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The Benefits Of Tofu - Questions And Answers About Cooking With Tofu

Despite the versatility and well-known benefits of tofu, many people are too quick to say that they simply don’t care for it. Tofu is a particularly intimidating and unfamiliar food for some, but in fact, it’s one of the most versatile and nutritious food staples available. The secret lies in knowing what kind of tofu to buy and how to use it in the kitchen. The truth about tofu is actually worlds away from the numerous misconceptions about bland, tasteless cubes of rubbery vegetable protein. One of the many benefits of tofu is that it easily takes on the flavors of whatever you’re making. It’s also inexpensive, readily available and easy to store and use. It’s no wonder various Asian cultures have perfected hundreds of ways of producing tofu and using it in their cuisines. Let’s take a look at this healthful food powerhouse, and learn some easy ways to incorporate it into any diet.

What is tofu, and how is it made?

Tofu is soybean curd, made from soy milk in much the same way that cheese is made from cow’s milk. Most large-scale manufacturers of tofu make their own soy milk, to which they then add an agent to cause coagulation, usually a salt or an acid. When a coagulant is added to the hot-boiled soy milk, it causes curds (made of protein and fat) to form. These curds are tofu. The excess liquid is squeezed out, and the remaining solid curds are pressed into blocks. Traditionally, a compound called nigari (magnesium sulfate, extracted from sea water) is the substance of choice used to cause coagulation. Most companies that manufacture tofu for Western consumption use gypsum (calcium sulfate, which produces a tofu high in calcium), or a combination of coagulation agents to achieve the specific desired texture.

One of the main benefits of tofu produced for Western consumption is that it typically comes in aseptic packages that will keep without refrigeration for up to a year if unopened. It is also available fresh in tubs that require refrigeration. Once open, this type of tofu should be stored in a water-filled container, with the water changed daily to preserve freshness. Keep an eye on tofu after you open it, and if it smells sour, throw it out. If you live in a larger city, you may be able to find an Asian market that produces its own fresh tofu. In regular grocery stores and health food stores, though, you’ll typically find three main varieties of tofu; firm (sometimes extra-firm as well), soft and silken.

Firm tofu is dense, and holds its shape easily. It’s best for slicing, stir-frying, marinating, and grilling. It has the highest protein, calcium and fat content of all types of tofu. Soft tofu is more gelatinous, and it works well in soups and as an egg replacer, since its consistency is similar to that of a hard-boiled egg white. Silken tofu is curdled in its package and not drained, resulting in a creamy tofu with high-moisture content. It’s great for blending and can be used in many recipes that require dairy products. Almost all recipes that call for tofu will be very specific about what type to buy.

What’s so great about tofu?

The numerous health benefits of tofu and other soy foods have been the subject of many nutritional studies in recent years. Looking at tofu nutrition information, it’s impossible to deny that tofu is a dietary dream. Tofu is a cholesterol-free source of low-fat, high-quality protein and several essentials vitamins and minerals, such as iron, calcium and magnesium. Along with other soy foods, tofu is an excellent and healthful addition to any diet, particularly as a protein mainstay in vegetarian and vegan diets. Soy foods like tofu are usually high in fiber as well, which adds cleansing bulk to the diet without adding calories. This combination of fiber and protein nourishes the body and helps the stomach to feel full for longer periods of time, reducing cravings for high-calorie, low-nutrient foods. Tofu and other soy foods are smart choices for anyone trying to lose weight without sacrificing good nutrition.

Weight loss and healthy weight maintenance aren’t the only benefits of tofu and other soy products. Tofu contains omega-3 fatty acids, which help to combat heart disease. Soy protein also helps to lower blood pressure in individuals who consume at least 25 grams of it daily. No research has conclusively identified the soy protein itself as being responsible for lowering blood pressure, although this may indeed be the case.

However, it is obvious that the more one does to replace animal protein (which has cholesterol and more fat, particularly saturated fat) with soy protein, the lower one’s blood pressure and cholesterol is likely to be.

