Tofu can be more than a mere meat substitute for vegetarians--it can be a versatile ingredient we all can enjoy. However, tofu can be a highly intimidating ingredient to work with if you're unfamiliar with how to prepare it. It's strange-looking and although it's widely consumed throughout the world, it's not a typical part of traditional American fare. The truth is that there are numerous ways to incorporate this protein-packed nutrition powerhouse into your diet. Not only is it low in calories and fat, it also provides a hefty dose of protein, calcium, manganese, iron, phosphorus, copper and selenium.
Types of Tofu and Their Uses
Tofu comes from the curds of soybean milk. There are several different types of tofu, and although they can sometimes be used interchangeably in your recipes, it's best to know which types work best for what meal you're making. Tofu doesn't really taste like much of anything on its own, but it does take on the flavor of whatever ingredients with which you cook it. It can be sold in Tetra-packs (shelf-stable), tubs (packed in water) or blocks (vacuum-packed).
Silken tofu is often sold in a shelf-stable Tetra-pack but is sometimes found in a refrigerated section of the grocery store. It has a creamy, soft, silky texture (hence the name) and is most often used in dips, sauces, creams, puddings, desserts, smoothies and purees. Silken tofu has the largest amount of water. You can use it as a cholesterol-free egg replacement in baked foods--1/4 cup of tofu is equivalent to one egg.
This tofu is semi-soft and is best simmered in a broth or soup, braised or used in place of meat in your favorite casseroles. It works wonderfully as mashed tofu (seasoned like mashed potatoes) or in place of ricotta cheese in lasagna. Try using it in place of ground beef and serve up tofu tacos or tofu chili.
This lightly-pressed type of tofu works well when stir-fried or deep-fried (although deep-frying will up its calorie-count). It can also be used as a replacement for scrambled eggs. Top your pizza with crumbles of firm tofu--you'll never miss the sausage it mimics. Firm tofu, cut into cubes, also makes an excellent addition to your favorite veggie-filled salad.
Extra firm tofu is best used in recipes where you want the tofu to hold its shape and not fall apart, such as stir-fries, baked tofu or as a meat replacement. Because it's firm texture holds up so well, you can even slice it, marinate it in your favorite sauce, and then roast or bake it (at 400° F for about 30 minutes, or until crispy around the outside) in the oven, sauté it in the skillet or grill it just as you would any meat on your outdoor grill. If you'd like to get creative, try threading it onto skewers along with some colorful vegetables and serve up tofu and veggie kabobs at your next barbeque.
Sprouted tofu is similar to regular tofu except that it comes from sprouted soybeans instead of whole soybeans. Sprouted tofu does differ slightly from regular tofu in its nutritional profile. Sprouted tofu boasts higher amounts of iron, calcium and protein, but it's also higher in calories and healthy fat. Sprouted tofu is still labeled with the varying textures and can be cooked in the same ways as regular tofu. Try slicing it, coating it with bread crumbs or crushed nuts, and baking it in the oven for a delicious, crispy, protein-rich substitute for baked chicken.
You'll need to press the water out of your tofu before you use it. Drain it, place it on several sheets of paper towels, cover with more paper towels, and press out as much water as possible. To improve the tofu's texture, try freezing it and thawing it before use, which will make it seem more like meat. To save any unused tofu, place it in water in an airtight container and store it in your fridge for up to a week.
Kari Hartel, RD, LD is a Registered, Licensed Dietitian and freelance writer based out of St. Louis, MO. Kari is passionate about nutrition education and the prevention of chronic disease through a healthy diet and active lifestyle. Kari holds a Bachelor of Science in Dietetics from Southeast Missouri State University and is committed to helping people lead healthy lives. She completed a yearlong dietetic internship at OSF St. Francis Medical Center in Peoria, IL, where she worked with a multitude of clients and patients with complicated diagnoses. She planned, marketed, and implemented nutrition education programs and cooking demonstrations for the general public as well as for special populations, including patients with cancer, heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease, obesity, and school-aged children. Contact Kari at KariHartelRD@gmail.com.