Tofu is one of those foods that can be daunting. If you are anything like me, you have enjoyed really tasty tofu that left you wanting more—but you’ve also eaten tofu that made you wonder what all the hype is about. If you have ever tried preparing it on your own, you may have found yourself at the grocery store staring at a wall of soybean blocks, wondering why there are so many types and which one you should bring to the checkout counter (cue decision fatigue)!
Tofu is a versatile sponge-like food that absorbs all of the flavors that it’s cooked with. It’s actually an excellent kitchen staple— if you know how to do it right. The key is choosing the right kind of tofu for your desired outcome. A general rule of thumb is this: the softer the texture, the better it will take on flavors, the more firm the texture, the easier it will be to work with. Some tofu types are meant for a wonderfully savory stir fry recipe, while others are ideal for a rich and creamy soup or dip. Here’s a look at some of the more common varieties you may see at your next trip to the market, and some tips on how to make your tofu taste exactly how you want it to:
This Japanese-style tofu is known for its silky, creamy, and even jelly-like texture. Think of it as the ricotta cheese of tofu. It is undrained and unpressed, giving it the highest water content of all tofu types. Ideal for blending, puréeing, and vegan baking, silken tofu is the perfect choice for smoothies, soups, dips, custards, cheesecakes, and more. I do not recommend Silken tofu for any kind of stir-frying or sautéing, as its delightfully delicate texture makes it prone to crumbling.
Medium tofu, a.k.a. the Goldilocks of tofu, is denser than typical silken tofu but not as chewy as firm varieties. Often referred to as “regular” tofu, especially in stores with a limited selection, this type will depend on the brand, so you might need to trial a few before finding what you’re looking for. Some tofu brands’ medium-firm varieties tend to be truly medium-firm, while others are more delicate and smooth. Either way, medium tofu is a great choice to be cubed for soups like miso, blended or puréed for dips and smoothies, or served cold in your favorite Japanese-style dish.
Next up, increasing in protein and decreasing in water content, is firm tofu. In many ways, this is the most versatile tofu texture. It is a solid choice for beginners, as it will hold up to most cooking methods and will still soak up your savory marinades. If silken is the ricotta of tofu, this is the feta. Try it in a stir fry, sauté it with your favorite veggies, cube it for a stew, or use it for a hearty spread. You may need to drain your firm (or medium) tofu before cooking to ensure maximum flavor.
Protip: freeze and dethaw your firm tofu twice, then press it for 15 minutes to remove any remaining water. What you will be left with is a super meaty texture that doesn’t resemble tofu at all!
An ideal choice for a quick meal, extra-firm tofu will fry up quicker than firm tofu due to its lower water content. It will hold its shape well and is less likely to stick and will crisp up nicely, holding its wonderfully satisfying texture. The downside? It won’t absorb flavors quite as well as firm tofu, simply because it’s denser. While this is a good pick for boiling, both firm and extra-firm tofu are great for high-heat preparation methods (I use both in my favorite stir-fry recipes)—it just depends on what mood I am in and how much time I have.
Boasting the highest protein content and lowest water content, we have super-firm tofu. When looking for a true meat-alternative, super-firm tofu’s chewy, hearty characteristics make it an ideal choice. You may even mistake its vacuum-sealed package for meat or a hard cheese due to its dense nature (yes, you can even grate it)! Don’t rely on super-firm tofu for soaking up much flavor; instead, prepare it with a nice glaze or a nutritious gravy. This kind of tofu won’t need any draining; in fact, it is best stored in a container of water if you have any left-over.
Not only is tofu an incredibly versatile food that can be used to make a nearly endless variety of dishes, but it also boasts health benefits that deeply nourish its consumers. With all nine essential amino acids, omega-3 fatty acids, and fiber, it’s an excellent alternative to meat for those following a vegan/vegetarian lifestyle—or can simply be seen as a nutritious staple in a class of its own. Although I’m not personally vegan, I am plant-based about 80% of the time and love experimenting with meatless recipes. Here’s one of my favorites that is sure to make you love tofu (if you don’t already): Crispy Sesame Tofu with Mushrooms!