Tofu / Bean Curd
Tofu blocks [Tofu (Japan, US); Dofu, Doufou (China); Tubu (Korea); Bean Crud, Toad Food (improper), Bean Crud (improper)]

Basically, bean curd is cottage cheese made by coagulating ground up and cooked soybeans (soy milk) rather than dairy milk. First appearing during the Chou Dynasty (1132-246 BCE) there are several theories for its origin, all of which are unadulterated speculation.

The photo specimens are, from left to right, silken, soft and firm tofu, all by the same manufacturer in Los Angeles.

If you want to know how to make all forms of tofu and every detail about it, I recommend The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff & Akiko Aoyagi - Autumn Press 1975.



In the US tofu has become a focus for laughter due to vegetarians over-using it and trying to build turkeys out of it for Thanksgiving dinner - as well as tofu sausages, hot dogs, hamburgers and jerky. Now I'm not anti-vegetarian, and was a vegetarian for a decade or so (though never an ethical vegetarian), but I think building vegetarian imitations of dead animal parts is a little funny, despite it's long history in Asia. I use various forms of bean curd fairly regularly, but just can't resist calling it "bean crud".

In most of Asia tofu is used in moderation as a flavor absorbing and textural ingredient in many interesting dishes, but only occasionally as a main ingredient and then usually as an appetizer or desert. Consumption is heavier in parts of southern China, but rice is still the main staple and tofu an accessory. This is as it should be while there are open questions regarding health impacts from heavy tofu consumption - see Soybeans and Health for more information.

Regular Tofu

Because of the many uses to which tofu is put, there are a number of ways to make it resulting in different textures. This may be controlled by choice of coagulant, by draining and/or pressing.

  • Silken Tofu:   [Kinugoshi (Japan)] This form is made from relatively thick soy milk and precipitated in tight containers so the whey does not drain but is incorporated into the tofu. Once set the block is loosened from the mold into water where it is cut into blocks of the desired size. The finished tofu is soft and with a totally smooth texture with no porousness at all. This is a luxurious tofu but it must be noted that since the whey is not pressed out it includes more of the hormones, mineral blockers and toxins soybeans are accused of than normal tofu does - so perhaps it should be eaten on occasion rather than every day.

  • Soft Tofu:   [Momendofu (cotton tofu) (Japan); Tubu Mou (Korea); Lao doufu (China)] This is the most standard form of tofu in the US and Korea - kind of an all purpose tofu. In Japan a fair amount of silken tofu is used but "cotton" still dominates. In Asia this may be called "firm tofu" but here it's always "regular" or "soft", with firm reserved for what in Asia is called "dry".

  • Firm Tofu:   [Dry Tofu; Dou gan (China)] This form is common in Chinese cooking and not much known in Japan, but a few Korean recipes also call for this form. It holds up better in stir fried and stewed dishes than soft tofu. Though the Chinese name means "dry tofu" it is packed in water just like all the rest. In the US it always carries the "firm" designation (there's also an "Extra Firm" grade).

  • Extra Soft Tofu:   [Sui-dofu (China)] Similar to Silken Tofu but more so - this form is so soft it must be eaten with a spoon rather than with chopsticks. It's often so soft that in China it's ladled out into bowls brought to the tofu shop by customers. It's a common item in the Korean markets around here packed in tubs or plastic sausage tubes - often labeled "Extra Mou" (isn't there a Korean word for "Extra"?). This form is often used with syrups and toppings as a desert. As with Silken Tofu, moderation may be appropriate.

  • Egg Tofu is a savory variety made in Japan by adding raw egg to the soy milk before adding the coagulant. Not all labeled "egg tofu" is actually tofu though - some is just egg custard.

Buying & Storing:
Tub Vast quantities of tofu are manufactured here in Los Angeles and put up in sealed plastic tubs. Common sizes are 13oz, 16oz, 18oz and 19oz. I have cookbooks that imply a block is 8oz or 10oz. The Book of Tofu says 12oz. Recipes invariably call for "one block of tofu". OK lady, what size is a block of tofu in your country? You'd think scales hadn't been invented yet.

