What Is Tofu? A Guide to Tofu for Beginners

Tofu has become a trendy source of protein thanks to the rise of veganism. However, tofu is a misunderstood ingredient and frequently criticized as bland, boring, or daunting. Let’s learn about the different forms of tofu and how to turn the biggest challenge of cooking tofu into tofu’s greatest advantage.

Overhead view of all the different types of soft and silken tofu on white plates on dark background.Pin

Growing up, I enjoyed a large selection of tofu, including many types of tofu you’ve probably never heard of. Back then, tofu wasn’t trendy. Today, it’s exploded in popularity alongside the rise of veganism.

However, many people still find tofu intimidating. My friend Benjamin told me he eats very little tofu because it’s bland and most people who like tofu are Asian and grew up eating it. I’ve been trying to convince Benjamin to eat tofu since he also believes in reducing his meat consumption. If you’re in the same camp as Benjamin, we’re going to cover the bird’s-eye view of tofu in this article, and I’ll link to resources so you can learn how to prepare and cook tofu to create delicious meals.

Let’s dive into what tofu is and the different forms it comes in.

What Is Tofu?

Tofu is also commonly called bean curd (especially on packages of exotic tofu). It is coagulated soy milk. It is a popular ingredient in Asian cooking, including Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Thai, and Singaporean cuisine.

White block of silken tofu with lavenderPin

Comparing tofu to cheese is an excellent analogy because, like cheese, tofu can be featured in all dishes from appetizers to mains to desserts. Tofu can be the main ingredient, such as in braised tofu or a tofu scramble, or it can be a supporting ingredient, such as when baking with silken tofu or putting five-spice tofu in spring rolls.

RELATED: Speaking of the similarity between tofu and cheese, check out the article Does Tofu Melt?

How Is Tofu Made?

Tofu is made with approximately this process:

  1. Prepare soy milk from soybeans (soaking, grinding, and boiling soy beans then filtering out the soybean solids).
  2. Coagulate the soy milk using salts, enzymes, and acids. The most common coagulants are gypsum (calcium sulfate) and magnesium chloride or calcium chloride.
  3. Pressing the soybean curds to form blocks of tofu (this step is skipped in the case of silken tofu).

Let’s learn about the different categories of tofu so that you can understand the types of tofu you will encounter and how to deal with each kind.

What Forms of Tofu Exist?

Like cheese, there are so many different forms of tofu that I won’t pretend to name and describe every type of tofu. Instead, let’s approach tofu from a framework so you can figure out what kind of tofu you are encountering when you see a new variety you’ve never tried.

Factors to consider when evaluating tofu:

  • How the tofu is made (production method)
  • Firmness (degree of pressing)
  • Flavor

1: Tofu Production Methods

1A: Coagulation

Tofu is coagulated soy milk, similar to how cheese comes from milk curds. There are 2 main methods of making tofu:

  1. Chinese-style tofu: A coagulant (such as gypsum/calcium sulfate) turns soy milk into soy curds. This is why tofu is often called “bean curd. This traditional style of tofu is the most common, which is why it’s often called regular tofu. It has holes like a slice of bread and is usually pressed to extract water. Because it is formed into a regular, cube-like shape, Chinese-style tofu is also frequently called brick tofu.
  2. Japanese-style tofu: A coagulant (such as glucono delta-lactone) turns soy milk into tofu with a very fine, jelly-like texture that is smooth and creamy. It usually has no holes and breaks apart with pressure, meaning you shouldn’t press it. This style of tofu is also called silken tofu.

This means that Chinese-style tofu has the whey filtered away (the watery part of the soy milk), and the curds (solids leftover) are pressed to form blocks. On the other hand, Japanese-style or silken tofu forms in the container directly and is not pressed.

RELATED: Learn why Chinese-style tofu is frequently called regular or brick tofu.

Side-by-side comparison of regular Chinese-style block tofu and silken tofuPin

1B: Freezing Tofu

Frozen tofu has pockets of water that expand as water increases in volume in ice form. The expanded water creates larger pockets in the tofu, which gives it a chewier texture and helps it absorb more liquids when cooking.

1C: Fermented Tofu

The infamous stinky tofu is fermented and allegedly smells like rotten food. You can buy “preserved tofu” or “fermented tofu”, which is often spicy. Alex says it tastes like miso paste, which is a similar product to fermented tofu.

