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.
If you're a vegetarian or just like the idea of preparing a couple of nutritious, meatless meals a week, using vegetable protein in your recipes has real merit. Animal protein contains all the essential amino acids the human body needs, but combining vegetable proteins like tofu with grains and legumes can provide the same benefits of animal protein with less fat and lower ingredient costs. Using protein-rich grains, seeds and legumes in cooking will also add vital nutrients and antioxidants to your recipes. The vegetarian dishes below lose the meat but still manage to be protein rich and full of flavor. Give one a try.
Shakes and Smoothies
You don't have to chew tofu to get the benefits of this versatile ingredient. Silken tofu, and soy milk and cream products offer a good-for-you option you can prepare in minutes for an energy boost any time of day. Our recipe examples focus on blending berries with tofu and soy-based products, but you can just as easily add a banana or another fruity choice. You can even throw in a little peanut butter. We'll never tell. Adding a few tofu beverage specialties to your repertoire offers healthy alternatives to the fat and sugar laden options at your favorite coffee or juice bar.
- Berry Soy-Cream Blend
- Emeril's Silken Berry Tofu Shake
Slow Cooker and Simple Skillet Meals
Yes, even when you're looking for healthy ingredient options, convenience is an important consideration. Set-it-and-forget-it and one-skillet (or pot) meals are easy to prepare, and cleanup is fast. In the case of slow cooker options, you can even do the honors early in the day and let your countertop helper do the real work. It's an energy-efficient and labor saving choice, and when you select recipes that include tofu, the benefits just keep on coming. In slow cooker meals, tofu is typically added during the last half hour or so of cooking.
We have a few scrumptious stew recipes and one for Thai green curry to show you how to cook tofu low and slow:
- Mushroom Tofu Stew
- Persian Stew With Tofu
- Thai Green Curry with Vegetables and Tofu
Wouldn't it be nice to indulge in a burrito without guilt? One of the wonderful things about using an ingredient like tofu that takes on the flavors of other foods is that you can use it as a meat, cheese or cream substitute in strongly flavored dishes without ever missing the extra grease. If you choose your substitutions carefully, your family will never be the wiser, and if they do detect the change, they probably won't mind. Here are some classic recipes that have undergone stylish tofu makeovers, and they're looking pretty darned good.
Once you get the hang of substituting tofu for other ingredients, you can tackle those family favorites that could lose some saturated fat and calories. You don't have to sacrifice all the indulgent richness of your fat-laden guilty pleasures, though. Substitute a third to half of the meat, cream or cheese requirement in your recipe with tofu, and you'll still come out ahead. If this sounds too good to be true, try a few of the examples below before you start swapping out the cheddar in your kids' mac and cheese.
Classic stir-fry using firm textured tofu makes a more filling dish than vegetables alone. Upping the protein content in most vegetable-based dishes results in a more satisfying meal overall. If you don't like the idea of using small white cubes, you can julienne strips of tofu and marinate them in a little soy or oyster sauce to make them a light brown in color and give them a stronger flavor.
Tofu will take on the taste of strongly flavored ingredients in your recipes. When you use hard to find or expensive items, like specialty mushrooms or seafood, adding tofu will help you get the most from a relatively small number of expensive elements in a dish.
If you need some inspiration for a flavorful stir-fry using tofu, the recipes below have big taste and feature tofu as a main ingredient:
Crispy Fried Tofu
The texture of tofu can be an acquired taste, but just as the flavor of tofu can change with the addition of companion ingredients, its texture can change, too. From whipping it into a creamy shake, to pressing out as much moisture as possible and forming it to the dense consistency of a dumpling, tofu is flexible. One surprising way to explore its textural potential is to deep fry it. Very firm tofu is the best to use for this application. You can deep fry tofu alone or lightly flour it beforehand for a satisfying crunch. The resulting golden brown slices will be soft on the inside, like fried cheese sticks.
- Fried Tofu Stir-fry
- Crispy Tofu With Shiitakes and Chorizo
- General Tso's Chicken (or Tofu)
Including tofu in soup is a great way to give a thin broth some extra mouth appeal and a nutritional boost. Firm tofu is the best choice because it's less likely to break up when the soup comes to a boil. You can experiment with traditional Chinese soups, or dice tofu into your own creations. It's an easy addition that will turn a first course into a main meal. If you have a little leftover tofu from last night's stir-fry, adding it to soup is a great way to take advantage of this flexible ingredient while it's at its freshest.
Salads and Sandwiches
Tofu mixed into salad can have the appearance and texture of chopped egg. It's a quick and easy way to add protein and variety to a side salad. You can use almost any type of tofu, and can chop, julienne or crumble it, depending on the presentation you have in mind.
You can even make a creamy salad dressing using silken tofu as the base. The results will likely be lower in calories and higher in protein than many of the prepared dressings you're used to. The Stilton Salad Dressing recipe below will get you started, but you can experiment with your favorite dressing recipes and swap out a portion of the mayonnaise or some other high-calorie ingredient for tofu without losing flavor or creaminess.
When you're preparing a soup and sandwich combo, why not add some tofu to your sandwiches, too. Firm tofu can replace some of the egg in egg salad and can even be used as a substitute as in the eggless egg salad recipe included here. You can also add tofu to blended ingredients like tuna salad or the tasty spinach and tomato tofu toss below.
It's no surprise that tofu is nutritious in savory dishes, but it's also a great addition to desserts. You know you can use it as a cream or cheese substitute, but it can also take the place of eggs in recipes that aren't using egg as a leavening agent. Instead of cream cheese or ricotta, try silken tofu. It's an inspired solution when you're preparing a dessert for someone who is lactose intolerant. Tofu is often made using calcium sulfate to set the curds as part of the extraction process. This makes it a good source of calcium for people who avoid dairy.
The berry fruit shake below is a sweet treat, but why not use sweetened silken tofu as a fresh fruit dip with apples, peaches and strawberries, too?
- Blueberry Mousse
- Vegan Cheesecake with Hemp!
- Orange Crepes
If you're thinking of giving up meat, but can't stand the thought of never eating seafood again, you might want to consider the pescatarian diet.
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