When I first bought tubs of tofu many years ago it needed to be used in just a few days or it would go sour. Sanitary packaging has been improved to the point some brands don't expire for 3 months and probably last longer.

Tofu tubs should be kept refrigerated at all times. Once opened tofu should be used up in just a couple of days. It is recommended that opened tofu be kept refrigerated submerged in clean water that's changed every day. If tofu smells or tastes at all sour it has turned and should be discarded. If it's very faintly sour it may be refreshed by cutting into large cubes and par boiling them in lightly salted water for about 3 minutes.

Some of the tofu made here in Los Angeles, particularly for the Vietnamese community, is not cut into cubes nor packaged in tubs. It is shaped kind of like a large dinner roll and wrapped in plastic wrap. This tofu must be delivered fresh daily and used the same day. It would still be good for deep frying the next morning if properly refrigerated.

Draining & Pressing:
Pressing Tofu is just about always drained before use and may be pressed to firm it up and remove water - particularly if it is to be fried. A convenient way to drain it is to punch some small holes in the bottom of the tub and an air hole through the film at the top. Set the tub in a tray with a spacer under it and refrigerate. Empty water from the tray as needed.

A convenient way to press a small amount of tofu is to prepare the tray as for draining except remove the top film entirely. Set a full tub of tofu on top (or an empty tub filled with something heavy). Refrigerate - the longer it sits the firmer it gets. For larger amounts, and for deep frying which wants a hard pressing, a rig like that pictured is needed. Set a board on a shallow slant, cover it with a dish towel, slice the tofu to size and arrange the slices on the board. Cover with another board and put several pounds of weights on top of it. Retired cutting boards are excellent for this purpose. Press a few hours for deep fried tofu, less for other uses.

Silken Tofu is never pressed - that would destroy its texture.

Deep Fried Tofu   -   [Agé (Japan); Zha doufu (China)]


Thick Agé
Finished This form is easy to make for anyone with some oil and something to heat it in. The tofu must be cut to size as desired, then pressed well to remove most of the water. Generally this is done by spreading a towel over a slanted board, arranging the tofu over it and covering it with another board with heavy weights on it.

The outside is crisp and light brown while the inside is white and spongy. You can eat them as-is, but they are commonly subjected to further cooking of some sort. While generally put to other uses these agé can be stuffed, if the puffy kind aren't commercially available and the hassle of making them at home is not practical. You do need to scoop some of the white inside out before stuffing.

The photo shows both the traditional triangular form and the rectangular form more common today. The rectangular pieces were 3.75 x 2.13 x 0.80 and weighed 2-5/8 ounces. In other words, a 19 ounce block has shrunk to less than 8 ounces - but gained considerable calories due to oil. The photo specimens were fried quite long and have a fairly thick crust - shorter frying may be desirable for some applications. Details and Cooking.

Ganmo - [gan-modoki (Japan)]
Patty & Balls This is the prototype veggie burger - no attempt to make it taste like beef at this point though. Ganmo are made in the form of patties, similar to hamburger patties, or balls, similar to meatballs. They are made of tofu and grated or slivered vegetables, then deep fried in oil (some people simmer them in a dashi stock instead). I prefer patties to balls as the balls remain kind of mushy inside. Commercial products are generally firmer but much heavier than home made. Details and Cooking.

Agé Pouches & Puffs
Pouches These are commonly purchased commercially (they are available in markets serving Japanese, Chinese and Vietnamese communities) because making them yourself is a hassle. To do it right you have to start with whole dry soybeans because the process is a bit different from regular tofu, then you deep fry in two different temperatures of oil. They can be made from commercial tofu in a single pot of oil with careful temperature control but won't be as light and puffy as when made right. The photo specimen pouches (13) were 3-3/4 x 3-3/4 inches by 3/4 inch thick and weighed about 1/2 ounce each. The puffs (14) were various sizes up to 1-1/2 inch.


Pressed Tofu   -   [Doufu-kan (China)]

This is a form much used in China, but not Japan and I haven't seen any of it in the Korean markets either. The firmest type of tofu is made and spread onto cloths. For the thinnest versions a stack of as many as 100 cloths is made. The stack is subjected to very heavy pressure in a screw press or similar device. This comes in many forms and only some of the most important are shown here.


