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No food item in the history of mankind has been loved and hated as much as tofu. Well, I take that back, fruit cake should at least get an honorable mention, but tofu and fruit cake are loved and hated for often the same reasons. They both have a very strange texture, and the flavors in both foods are often a little less than you expect. But this is where tofu knocks the fruit cake right out of the park, because tofu, instead of staying bland and tasteless, easily absorbs flavor and with a little cooking and the right techniques, tofu can be almost anything you want it to be, whereas fruit cake is just… fruit cake.

How It’s Made:
Tofu is made almost the exact same way that cheese is made, but with one critical difference. It is made from soybeans, not milk, although the white liquid that it originates strongly resembles milk. The soybean “milk” is heated and the curd that rises to the top is scooped off, and pressed into blocks of varying textures. Each different type of texture is used in different recipes, from solid chunks cooked in a stir fry, to smoothies.

Types of Tofu:
Tofu usually varies between two main types, silken or firm, with different levels of firmness depending on the water content of each type.

Silken tofu is soft, no matter how much water it retains, and the difference between firm silken tofu and soft silken tofu is very slight. It can be cooked much like scrambled eggs can, but it is usually added as a moisturizer to recipes, or to create denser texture in baked items, desserts, and added to sauces or creams.

Solid tofu is more dense than silken tofu, with 3 different textures, soft, firm and extra firm. It usually comes packed in water to keep it moist, much like fresh mozzarella cheese. Soft tofu is just that, soft, with a creamy texture that does not stand up to grilling or “stand alone” cooking. It is used much like silken tofu. Firm tofu stands up to heat a little bit better, and can be stir fried, broiled, or baked in a variety of recipes, as a compliment or a substitution for the “meat”. Extra firm tofu is the most dense of the three, has the least water content, and has been pressed heavily for a long time. It can stand up to even the most vigorous grilling or sauteeing, and can be crumbled much like Feta cheese, especially after being frozen.

Why Eat It?
Tofu is loved for its nutritional qualities above all. It is very protein dense, so it makes a valid nutritional substitute for meat and poultry, especially for those who live vegetarian and vegan lifestyles.  It has phytochemicals that fight heart diesease, flavenoids that protect against menopause and breast cancer, and no cholesterol and relatively low calories, make it a great tool for dieters. Tofu can be served as a side dish, as a main course, as an obvious ingredient, or can be hidden entirely, (great for picky kids). As I said above, tofu can add moisture and texture to dishes that need it, and wont change the flavor of the dish much, if at all. It has a very slight nutty flavor that compliments almost any combination of spices, especially ginger, coconut, cilantro, curry, and soy sauce.

One of the few difficulties that people find when cooking with tofu is that the dense and slightly slimy texture is almost impervious to marinating. The outer layer of the tofu usually benefits the most from sitting in a flavorful soak, but the inside usually remains unaffected. You can freeze your tofu beforehand, which makes the air molecules inside it expand, which tend to help a little bit, but you will be more successful if you chunk your tofu and cook it in the liquid marinade instead.

Where and What to Buy?
The best place to get good tofu is an Asian marketplace or specialty food store like Trader Joe’s, or Whole Food’s Market. Look for a name brand, or distinctly Asian packaging, and make sure the label has the originating country posted somewhere on it.

Then What?
Tofu is truly a universal ingredient. It can be deep fried, pan fired, browned, grilled, sauteed, smoked, braised, broiled, scrambled, made into a sauce, added to soups, mixed with mayo, served over rice or noodles, used in place of beef or chicken, and flavored with just about anything. It doesnt have to be scary, bland, or squishy. Search the web for a classic tofu recipe, or try one of your own with tofu as a substitute. An easy swap is chicken and snow pea stir fry with tofu instead of the chicken, cut into small bite size pieces, or a traditional Mexican fajita recipe with tofu, as the spices give a great flavor to the tofu and the texture is about the same.

For great tofu recipes try:

Eating Well: Tofu

About.com : Vegetarian: Tofu

RecipesWithTofu.com