishes like Vegan Lasagna, desserts like Chocolate Raspberry Tofu Pie and many more. It even mimics scrambled eggs.
The most commonly used types of tofu are extra-firm and firm tofu, which can hold their shape and structure when stir-fried, fried, grilled, roasted and marinated. If cooked correctly, these two types of tofu have texture and taste that's similar to meat.
For the best results when cooking firm or extra-firm tofu, you'll want to get as much water as possible out of the tofu. This will allow it to soak up marinade and crisp up more effectively during cooking. Draw out water from tofu by cutting the block into four to six slabs. Then, lay them flat on a baking sheet lined with paper towels or a clean dish towel and let them sit and drain for at least 30 minutes or up to four hours.
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Cut a 14- to 16-ounce block of tofu crosswise into 8 equal pieces.
Place a clean kitchen towel on a baking sheet. Place the tofu on the towel in a single layer; cover with another towel.
Place another baking sheet on top and weight it with two 28-ounce cans. Let stand for 1 to 4 hours.
Freezing the slabs of tofu, then thawing them in the refrigerator and gently pressing for 30 minutes, can expel even more moisture from the tofu.
Though it may seem counterintuitive, another option is brining. This technique can also drive moisture out of the tofu and help create a good crust. Dissolve salt in boiling water and submerge the cut slabs of tofu for 15 minutes. Then drain and press the tofu between paper towels to dry the outside, and proceed with your recipe.
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For a crispy exterior without deep frying, preheat a baking sheet in a 400°F oven. Cook tofu as directed in your recipe, but before adding any sauces, carefully transfer lightly cooked pieces of tofu to the hot baking sheet. The heat will sear the outside of the tofu upon contact, providing an even chewier texture. Bake in the oven for an additional 5 to 8 minutes, flipping halfway, for extra-crispy pieces.
If you don't have time for this extra step in the oven, a light toss in cornstarch prior to cooking will also help create a crisp coating and encourage good browning.
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Soft tofu and silken tofu are less rigid and can be pureed and added to smoothies, desserts, soups and more for extra body and creaminess. These types of tofu are also ideal for other purposes, such as crumbling over dishes or whipping into dips.
Next time you're making a smoothie, add some silken tofu for a protein boost. These less-sturdy tofu options are also excellent dairy-free additions to puddings and mousses, and can even help thicken sauces.
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One of the best qualities of tofu is its ability to thoroughly soak up flavorful marinades and seasonings, which makes it a wonderfully blank slate. Keep in mind that the more you cut the tofu, the more surface area you will create, which gives more space for the marinade to work its magic.
You can marinate tofu in a dish or zip-top bag in the refrigerator for 30 minutes or up to four hours. Make sure to flip the tofu or gently toss it halfway through marinating to keep it coated evenly.