toe-food: the beginner’s guide to tofu

smoked tofu cabonara tofu

Tofu – or ‘toe-food’ as my friend’s 4 year old daughter calls it, isn’t exactly something I eat on a regular basis. Sure I love the little silken cubes that come in my miso soup, and agadashi tofu is one of the standards I order when I go out for Japanese, but apart from that tofu and I very rarely cross paths.

When I decided to become vegetarian for the month of May, my motivation wasn’t about giving myself a chance to become a tofu addict. I was more looking for a way to experience a different type of cooking and eating that placed vegetables on the main stage, rather than relying on the old heros of beef, chicken, lamb and fish.

While I’ve definitely had my mind opened to the world of vegetables, there have been some unexpected discoveries as well. Like that tofu can be delicious. Who would have thought?

From flicking through my cookbook collection, I was surprised how under-represented tofu is. Apart from the obvious Asian references, pretty much no one else has been writing about tofu. Even Stephanie Alexander only had space for a cursory mention in her encyclopaediac The Cooks Companion.

For those of you who are a little skeptical, I thought I’d pull together a little beginner’s guide to tofu. With the hope that more omnivores will choose some bean curd every now and then. I’m still on a learning curve myself so any of you tofu aficionados, please feel free to add in your thoughts and experiences.

what is tofu?

Tofu is pretty much, the soy equivalent of cheese. It’s made by taking soybeans and soaking them in water and grinding them to make soy milk. This is then treated with a ‘coagulant’ which encourages the protein to separate out of solution to form a curd – just like in cheesemaking. The curd is then separated from the watery part (the whey) and pressed into tofu blocks.

what are the different types of tofu?

The curd can be presssed more or less to give different types of tofu.

Silken or Soft Tofu
has the most water left in and has a lovely soft texture, but is likely to break up if you try and fry it.

Firm or Extra Firm Tofu
has more of the water pressed out to give a more solid, meaty texture. Not all firm tofus are created equal, have a feel of a few different brands next time you’re shopping and you’ll see what I mean.

Smoked Tofu is usually firm tofu that has been smoked like smoked cheese, or more commonly has had some liquid smoke flavouring added to it.

isn’t technically a tofu, but I’ve always associated in the family. It’s actually soybeans that are cooked and fermented whole with a specific mould which breaks down the soybeans and forms a cake. To be honest I’m yet to experiment with tempeh.

tips for cooking tofu

think of tofu as a texture rather than a flavour
Brilliant advice from a comment on stonesoup by Johanna GGG.Tofu hasn’t been known to win any flavour-explosion awards for a reason. But it is great for creating textural interest and it’s also pretty good at soaking up flavours so think about marinades and sauces or adding it to flavoursome soups or stews.

different tofus prefer different cooking methods
Just like different cuts of meat have their preferred cooking methods, so do the different types of tofu. Delicate silken tofu is best left to broths and soups where it can soak up flavour without getting all smashed up. Firm tofu, on the other hand is best pan fried until crispy on the outside and still a little soft inside or it can be roasted.

quality is still important
Just as with all food, you get what you pay for with tofu. An organic tofu from a producer who cares about their soybeans is more likely to give you a positive tofu experience than the mass produced, genetically modified stuff.

watch out for GM tofu
Soybeans are one of the most genetically modified crops on the planet. Now I don’t want to get into a rant about the whole GM debate here, but personally I prefer to avoid GM products. I actually studied biotechnology at university (and got a high distinction – so nerdy) and it’s not the technology itself that I have an issue with. It’s the power that it gives to big business, along with the destruction of biodiversity that makes me opt out. The choice is yours.

wet tofu won’t brown
Just like Julia Child’s advice for perfect boeuf bourgonne, damp beef (and tofu) won’t brown properly. I find it best to blot my cut tofu with paper towel before pan frying, but have also had success with giving it a light dusting of flour to help get a lovely crisp golden crust.

beware of firm tofus packaged in a plastic tray
I think one of the reasons I haven’t enjoyed tofu when I’ve cooked it before is that I’ve used brands of tofu that pack the tofu in a plastic tray with quite a bit of liquid. While labelled firm, these tofus are not that different to silken tofu. Best to stick to honest shrink wrapped firm tofus to avoid disappointment.

a little smoked tofu goes a long way
While I’ve welcomed its wonderfully familiar flavour to help cure my bacon withdrawls, smoked tofu is strong stuff and best used as a supporting ingredient rather than starring on its own.

tofu likes salt
While not strongly flavoured itself, tofu definitely benefits from some judicious seasoning either with sea salt or soy sauce.

smoked tofu cabonara

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
smoked tofu ‘cabonara’

serves 2

I was surprised how much I liked smoked tofu. While it would never actually replace bacon in my diet, it is something that I’ll continue to eat when I’m an omnivore. Good for when you feel like smoky bacon but don’t feel like eating meat.

Feel free to use the pasta of your choice, although I think short pasta will work better here for some reason. The key to being able to make this dish in 10 minutes is to get the pasta water boiling as soon as possible and to choose a pasta shape that cooks in less than 10 minutes.

150g (5oz) pasta
200g (7oz) firm smoked tofu
2 egg yolks
2 handfuls finely grated parmesan
1/2 bunch chives, chopped

Bring a large saucepan of salted water to the boil and cook the pasta according to the packet directions.

Heat a large frying pan over a medium high heat with a few tablespoons peanut oil. Cut tofu into batons no larger than your pasta and pat dry with paper towel. Fry tofu until golden on all sides then transfer to a large warm bowl. Toss through egg yolks and cheese.

When the pasta is ready scoop out a little cooking water into a mug then drain the pasta. Toss hot pasta through the tofu mixture adding a little of the reserved cooking water if your pasta looks too dry. Toss through chives and serve hot with extra parmesan passed separately.

tofu with spiced yoghurt

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
pan fried tofu with spiced yoghurt

serves 2-3

Inspired by the lovely Heidi of 101 cookbooks and her cumin spiked tofu. Actually if you’re looking for more tofu ideas, I’d highly recommend Heidi’s blog.

Heidi serves her tofu with a warm carrot salad which is absolutely lovely.

400g (14oz) firm tofu
2t ground cumin
2t garam marsala
1C natural yoghurt

Cut tofu into slices about 6mm (1/4 inch) thick and pat dry with paper towel.

Heat a large frying pan on medium high and add a few tablespoons peanut or olive oil. Cook tofu until brown and crisp on both sides.

Meanwhile combine yoghurt and spices and season well with salt & pepper.


Only a few more days left of Vegetarian Month. You can read all about what I’ve been eating HERE.

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