Pressed Tofu Blocks
Blocks These blocks of very firm tofu (about as firm as Monterey Jack) are available in plain (right) and "baked" (left). The baked variety is coated with various flavorings. The photo specimens are coated with soy sauce, sesame oil, chili, aniseed and salt. The plain blocks were 5.1 x 2.7 x 0.7 inches and weighed 6-1/4 ounces each. The baked were half the size of the plain, though much smaller sizes are also available (12). This form can be sliced and diced and used as an ingredient in stir fries and with sauces.

Pressed Tofu Sheet - []
Noodles This is the basic pressed sheet, 12-1/2 x 6 x 0.05 inches with the fabric pattern pressed into both sides. Actual size, of course, varies with manufacturer and intended use. These sheets were made in China and shipped frozen to the US - freezing doesn't seem to bother this stuff at all (not enough water to crystalize). Ingredients: Soybeans, Water, Salt.

For another brand purchased at the same market (also from China and shipped frozen) the sheets were 18-1/2 x 9 inches and only 0.015 inch thick. Ingredients: Soybean, Water.

This stuff feels like fabric and stands up very well to handling.and takes about 15 minutes of simmering to be tender.

Pressed Tofu Noodles - [Taiwan tofu strips]
Noodles These are sold fresh (as shown) and dried (usually straight). The fresh may be seasoned before packaging and will then be light brown in color. The individual noodles in the photo were about 0.10 inches square (slightly variable) but they are often a bit wider and more erratic in size (11).

Pressed Tofu Knots - [Dau hu that (Viet)]
Knots These, both by the same company in Los Angeles, were labeled "Taiwan Soy Sheet Knot" (left) and "Shanghai Soy Sheet Knot" (right) The Taiwan were tied from a strip 7-3/4 x 2 x 0.05 inches and weighted 1/2 oz each. The Shanghai were tied from a strip 8 x 3-1/2 x 0.015 inches and weighed 1/3 ounce each. Cooking suggestions were, "Pan fried, stir fried with vegetable, hot pot, marinated" (11).


Tofu Skin   -   [Yuba (Japan); Doufu-p'i (China)]

Expensive in Japan but reasonably cheap in China, this product is sheets of the skin that forms on top of the cooking pots when making tofu - though some shops make only the skins and skip the tofu. The skin is cut at the edges of the pot and a stick is run under the center. The stick is raised leaving the skin draped down on both sides. It is now ready for drying or whatever other preparation will be used.


Bean Curd Skin - Flat Dried
Sheet Found in Chinese markets but also commonly used in Japan this form is less common than others due to the obvious logistic problems in transport and storage. These sheets are extremely thin and brittle - they'll crumble if you look at them wrong. The photo specimen was 21 inches long (unfolded) 7-1/2 inches wide and 0.010 (one 100th) inch thick. With a 5 minute soak it becomes rubbery and slightly elastic, suitable for wrappings and similar uses. Flavor is, as with most tofu products, fairly bland but it will absorb flavors from other ingredients.

Bean Curd Skin Sticks
Sticks These bunched up sticks of tofu skin have been the most common form found in Chinese markets but seems to be being overtaken by the flat sheets. It's more durable than sheet, but not a whole lot. Sticks are usually broken up and added to a recipe. The photo specimens were 10-1/2 inches long and weighed 3/4 ounce each. Thickness of the leaves was about 0.015 inch.

Fresh Tofu Skin Pouches - [Fu bao banh hu ky (Viet)]
Pouches

These aren't really pouches as they are just a folded flat roll and the material is too fragile to unroll. They can be used sliced The photo specimens were 4-1/2 inches long (twice that unfolded), 3-1/2 inches wide and weighed 2-1/2 ounces each. The leaves they were rolled from were 0.010 (one 100th) inch thick. Cooking suggestions were, "Pan fried, stir fried with vegetable, hot pot, marinated" (11).


