How to use Tofu in Western cooking

Tofu is one of most healthy, economical, and versatile plant-based proteins. Yet, western cooks tend to use just one variety — firm or extra firm.

While a lot of people enjoy firm tofu, there are other types that are easier to use and better suited towards non-Asian cooking styles. Below is an explanation of why firm tofu is challenging, as well as some recommendations for finding and using other varieties.

Challenges with Firm Tofu

Firm tofu has three downsides.

First, it is naturally bland and needs to be well seasoned. In China, these problems are overcome by steaming with salty sauces, frying then stir frying with plenty of liquid, or pre-poaching in salty water. While effective, these techniques are difficult or unappealing to many western cooks, who may not have a steamer at home, and may shy away from deep fried foods. (Poaching is the exception.) Some American cooks try to solve the flavor issue by first “pressing” it to remove as much moisture as possible, then “marinating” it with different seasonings. This solution, however, takes mountains of time, and flavor absorption is poor.

Second, firm tofu’s texture isn’t amenable to western tastes or cooking methods. Many Americans dislike that dry, crumbly, cakey mouthfeel.

Third, firm tofu tastes really beany. While this is a positive for tofu aficionados, most Americans prefer a more neutral taste.

Luckily, flavor absorption, mouthfeel, and beanyness aren’t inherent to tofu, just firm tofu. So if you plan to experiment with western style dishes, I’d recommend trying the following options:

Pressed tofu

Pressed tofu (dougan)

What it is: densely pressed tofu, in blocks or thin sheets, that is usually pre-smoked or pre-stewed in spices

How it’s different: it’s flavorful, has a more resilient structure, and tastes less beany

Where to buy: most Asian grocery stores (Chinese, Korean, Japanese)

Chinese preparations: 1) sliced into strips or slices, fried to crisp up, then stir fried. 2) sliced into strips or slices, blanched to soften, then stir fried or mixed with cold dressing. 3) grilled. 4) diced, mixed with other vegetables and seasonings, and used as a filling for dumplings.

Tips for western cooking: try grilling with different spice rubs or dicing and sautéing with aromatics for a sauce/filling/topping (tacos, nachos, etc.).

Yuba (youdoupi)

What it is: a film that forms atop heated soymilk, eaten fresh or dried.

How it’s different: flavor is richer, texture is thin and chewy.

Where to buy: most Asian grocery stores

Chinese preparations: 1) used as a wrap for vegetables, mushrooms, meats, etc. then fried and steamed. 2) side for hot pot. 3) rolled into sticks (fuzhu), seasoned and served as a cold dish or stir fried.

Tips for western cooking: try slicing into thin strips and adding to soups to provide more body, or using as a wrap and grilling.

Thousand Sheets

Thousand Sheets (qianzhang)

What it is: thinly pressed tofu sheets

How it’s different: low moisture, less beanyness, resilient texture

Where to buy: Chinese grocery stores

Chinese preparations: 1) sliced into thin strips (doufusi), seasoned and served as a cold salad. 2) as a wrap for fresh vegetables and aromatics, served with salty bean sauce. 3) chopped and stir fried.

Tips for western cooking: try making fresh vegetable wraps and cold salads.

Q-tan Tofu

Q-tan Tofu (qianyedoufu)

What it is: tofu made from soy protein, not whole beans.

How it’s different: completely different texture (soft, chewy, spongy), different flavor.

Where to buy: Chinese grocery stores

Chinese preparations: 1) sliced into thin slices or strips and stir fried.

Tips for western cooking: try slicing into thin sheets, seasoning, and baking or grilling.

Fermented Tofu

Fermented Tofu (furu)

What it is: the “cheese” of tofu. Little cubes that have been seasoned and fermented

How it’s different: umami, salty, highly aromatic

Where to buy: most Asian grocery stores

Chinese preparations: 1) added to dipping sauces, stir fries. 2) rubbed onto breads or pastries

Tips for western cooking: try some on your favorite sandwich, or add to dipping or stir fry sauces.

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