Some are more familiar with this ingredient than others, but even those who were once naysayers usually come around. We’re talking about tofu, the sometimes jiggly, sometimes fried, and always delicious plant-based protein that is versatile and loaded with nutrients.
So for the uninitiated, what is tofu anyway? And more importantly, is it as healthy as many claim it to be? Soy products in general were once the darling of the plant-based world, but they’ve since garnered a different reputation—specifically, genetically modified soy. Does this mean we should stop eating soy? Or is it just GMOs? If it’s healthy, what are the health benefits of tofu?
We’re here to answer all your burning questions about tofu. Learn about the popular plant-based protein below.
What is Tofu?
Tofu originally hailed from China some 2,000 years ago, and according to legend, tofu was actually accidentally created by mixing a batch of fresh soy milk with bitterns. Bitterns are the byproduct of seawater after salt has been extracted, and they help tofu solidify and keep its form. Nowadays, tofu is made through pressing curdled soy milk into blocks, a process similar to that of cheesemaking (and, you know, done purposefully).
Bitterns are rich in minerals, but many tofu products are also fortified with vitamins and minerals like vitamin B12 and calcium.
The controversy that surrounds tofu stems from the fact that much of the world’s soybeans are genetically modified. Though there’s little research to support the claim that GMOs are harmful to humans, some still prefer non-GMO, organic tofu to non-organic tofu. Soybean crops are nonetheless often contaminated with chemicals and fertilizers.
The flavour and texture of tofu is distinctive—there’s no mistaking it. But it’s also got a sponge-like quality that easily absorbs any flavouring you add to it. Tofu comes in a few different varieties: silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra firm. Its softness/firmness is determined by the water content in the tofu. Silken tofu has the greatest amount, and extra firm has the least.
Each variety has its own benefits, and which type of tofu you should use depends on the application. Silken tofu has a smooth texture and is the most delicate. Because of this, it’s not the best for cooking, per se; you can use it right out of the package, and it’s great for things like smoothies, soups, and sauces.
Though soft and medium tofu are not as delicate as silken tofu, you still have to be gentle with these varieties. Skip the stir-frying, and instead, try steaming it, scrambling it, or marinating it.
Firm and extra-firm tofu hold their shapes best because they contain the least amount of water. They can be stir-fried, grilled, and sauteed, and since they have lower water content, they have the ability to crisp up beautifully.
Is tofu good for you?
Tofu is pretty divisive. Some swear by it, while others refuse to even touch the ingredient because of the fact that most soybeans are genetically modified. But as we mentioned before, there’s little to support the claim that GMOs are bad for humans. Even so, it’s hard to shake the fear, and we get it—it’s best to be cautious, which is why we recommend organic tofu.
So, is tofu good for you? Let’s look at the facts.
Tofu nutritional facts and health benefits of tofu
Tofu boasts a number of benefits, including being high in protein, fibre, and iron.
Tofu is a complete protein, which means that it contains all nine essential amino acids; this can be hard to come by for vegans. In comparison to animal products, which are complete proteins, many plant-based foods lack certain amino acids that your body requires to function properly. With tofu, vegans and vegetarians can easily meet their daily protein requirements.
For more on the topic and what other foods you should be including in your vegan or vegetarian diet, read our comprehensive guide on plant-based protein.
Iron is a mineral that helps your body convert the nutrients you ingest into energy, and also helps you maintain a healthy immune system. Because meat is usually rich in iron, especially beef, it’s important for those who are on a plant-based diet to seek out foods that contain iron.
Enter: tofu, which has a decent amount of iron. But it should be noted that the type of iron present in tofu is called nonheme iron. Non-heme iron is not as easily absorbed by the human body. This means that you have to be savvy about pairing tofu with vitamin C-rich foods to help your body absorb the iron.
Tofu also contains high amounts of calcium, since it’s made with calcium sulfate, a coagulant. The amount of calcium present in tofu really depends on the brand and type, but one serving could have up to ten percent of your daily calcium requirement.