Frozen Tofu   -   [Thousand Layer Tofu]

Slices This form is often served as an appetizer but can be used wherever its porous nature would be good for holding sauces or dips. When tofu is frozen the water forms large crystals which leave a lot of holes when they melt and drains out. It leaves the tofu fairly firm and with a slightly yellow color. The "thousand layer" name comes because the crystals follow the texture which in pressed tofu gives a layered look where there are actually no layers.

This form is generally made at home from regular soft tofu. The relatively slow freezing in a home freezing compartment encourages large ice crystals thus desirably large holes. It is thawed and drained (and sometimes squeezed) before using.   Photo by J Samuel Burner distributed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 license.

Freeze Dried Tofu   -   [Koyadofu (Japan)]

This is pretty much a Japan-only specialty. Two traditional methods were developed taking advantage of bitter winter cold but today this product is made by conventional freeze drying. Many brands are treated with ammonia gas before packaging which results in greater expansion when soaked. This tofu is extremely light weight and will last for 4 to 6 months in a sealed package kept in a cool dry environment. It must be expanded by soaking (which also removes the ammonia) before cooking. Recipes for it can be found on-line but I haven't tried it. The stores around here don't carry it and at around US $40.00 per pound I can think of other things I'd rather do with my food dollars.

Fermented Tofu   -   [Preserved Tofu, Rotten Tofu, Fermented / Preserved Bean Curd; Doufu ni (China); chao (Vietnam)]
Blocks

This is sort of the tofu equivalent of aged soft cheese (think Roquefort or blue cheese) and is used throughout China and Southeast Asia as an ingredient and as a table condiment. Your average Asian market will have a slew of brands and varieties. If you like pungent dairy cheese you'll probably like this stuff too.

Blocks of tofu, about 1-1/2 inch in the longest dimension, are fermented by a special process (traditionally under straw) and then packed in liquid with flavoring ingredients.

The photo shows three varieties, one flavored with chili. The large white block in center was 1.6 x 1.1 x 0.8 inches. Textures ranged from too soft for chopsticks (chili one) to fairly firm (darker one). The darker one had more of a miso flavor. Typical ingredients are: Soybeans, Water, Sesame oil, Salt. Other common ingredients to add flavor and color are Chili, Rice Wine, Ethyl Alcohol (preservative) Bean paste, Soybeans, Red yeast rice, Vinegar.   Details and Cooking.

Stinky Tofu (chou doufu)
Serving This is a form of very moldy fermented tofu, often of slightly purplish color, popular in China, particularly Sichuan and Hunan but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Indonesia. It is made by fermenting as long as several months in a brine made from salt, fermented milk, vegetables and meat, which may also include shrimp, amaranth greens, mustard greens, bamboo shoots and herbs.

The stench, which even enthusiasts admit smells like rotting garbage, is noticeable for blocks around stalls and restaurants where it is cooked and served (generally at night). It is most often pan or deep fried but the photo specimen is in Sichuan Mala sauce.   Photo distributed under Gnu Free Documentation License v1.2.

Tofu Animals

This page couldn't be complete without various attempts, both ancient and modern, to make tofu imitations of animal parts. The Chinese are very fond of creating exact replicas of whole animals out of tofu skin but these are mercifully not much available in the US.


Tofu Chicken - Shanghai Vegetarian - [Buddha's Chicken, Thit Ga Chay (Viet)]
Chicken Roll This product is usually made by rolling up fresh tofu skins, compressing in a cloth wrapping and steaming. The cloth is then removed. This process makes the roll very firm with a somewhat chicken-like texture. The texture is pleasing but making it taste like chicken (or not) is up to the cook. The photo specimen was 5-1/4 inches long, 2-1/8 inches diameter and weighed 8-1/4 ounces. Ingredients: soybean, water, salt. Cooking suggestions, "Pan fried, stir fried with vegetable, hot pot, or soup for flavor" (11).

Tofu Duck - [Buddha's Duck]
Duck Roll This product is usually made by rolling up fresh tofu skins, compressing in a cloth wrapping and steaming. The cloth is then removed. This process makes the roll very firm with a somewhat duck-like texture. The texture is pleasing and the manufacturer has done a decent job of imparting a duck-like flavor. I rather liked this one. The photo specimen was 7 inches long, 2-3/4 inches across and weighed 15-1/2 ounces. Ingredients: Soybeans, Salt, Sugar, Soysauce, Soybean oil. This manufacturer (10) makes a chicken the same shape, size and ingredients but lighter in color.