1D: By-Product of Making Tofu

Tofu skins, also known as yuba or fupi (腐皮), are made from the skin that develops as soy milk is boiled and the soy milk that is exposed to the air forms a thin film. Tofu skin is delicious and has a different texture than Chinese-style or Japan

Alex holding sheets of tofu skinPin
Alex is holding sheets of tofu skin, which can be used to make meat substitutes or as a wrapper.

2: Firmness

Tofu firmness largely depends on how much the tofu has been pressed. The more firm the more the tofu has been pressed to release water.

Firmness is another word for density. If you have firmer tofu, it will taste denser, which makes it a closer substitute for the texture of meat. Firmer tofu is higher in protein.

3: Flavor

Different soybeans make different flavored tofu. Some kinds of tofu are more “beany” flavored (think the flavor of soy milk), which is preferred in Asian countries. Most tofu in Western countries is unflavored.

Tofu can be left in its unflavored, original form. It can also be seasoned, baked in sauces, or braised and sold as flavored tofu. Examples of flavored tofu are teriyaki tofu, Italian tofu, and Sriracha tofu that you can buy at conventional grocery stores (like Trader Joe’s) or Asian grocery stores.

A type of tofu can usually be described as the combination of different factors listed above. For example, five-spice dry tofu is a Chinese-style, extra-firm pressed tofu that has been braised in five-spice and soy sauce with star anise and cinnamon to provide flavor.

Knowing the different factors that impact types of tofu helps you understand how to cook the tofu you buy at the grocery store. For example, you should use firm or extra-firm tofu in stir fries (silken tofu would break and become a puddle in a stir fry).

illustration of the different categories of tofu based on firmness and flavorPin

Can Everybody Eat Tofu?

While most people can eat tofu, if you have a soy allergy, you may not be able to eat tofu. Tofu may also not fit for your special diet, such as Paleo or Whole30. Get professional medical advice on whether it is safe for you to eat tofu.

Is Tofu Vegan?

Most tofu is vegan as tofu is made from soybeans, water, and coagulants. Some brands of tofu may contain preservatives. This makes tofu different from cheese, which contains dairy so it is vegetarian but not vegan.

The only exception is egg tofu, which contains egg. This makes egg tofu vegetarian but not vegan.

Is Tofu Gluten-Free?

Unflavored, plain tofu doesn’t contain ingredients with gluten so it is safe for gluten-free diets. However, if you buy flavored tofu, it may have soy sauce and other ingredients that contain gluten so you should be careful to check the labels.

Can You Eat Tofu Raw?

Yes, tofu is made from soy milk, in a process that requires cooking soybeans. Therefore, like cheese, tofu is ready to eat in its raw form. However, unlike cheese, raw unflavored tofu has little flavor and is often watery if you don’t cook it. While it is safe to eat raw, you will likely want to cook tofu to make it delicious.

RELATED: Some people might be concerned about whether egg tofu is safe to eat raw. Check out the egg tofu article to learn the answer according to one of the main manufacturers of egg tofu in North America.

The Biggest Challenges to Cooking Tofu

The biggest challenge to cooking tofu is flavor and texture.

A lot of people find tofu bland and daunting because tofu is like a blank white canvas. Tofu has no flavor (except for a mild beany flavor) plus an uninspiring, unremarkable texture straight out of the package.

Without adequate preparation, you may find tofu is more boring than plain white rice and bread. It gets worse. If you store tofu next to something stinky in the fridge, it might even pick up the unpleasant odor.

Before you abandon tofu, consider that tofu’s biggest challenge turns out to be its greatest advantage.

Because tofu is flexible and versatile, you can infuse tofu with whatever flavor you desire and give it a range of textures. This trait makes tofu one of my favorite ingredients because I can make a high-protein and low-cost ingredients taste like almost anything! Let’s dive in to learn ways to cook tofu to bring it to life

How to Marinate Tofu

Tofu is great at absorbing flavors and sauces. Marinating tofu is one of the fastest ways to bring flavors to tofu. Here are tips for how to marinate tofu to make mouthwatering tofu dishes:

  • Increase the surface area: Chop tofu into cubes to maximize the surface area available to absorb the marinade
  • Use umami-rich ingredients in the marinade: Umami flavors give your tofu instant savory deliciousness. Add umami ingredients like soy sauce, mirin, and rice vinegar to give your tofu a boost of flavor.
  • Add salt and soy sauce: Ensure your marinade has sufficient salt as under-salted tofu is watery and bland.
  • Freeze tofu: Defrosted tofu has bigger pockets to better absorb the marinade.