Tofu and other soy foods have low glycemic indexes compared to many other foods. This, and the fact that tofu is high in dietary fiber, makes it an excellent choice for diabetics, because this combination of fiber and low glycemic index helps to stabilize blood sugar levels. Soy foods like tofu have also been linked to a decreased risk of breast cancer when introduced in adolescence. In fact, certain phytochemicals in soy, called isoflavones, have been linked to reduced risk for several types of cancer, including colon, breast and prostate cancers. These results are promising, but by no means conclusive. More research will naturally need to be done, but the health benefits of tofu due to its high-quality protein, fiber and essential nutrients are already indisputable.

How do I begin cooking with tofu?

Tofu is simple to buy, store and use. You can find it in the produce or dairy sections of most regular grocery stores and health food stores. Follow the directions on the package for storing the tofu, and check the expiration date. Firm, soft and silken tofus are all available in aseptic packages that will keep for a year at room temperature, if unopened.

You can also freeze any kind of tofu, but be aware that freezing will change the texture and color of the tofu. For some recipes, this is desirable, as freezing causes ice crystals to form in the tofu, creating a spongy, chewy texture that soaks up marinades well and stands up to many different methods of cooking. Tofu is easy to incorporate into your family’s diet. Here are some suggestions on how to integrate tofu at dinnertime plus an easy barbecued-tofu recipe that will knock your socks off!

* For a protein boost, add finely diced firm tofu to soups, pastas and stews. You can also mix it in with ground meat for tacos, chili and burgers. Start by replacing some of the meat with tofu to eliminate saturated fat and cholesterol, and before you know it, you might just prefer burgers made completely from mashed tofu, bread crumbs or beans, onions, garlic and other seasonings. Get creative!

* Freeze extra firm tofu for several days, then thaw out to use as a meat replacement. Cut into chunks or strips and use exactly as you would the meat in any recipe. Frozen and defrosted tofu absorbs marinades particularly well. Be adventurous – you won’t believe how well tofu works in most recipes until you try it.

* For an easy, dairy-free and delicious onion dip, put a package of silken tofu into the food processor with an envelope of dried onion soup mix. Add a handful of fresh herbs to really perk up the flavor. Blend until creamy and serve with chips or crackers. This also makes a wonderful sandwich spread. You can mix this spread with diced soft tofu and a little yellow mustard for a high-protein, no-cholesterol eggless salad.

* Puree fruits or vegetables with soft tofu for baby’s first food – it’s high in protein and free of processed sugar. This will help your baby to develop a taste for healthful soy foods early in life! Just be sure that your baby isn’t allergic to soy before you try this.

* Easy Barbecued Tofu

  • 1 ½ pounds extra-firm tofu
  • 1 small yellow onion, minced
  • 1-2 tablespoons oil
  • 1 cup canned plain tomato sauce
  • 5 tablespoons soy sauce
  • 2 tablespoons molasses
  • 2 tablespoons white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

Cut the tofu into strips about an inch wide and half an inch thick; set aside. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

In a saucepan, sauté the onion in oil until golden and translucent. Add the tomato sauce, soy sauce, molasses, vinegar, and Worcestershire sauce and stir until well-combined. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 10 minutes. Brush a shallow baking pan first with oil, then with a small amount of the sauce.

Lay the tofu in the pan in a single layer and pour the remaining sauce over the top. Allow to marinate at room temperature for half an hour. (Forty-five minutes is better!) Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the sauce has formed a slight crust on the tofu. Enjoy – this recipe is high in protein and flavor!

The thing to understand about tofu is that it really isn’t the exclusive domain of vegetarians and dieters. It’s often the first thing we think of when we imagine militant vegetarians eating carrot sticks and sprouts, touting the many benefits of tofu while secretly feeling deprived. But many people around the world, vegetarian and otherwise, enjoy tofu as part of a balanced, varied diet. In fact, tofu is so highly prized by Korean culture that there are entire restaurants whose menus are completely devoted to tofu prepared in a myriad of ways. Why not try a few of these methods for yourself, and give tofu a chance?

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