Soy contains phytoestrogens, which is the plant form of estrogen, and some believe that this can negatively impact your body’s hormone function. Thankfully, research has shown that unprocessed forms of soy are linked instead to reduced risk for heart disease, diabetes, and types of cancer.
Finally, because it contains no saturated fat, tofu is a great meat alternative that may aid in weight loss.
How to Cook Tofu
Tofu can be finicky to cook, but it really depends on the variety that you are preparing. As discussed above, silken and soft tofu is much more delicate and are far better for specific preparations, like steamed, blended into something, or having it right out of the package. Did you know that tofu desserts exist? It’s made with soft tofu, and it’s a great alternative to pudding or custard when you want something sweet!
Medium tofu can withstand more extreme methods of cooking, though it’s not as sturdy as firm or extra firm tofu. With firm and extra firm tofu, you can stir-fry, bake, and even grill it.
Where to Buy Tofu
Most grocery stores will carry tofu, including big-box stores like Safeway, Save-On-Foods, and Walmart. If you’re looking for more variety, Whole Foods carries an assortment of brands and varieties as well.
Unsure where else you can find tofu, as well as other vegan-friendly ingredients? Here’s our ultimate guide to vegan grocery shopping and vegan meal planning.
10 Delectable Tofu Recipes
We love using tofu! Planted Meals often uses tofu in our meal prep delivery service, from silken tofu to extra firm tofu. Find tofu in our Thai Red Curry, Kale Caesar Salad, Power Hour Wrap, and more.
Want to cook tofu at home? Here are 10 tofu recipes that will convince even the most adamant critics.
via Nora Cooks
If you’re a little unsure about tofu, this crispy marinated tofu from Nora Cooks is incredibly flavorful and versatile, too. It’s great with rice alongside stir-fried vegetables, in salads, and really, wherever you need a bit of protein and crunch!
Green Curry with Tofu
via Good Housekeeping
Curries are great for showcasing tofu. Subbing meat with tofu, Good Housekeeping’s Green Curry is packed with flavour and nutritious to boot.
Via Woman’s Day
Who said tacos are better with meat? This tofu taco filling will have you wanting to make Taco Tuesdays an everyday thing.
Vegan Creamed Spinach
Via Bon Appetit
Creaminess can be achieved without dairy! Using pureed silken tofu, this Vegan Creamed Spinach is smooth and savoury. You might even be able to fool your omnivore friends.
Smoked Tofu Larb With Lemongrass
Via Bon Appetit
Larb is a type of Lao/Thai meat salad, but this Bon Appetit recipe utilizes smoked tofu to replace the meat without sacrificing mouthfeel. We told you: tofu really can do anything.
Via Bon Appetit
There’s something deliciously comforting about Kimchi Jjigae. Made with kimchi, gochugaru, and gochujang, the firm tofu soaks up all of its surrounding flavours and makes for a wonderfully soothing meal.
Pan-Fried Sesame Garlic Tofu
Via Table for Two
Here’s another recipe that crisps up tofu and works great as a topping for almost any dish. Because tofu acts as a sponge, you’re left with spicy and savoury nuggets of flavour. The trick here is to be sure that you get as much moisture out of your tofu as possible, and to leave the tofu undisturbed once you get it into your pan.
General Tso’s Tofu
Via Simple Vegan Blog
Craving Chinese takeout? This vegan take on the classic General Tso isn’t just healthier, but it also takes only 30 minutes to make!
Artichoke Risotto With Tofu
Via The Spruce Eats
Similar to the Vegan Creamed Spinach above, silken tofu is utilized here to add creaminess to this artichoke risotto. It’s decadent and vegan; who says you can’t have it all?
Spicy Tofu Scramble Recipe with Mushrooms and Bell Peppers
Via The Spruce Eats
Tofu is great for breakfast, too! This recipe turns tofu into a hearty scramble, and you can add vegetables or other spices to it, too.
Tofu, at the end of the day, is truly a great option for those who are vegan, considering the fact that it’s a complete protein and is loaded with other nutrients. The common concern still stands: that many of the soybeans grown in North America are genetically modified, which is why we recommend opting for organic tofu.
What’s your take on tofu? Do you like it? What’s your favourite application? Let us know in the comments section!