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There’s no question that protein is an essential part of a healthy diet. However, for those that avoid meat and animal products because of their negative environmental impacts, what are they supposed to eat instead? Is there a healthy, tasty protein option available for them?

If your immediate answer is tofu, you are exactly right.

As an Asian super food, tofu has been incorporated into numerous vegetarian dishes for thousands of years and is full of healthy nutrients that just everyone can benefit from. However, this form of fermented bean curds can be intimidating for first time eaters that can’t figure out how best to prepare this squishy substance.

If you want answers to all your burning tofu questions, read on to learn why you need to incorporate this incredible food into your regular diet.

What is tofu?

Also known as bean curd, tofu is made from pulverized soy beans that are coagulated and pressed into solid blocks, much like how cheese is made from milk. Though all tofu is essentially made the same way, there are four main forms that you can purchase it in.

  • Firm and extra firm: This is the densest form of tofu and it is most likely to keep its shape after being cooked, which makes it ideal for deep frying, grilling and stir frying.
  • Soft tofu: Because soft tofu doesn’t keep its shape as well as firm forms, it makes a perfect filler for casseroles and soups.
  • Silken tofu: Just like it sounds, this tofu has a silky smooth texture that makes it great for dips, puddings and smoothies.
  • Fermented tofu: Most US-based tofu isn’t fermented, but this form is wildly popular internationally. In most cases it is fermented with specialty bacteria and a salty brine in order to add the numerous health benefits of eating fermented foods.

History of tofu

Tofu was invented in China over 2,000 years ago, most likely when a cook accidentally curdled soy milk by adding sea salt and seaweed into his cook pot. This tasty bean curd concoction soon spread throughout the region and became an essential ingredient in East Asian cuisine.

Tofu spread to Japan in the eighth century when Kento priests brought it back from their trip to China. Soon it became a staple dish for the elites and commoners alike and became a symbolic dish of national unity.

By the 1960s, the hippy era in the United States created interest in foreign foods, and tofu soon became popular throughout the country. Today, there are over 200,000 tofu manufacturers around the world, though the biggest ones are located in Japan, where they create over fifty tons of bean curd each day.

bowl of soybeans soaking in water with wooden spoon resting on top

How tofu is made

There’s no reason to rely on a fancy factory to make your tofu: this ancient food is easy to make at home. With just a few ingredients you can make your own fresh tofu with ease.

Simply gather tofu soybeans (they are yellow and dried), water and a coagulation agent.

First, soak the soybeans overnight until they are fully hydrated and doubled in size. Next, crush them open to release the milk inside and heat the entire mixture to separate the solids from the milk. Extract out the milk and add the recommended amount of your coagulant to the milk in order to get it to form curds. Collect these curds and squeeze them in a press to pull out the excess moisture. The longer you press the curds, the more they will bind together and the firmer your tofu will be.

After the pressing is completed, place the tofu in cold water to finish the setting process. You can cook with your homemade tofu immediately or store it in water to be used within a few days.

For more tofu making tips and top recipes for cooking with it, Asian Tofu by Andrew Nguyen will answer all your questions.

Health benefits of tofu

Tofu has been celebrated as a health food for centuries. Not only is it a prime source of protein for vegetarians, it also is full of beneficial compounds that keep you looking younger and healthier. Just one serving of tofu gives you 44% of your daily calcium, 40% daily iron and 9% magnesium, and plenty of other trace nutrients like vitamin K, riboflavin, selenium, manganese and others.

Below are some of the top ways that tofu can benefit your body.

  • Diabetes: Because of its low fat and calorie content, tofu is an ideal food for diabetics. Even better, the high protein content works to regulate blood sugar levels, which can significantly reduce your risk of developing diabetes later in life.
  • Heart disease: Eating tofu lowers your risk of heart disease because it reduced the amount of the bad cholesterol lipoprotein in your body. Your inflammation levels will also go down when you eat more tofu, as the conglycinin it contains is bio-active and reduces inflammation in your blood vessels.
  • Obesity: As part of a reduced calorie diet, tofu makes it easy to weigh 3 to 20 percent less than people that eat meat. Best of all, the high protein levels make it easy to feel full after a meal, which will stop you from adding on extra calories.
  • Cancer: Tofu contains plenty of selenium, a mineral that the body needs to prevent colon cancer. Studies have shown that men and women that eat tofu every week are 60% less likely to develop the kinds of tissue that breast cancer grows on.
  • Menopause: Daily calcium requirements go up for women once they hit menopause, a tofu can provide a highly quality source while the flavonoids and isoflavonoids also help to reduce the frequency of hot flashes, prevent rheumatoid arthritis and even restore estrogen levels.
  • Aging: Believe it or not, tofu can actually make a difference in how old you look. Not only does a diet full of tofu help maintain the elasticity of your skin, it can even be used to make a paste that is applied to your face in order to nourish your skin from the outside in.
  • Hair loss: Because human hair is made out of the protein keratin, you need plenty of protein in your diet to have enough keratin to keep it strong. Tofu has plenty of keratin as well as selenium that helps your scalp hold onto the hairs already on your head.

Adding tofu into your diet might seem like a small change, but it can make a big difference in almost every aspect of your life, no matter if you’re struggling with diabetes or simply trying to look younger.

Should men be worried?

In recent years, soy products have come under controversy for their potential hormone-mimicking qualities and the effects they can have on men. Because soy naturally contains estrogen-mimicking isoflavones, there have long been rumors to eating soy can feminize men and reduce their sex drive.

However, there is no evidence that tofu has any impact on male hormone levels. Though research has shown potential for raised estrogen levels for men that drink soy milk everyday, there seems to be little risk of feminization through eating tofu, most likely because of the minimal processing and natural fermentation that tofu goes through.

plate of rice and curried tofu

Easy ways to cook with tofu

There are dozens of ways to cook with tofu and you are limited only by your own creativity. However, there are some methods that have long been good enough to turn even dedicated carnivores on to the wonders of tofu.

Below are some suggestions for different cooking methods to bring out the best in your tofu.

Regular tofu

  • Crumble and saute it for a egg-like scramble
  • Marinate with soy sauce and saute with veggies for an Asian-style stir fry
  • Soak in egg and bread before frying or baking, like chicken
  • Crumble into pieces and fry to use as a ground beef substitute for tacos.
  • Cube and add into miso soup

Silken tofu

  • Use instead of heavy cream in soup recipes
  • Substitute for mayonnaise, sour cream and cream cheese in recipes
  • Add into smoothies for a protein-filled dairy substitute
  • Blend with onion soup seasoning to make a hearty dip

For some extra tips on top recipes for cooking with tofu, be sure to check out these books.

Storing tofu

Most packaged tofu comes in individually wrapped containers that are easy to use in one setting. If you don’t use all the tofu at once you can put it in a container covered in water to store it for a week or more. Tofu can also be frozen for up to five months, but be aware that the texture will turn more spongy.

In summary

Tofu has a lot going for it. Not only is it full of protein and low on calories, tofu is also an incredibly versatile food that can be added to just about any recipe. No matter whether you choose to eat tofu for health reasons or to lower your impact on the environment, this Asian bean curd is sure to make each meal a little more exciting.

About Author

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Lydia Noyes is an Appalachian homesteader and writer that lives on a land trust deep in the mountains of West Virginia.