What is Tofu? Types, Uses, and Nutrition

Soy food products, especially tofu, are one of the most consumed in the world due to its high protein content and alternative to meat option. Learn what tofu is, how its made, the nutritional profile and ways to add it quickly to meals.

What is Tofu? Types, Uses, and Nutrition

Tofu is the mother of all meat substitutes, but beyond some health-conscious consumers, it has kind of a bad rap. Several mass-produced versions are incredibly rubbery, flavorless and devoid of nutrients. However, anyone who has had good tofu can attest: it’s well worth a second look, especially with it being a nutritional powerhouse.

Soybeans are one of the few plant-based protein sources that contain all nine essential amino acids required for normal function of the body. There are easy ways to take the subtly sweet and nutty flavors of the curds and use it in a variety of culinary applications to create delicious meals. Let’s learn more about the different types of tofu, benefits, and ways to cook it!

So, what is tofu?

Bowl of tofu cubes next to a bowl of soybeans

Tofu is made from soybeans, water, and a coagulating agent, otherwise known as bean curd. The process is similar to cheese, by curdling fresh soy milk, pressing it into a solid block and then cooling it.

Tofu has a mild flavor profile, which means it absorbs the flavor of whatever it’s cooked or dressed with. Tofu has earned a permanent spot on the shelves as a meat substitute for vegetarians and those on the vegan diet. Tofu is also high in soy protein and calcium, making it an ideal way for plant-based eaters to get core nutrients. Of course, for centuries, it has also been a staple in Asian cuisine, being consumed with or without meat.

Types of Tofu and Uses

A block of tofu sliced into four pieces on a cutting board

There are different kinds of tofu that can be purchased from grocery stores, usually falling under one of two umbrella categories: silken and regular. However, depending on the food manufacturer, other textures are available like soft, medium-firm, firm and extra-firm.

The firmness is dependent on how much coagulant is used and how long the curd is pressed while making tofu. There are also organic tofu options, which guarantees no genetically modified organisms. The firmness level provides more opportunities for how tofu can be prepared.

Different types of tofu firmness

Silken Tofu: Also referred to as Japanese, silk or soft tofu with consistency so smooth it will fall apart if not handled with care. It’s commonly packaged in aseptic boxes, which don’t require refrigeration, although there are refrigerated options. Smoothies, salad dressings, desserts, puddings, and sauces employ silken tofu by pureeing it to a smooth paste to add texture and improve creamy consistency. It can also be used as an egg replacer.

Regular Tofu: Also called bean curd or Chinese-style tofu and is much more common. This is the kind of tofu you’ll find in water containers in the refrigerated section of the supermarket. Here are the types:

  • Soft Tofu: Very tender, with a custard-like texture. It can hold its shape if delicately handled when cooked. Breaks up well for breakfast scrambles as an egg substitute, added to soups like miso, and baked.
  • Medium-Firm, Firm, and Extra-Firm: More whey is pressed from the curd, so these tend to be denser, tender with extra chew, and hold its shape very well during vigorous cooking. Medium-firm is for soups, stews, curries, searing and baking. Firm and extra-firm can be marinated, grilled, fried, used in stir-frying, and added to noodle dishes that have more agitation when cooked. Firm and extra-firm are mostly the same, so it more depends on preference and availability.

Most recipes should indicate which style of tofu is needed: soft, medium, firm or extra-firm are the designations. They’re not interchangeable except for firm and extra-firm.

Tofu Nutrition

Large cubes of tofu in a bowl next to a spoon full of soybeans

Vegans and vegetarians will rejoice in good tofu for its source of protein and taste quality. Although since it’s processed and made from soybeans, those on the Whole 30 or Paleo diets will NOT be able to eat it.

For everyone else, the nutritional benefits of eating tofu include the potential to reduce the risk of diabetes, increased bone health from calcium and a lower risk of developing heart disease. Primarily, this is believed to come from soy isoflavones, which are natural plant compounds thought to have a variety of health benefits.

Nutritional Profile: Per 4 ounces of tofu, there is approximately 96 calories, 12g protein, 4.7g total fat, 1g carbohydrates, 1g dietary fiber, 166 mg calcium, and 1.9 mg iron. (Reference: House Foods firm tofu)

Storing

Tofu tastes best when eaten as fresh as possible, so check the packaging dates. Once it’s open, it’s highly perishable. If you don’t use all of the tofu at one time, submerge the bean curd in cold water, refrigerate and store in an airtight container. Replace the water each day, for up to a week. If the tofu starts to smell or taste sour, it’s time to toss it out and get more!

Tofu recipes you might like

Do you cook with tofu? I’d love to know what you make and your experiences working with this ingredient in the comments section below!

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Jessica Gavin

I'm a culinary school graduate, cookbook author, and a mom who loves croissants! My passion is creating recipes and sharing the science behind cooking to help you gain confidence in the kitchen.

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12 Comments Leave a comment or review

  1. Judy says

    Hi Jessica,

    I have always wondered how to season tofu. I’m happy to have this information from you to try. You are my source, the one I trust for all good recipes. I have made many of your recipes and they are always perfect.

    I love that I have your potato salad recipe and it tastes like my moms but with an added touch of flavor and having the right amounts of ingredients so it’s not too heavy on any of the condiments.

    I’m in rainy WA state right now with my mom and missing the CA sunshine. Think I will make some of your potato salad for her.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Your comments always make me so happy Judy! Thank you for trusting me with your culinary needs, you have the best questions and feedback 🙂 I can’t wait to hear what your mom thinks about the potato salad, but I”m sure her version is still the best!

  2. Moriah says

    Hello! I’m new to wanting to be a vegitarian and am basically looking at tofu to replace my meats and eggs. What would you consider to be a good first-time-tofu-eater recipe for someone who has never had tofu before except in miso soup?

  3. Sharanya says

    Hi!
    I loved your article and found out a lot about ‘Tofu’. I recently consumed it and loved it’s silkiness and softness.
    Thanks a lot for this piece of information about my new favourite ingredient!
    Can you recommend some basic Tofu recipes with ingredients easily available, except for the ones you posted at the end of your article?
    It will be a great help!
    Thanks a lot in advance.

    • Jessica Gavin says

      Isn’t tofu amazing? All I have are the ones at the end of the article, and there is a link right below with more. Will try to make some more soon!

  4. Tiarra Mccorkle says

    Love it you explained it in such a awesome way. I’m a meat lover but I’m currently low on iron so I’m going to give it a try. Is there a brand you use ?

  5. Pat says

    I loved reading your articles. I’m recently widowed n have loss 30 lbs and am eating plant based. Recently tried tofu appetizer general toas tofu chunks. Loved it. I’d live to get input on tofu I believe it’s something I’d like to use. As I’m trying to reduce cholesterol with out statins. Thx

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