These are good times for tofu lovers, with an expanding market and growing options.
When Jenny Yang bought the Chicago-based company Phoenix Bean in 2006, she was keeping it from going out of business. Now, she is among a number of producers who are expanding offerings to include items like Chinese-style smoked tofu and tofu noodles.
“Tofu is not just a block,” said Ms. Yang, whose small-batch products feature local ingredients like Illinois soybeans grown specifically for her brand and Great Lakes water. “We have baked, we have shredded tofu, we have flavored.”
Tofu is a staple of cooking in China, where it was invented 2,000 years ago, and throughout Asia. In the United States, tofu consumption has roughly doubled — to 9 percent of domestic households — since before the pandemic, according to Pulmuone Foods, the country’s leading producer. (The market is estimated at $142 million, up from $100.6 million in 2019.) And makers are preparing for even greater growth: Pulmuone has significantly increased production capacity, as has Phoenix Bean.
“We are ready to get to the next phase, to provide people with different options,” Ms. Yang said.
The rising popularity of plant-based cooking is also seeding a groundswell of interest in celebrating tofu’s power and potential. If you’re new to tofu — or even if you’re not — you may not know the full depth and breadth of styles, and what to use when. Don’t let that hinder you. In fact, you can consider tofu as falling into three broad categories: basic, chewy and intensely flavored.
Tofu’s Wide Range
Making tofu is a simple yet nuanced craft: High-protein food-grade soybeans are carefully selected and soaked, made into soy milk and coagulated with a salt or edible organic acid, or both. The resulting semisolid curds and clear whey are further manipulated for different kinds of tofu.
As a general rule, your needs and where you shop will determine the tofu you select. Most recipes call for basic tofu, sold in tubs or vacuum-sealed packages. Its neutral character and porous texture make it a kind of culinary chameleon, allowing it to easily take on flavors, whether in earthy braises or zippy stir-fries, or served crisped and served with a dipping sauce.
Texture is determined by if and how the curds are pressed. Basic tofu options include silken, medium, medium-firm, firm, extra-firm and super-firm. Many dishes involve slicing, cubing and mashing tofu, but, depending on its density, it can be scooped, crumbled and even grated.
While mainstream supermarkets typically carry only silken and firmer types, Asian grocers offer the full spectrum, with medium and medium-firm tofu as the go-to for many cooks when preparing classics, such as mapo tofu and agedashi tofu.
Available at Chinese and Vietnamese markets and at tofu shops, custardy tofu pudding with ginger syrup is a popular treat. You can make a shortcut version at home using silken tofu.
Pressed (baked) tofu, tofu sheets and fried tofu are all styles of chewy tofu. Their low-water content makes them especially convenient, requiring minimal prep or manipulation. Hannah Che, author of “The Vegan Chinese Kitchen” (Clarkson Potter, 2022) and the chef of Surong, a vegan modern Chinese pop-up in Portland, Ore., uses pressed tofu sheets, cut into ribbons, in her liángbàn gāndòufusī, a shredded tofu salad.
Some dishes specify a certain kind of chewy tofu — think fried tofu pouches for inari sushi — but when you are experimenting, just cut the tofu and add it to soups, hot pots, rolls, salads and sandwiches. It is no-fail tofu.
Pressed tofu, which is sold unseasoned (plain) or flavored (labeled braised or baked), is available at some mainstream grocers, East Asian markets and tofu shops.
Fried tofu belongs to the realm of Asian grocers. Mostly sold at Chinese markets, nubby tofu sheets are worth seeking out. (Despite its name, tofu skin, or yuba, is only a film of soy milk, so it is not technically tofu, which involves a coagulant.)
Intensely flavored tofu includes stinky tofu, a deep-fried favorite in Taiwan. But what gets more action — especially as an umami-packed seasoning — are white and red fermented tofu (a.k.a. fermented bean curd), which are sold in jars at Chinese and Vietnamese markets in the condiments section. Much like cheese, they vary in fabulous funk. White fermented tofu can be fragrant and winy, rich from sesame oil or spicy from chile. It commonly seasons stir-fried greens but can be combined with lemongrass and lime for a vibrant Vietnamese sauce to serve with crudités. Sweet, salty and aromatic red fermented tofu contains red yeast rice and is often used for Cantonese char siu pork.
How to Use It
Tofu’s beauty lies in its cross-cultural applications. For example, if ricotta is unavailable for lasagna, use mashed medium-firm tofu. Medium-firm or firm tofu can take the place of mozzarella in a vegan caprese. In a stir-fry, partly or fully replace the meat with sliced pressed (baked) tofu. To use it in moist, low-meat burgers, add one part mashed firm tofu to two parts meat. Bear in mind that tofu is fully cooked, so you can always taste it to ensure the flavors work before adding it to raw protein.
Wherever your tofu journey leads you, consider it as having the Chinese notion of bāoróng de gèxìng, a very generous nature.
“I think generous can mean versatile,” said Ms. Che, the author and chef. “But also I think it’s just very forgiving to work with.”