Tofu Chitterlings
Chitterlings The label, "Fresh Tofu Sausage", has to be a misnomer, euphemism or mis-translation - these are clearly tofu chitterlings (pig intestines) - but they mercifully don't have the smell. Vegetarian Soul Food, anyone? These were made of very thin, somewhat gooey (how appropriate) tofu skin rolled up. Individual chitterlings were about 12 inches long, 7/8 inch diameter and weighed 1-5/8 ounces. The leaves they were rolled from were 0.010 (one 100th) inch thick.The cooking suggestions were, "Pan fried, stir fried with vegetable, hot pot, marinated". Available in Asian markets in Los Angeles (11).

Tofurkey
Chitterlings Tofurkey is an imitation turkey roast generally designed as a vegan stand-in for a roast turkey dinner. It may or may not resemble an actual turkey in shape or taste. Tofurkey is a generic term, Tofurky is a registered trademark of Turtle Island Foods (15). The photo is of their well known Tofurky, 4-3/4 inches long, 3-3/4 inches diameter and weighing 1 pound 12 ounces, and mercifully not molded into the shape of a real turkey. Ingredients: far too many to list here (includes roll, stuffing and gravy) but the basic roll includes: water, vital wheat gluten, organic tofu, canola oil, natural vegetarian flavors, shoyu sauce, corn starch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, lemon juice, onion powder, salt, calcium lactate from beets. Details and Cooking

Tofu Cold Cuts
Cold Cuts This is a tough one to do well. It's quite similar to the baked version of Pressed Tofu Blocks, but with a lot more ingredients to cover up the soy taste and make it more like meat. The photo specimens are Tofurky brand (15) Hickory Smoked Deli Cuts, 4 inches diameter and 0.04 thick. They're a credible effort - but certainly no bologna (too dry for one thing). Ingredients: vital wheat gluten, organic tofu, canola oil, natural vegetarian flavors, shoyu sauce, corn starch, white bean flour, garbanzo bean flour, lemon juice, calcium lactate from beets.

Tofu Italian Sausage
Italian The photo specimens are Tofurky brand (15) and are the best tofu sausages I've tried to date. They're a bit overspiced to cover the basic blandness, but have decent texture (though still a bit pasty) and the color is lighter than others I've tried. They brown decently if fried and are generally edible. Ingredients: organic tofu, vital wheat gluten, canola oil, high oleic safflower oil, water, shoyu sauce, sun dried tomatoes, textured wheat protein, basil, black pepper, spices, granulated garlic, salt, chili peppers.

Soy Dogs
Soydogs "Smart Dogs" (16) - you will not mistake these for Ballpark brand franks. They have a slightly chemically taste and a paste texture, but with enough good mustard and chopped onions they'll stand in for a boiled hot dog (they recommend hot water cooking or nuking, not frying or grilling). These don't claim to be tofu but I'm putting them here with the other soy animals anyway. Ingredients: water, soy protein isolate, wheat gluten, evaporated cane juice, less than 2% of natural flavors (from vegetable sources), natural smoke flavor, garlic powder, paprika oleoresin, yeast extract, xanthan gum, guar gum, carrageenan, fermented rice flour, salt, potassium chloride.


Notes:

  • T10 - Yuan Shian Vegetarian Food, 13759 Amar Road, La Puente, CA 91746 - 626-337-6654.
  • T11 - Asia Foods Company, Baldwin Park, CA 91706 - 626-962-9795.
  • T12 - Visoy Food Inc., 111 Elmyra Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012.
  • T13 - House Foods America Corp., Garden Grove, CA 92841.
  • T14 - Dong Phuong Tofu, Westminster, CA 92683.
  • T15 - Turtle Island Foods PO Box 176, Hood River, OR 97031 - 541-386-7766 - info@tofurky.com
  • T16 - Lightlife Foods 153 Industrial Blvd., Turners Falls, MA 01376 - 1-800-765-3279.
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