How to Add Sauce to Tofu for Flavor

Sauces are a fantastic way to give tofu flavor. It allows you to skip marinating tofu and still have delicious tasty tofu. These are my favorite sauces for eating with tofu:

You can add sauce to raw chopped tofu. You can add sauce after stir frying tofu. You can dip crispy tofu into sauce. And you can pour the sauce over the tofu before serving (like in the silken tofu with green onion recipe).

How to Make Tofu Crispy

There are 2 main ways to make crispy tofu. The most important step is to drain and press tofu to remove excess water, which is the biggest hurdle to crispy tofu.

  • Bake tofu: Bake chopped tofu for 15-20 minutes in the oven at 400ºF.
  • Pan fry tofu: Fry tofu in a non-stick frying pan with neutral oil for 3-5 minutes on each side on medium-high to high heat.

TIP: Lightly coat your cubes of tofu in cornstarch before frying. It makes your tofu get golden and crispy like in the Chinese restaurant.

Pan-fried tofu in black frying pan with blue backgroundPin
Lightly pan-fried tofu

Tofu Works Well With…

Recipes With Tofu

Thai Coconut Curry
This easy & customizable Thai coconut curry with tofu and vegetables can be adapted to whatever tofu, meat, seafood, and veggies are in your fridge. Make double to enjoy leftovers the next day.
Get the Recipe
Pan-Fried Egg Tofu With Chopped Cilantro
Rich and fragrant egg tofu slices are pan fried until golden brown. Double the recipe to serve 4 to 6 people. You'll want to finish it within 10 minutes of pan frying because it won't be crispy as leftovers the day after.
Get the Recipe
Stir Fry Tofu, Cabbage, and Shiitake Mushrooms
The five-spice tofu fries beautifully in this recipe to provide a crispy, golden crust that contrasts with the soft mushrooms and sweet cabbage. Make extra for leftovers because this dish reheats easily.
Get the Recipe

Where to Buy Tofu

You can find tofu in the refrigerated produce section of your grocery store next to the pre-washed salad greens and salad dressings. In Trader Joe’s, tofu is in the refrigerated aisle next to the sauces and cheese.

Conventional grocery stores typically sell regular Chinese-style pressed tofu that is a brick shape and comes in a plastic tub immersed in water. They might sell one type of silken tofu and 1 to 2 marinated tofu options. Trader Joe’s sells super-firm tofu and a few flavored tofu varieties, such as baked tofu and sriracha tofu.

In the Asian grocery store, you will find a diverse range of tofu. You can find the tofu in the refrigerated section alongside fresh noodles next to the fresh produce.

Is Tofu Seasonal?

Tofu is not a seasonal product. You can buy it all year round from the refrigerated sections of the grocery store. You can even purchase tofu skins in the dried foods aisle of the Asian grocery store next to seaweed and Chinese herbs.

How to Store Tofu

Unflavored tofu that comes sealed in a plastic container or aseptic packaging lasts for months. Eat it before the expiration date.

Flavored tofu that is not vacuum-packed lasts for days like opened tofu packages.

If you open tofu, you should eat it within 3 days. If the tofu was sold submerged in water, keep the leftover tofu in its original packaging and refill the water. You can use tap water. You may want to change the water once a day.

While tofu usually lasts more than 3 days, I find it dries out and can pick up flavors from your fridge so it is best to consume within 3 days. If you have opened tofu that has sat longer than 3 days in the fridge, I recommend you cook the tofu to kill any germs. You can boil the tofu, bake it, or fry it to make sure it’s safe to eat.

FAQ About Tofu

What is the difference between soft tofu and silken tofu?

Check out this silken tofu article with an explanation of how soft tofu and silken tofu differ.

Can I Freeze Tofu?

Yes! Defrosted tofu is great for soups and curries. Follow the tips in this article to learn how to freeze tofu for a springy texture that more closely resembles meat.

READ NEXT: What Is Tofu Sponge? How to Identify, Prep, Cook Tofu Sponge

Anna looking down chopping vegetables
About Anna Rider

Hi! I'm Anna, a food writer who documents kitchen experiments on GarlicDelight.com with the help of my physicist and taste-testing husband, Alex. I have an insatiable appetite for noodles 🍜 and believe in "improv cooking".

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