You may not think of tofu as having the personality of, say a juicy, rare steak, but it still has a lot going for it. Pressed curd extracted from ground soy beans, tofu is the chameleon of Chinese cooking ingredients. Its bland appearance is deceptive. Sometimes called the Chinese equivalent of dairy, tofu has an almost endless variety of applications. It's high in protein -- more than 2 grams per ounce -- for some varieties, and contains an abundance of good-for-you fats. It's also an effective thickening agent, which makes it a great substitute for cream, eggs and cheese.
Because it has very little flavor of its own and easily absorbs the flavors of other foods, tofu is a useful imitator. It's lower in saturated fat than many other protein and dairy sources, and using it in a few strategic ingredient swaps can reduce the calorie and saturated fat content of recipes without skimping on flavor or texture.
Tofu is typically sold fresh in the produce section of your local market. It looks like a white brick surrounded by water, which probably contributes to its sometimes less than delectable image in the West. Ounce for ounce, it's a bargain, and any portion you don't use in a week or so, you can freeze indefinitely. It's a low-cost source of protein for cold as well as hot dishes, and it's flexible and easy to prepare fried, fresh, grilled or in single skillet recipes. New tofu options you may see in the dairy case of your market include sour cream, cream cheese, ice cream and ricotta cheese substitutes.
Because tofu is made by extracting curds from whey in a method similar to cheese making, moisture content constitutes the biggest difference among the varieties of tofu available on the market. Firm tofu products will contain less moisture, be denser and have more protein, calories and fat per ounce. Firm tofu will also stand up better to rough handling, like in stir fry dishes or soups. You'll probably find a range of tofu products when you shop, from very firm to creamy variations that resemble custard. The recipe you have in mind will suggest which to use, but in a pinch, you can make tofu firmer by pressing excess water out using cheesecloth and a heavy skillet as a press.
On the next pages, we'll look at 10 simple ways to use tofu in your home cooking. Although some are traditional, a couple will surprise you. In fact, once a dish has been prepared, your guests may not even realize they're eating tofu.