Seven Things I Learned From Making Tofu
By Sarah A. Maine
I am the kind of person that likes to look under the hood to find out how things work and how they are made. I love visiting factories, learning crafts, and watching How it’s Made on the Science Channel. Understanding the processes behind things helps me to make better choices whether I am choosing furniture, electronics, or most importantly – food. Processed food forms a large part of the modern diet and most people know very little about what goes into creating the food items in their pantry and fridge. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about ‘knowing where your food comes from’ but less about what has been done to it on the way to your plate. Processing food is an ancient human practice; any type of treatment that is applied to food after it has been harvested is defined as processing – fermenting, drying, salting, canning, even cooking. What is new is that most processed food that is packaged and sold in stores includes chemical agents that extend shelf life, boost flavor, and create consistent textures. When an ingredient list on a package doesn’t sound like food – I don’t buy it. I end up not buying a lot of things, I didn’t buy tofu for a long time because I wasn’t sure what it was. A lot of ancient foods have been manipulated to the point where they no longer resemble their original ancestors. Tofu is one such food, which is why I needed to take a closer look at how it’s made – here are some things that I learned:
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Seven Things I Learned From Making Tofu
- Soy milk is soy juice that has been extracted from soybeans that have been soaked, ground, heated and then pressed. I had always been mildly suspicious of soy milk, since it is not technically a ‘milk’ (there are no milk producing soy beasts roaming the countryside chewing their cud) – I felt that there must be something untoward going on to make it. I was so happy to be wrong! Now that I know what it takes to make soy milk, I know what shouldn’t be in it. Many soy milk brands include preservatives, stabilizers and flavor agents in their products, so be sure to look at the ingredient list when you are buying soy milk and choose the one with the fewest ingredients. For example Eden Soy organic unsweetened soy milk contains: reverse osmosis purified water and organic soybeans – done!
- The process of turning soy milk into tofu is very similar to the process of turning milk into cheese. Tofu is the by-product of curdling heated soy milk with a coagulant and then straining the curds. There are three kinds of coagulants; salt coagulants (gypsum, Epsom salt, Nigari salts), acid coagulants (vinegar, citric acid) and enzyme coagulants (papain, protease). The type of coagulant used affects the texture of the tofu – in my little home experiment the salt coagulant produced more firm curds than the acid coagulant. The texture of tofu is further determined by the amount of water that is retained in the curd – the more water you press out, the more dense your tofu will be.
- Ground up soybeans create a ton of foam when they are heated! Use a very deep pot when you are boiling the freshly ground soybeans – copious amounts of foam are produced and can boil over in the blink of an eye. A sprinkle of cold water can cause the foam to drop back a little. Whatever you do – keep stirring and don’t turn your back on it! If you don’t have a very deep pot, split your mixture of ground up soybeans and water into two batches and heat them separately – you can strain it all through the same cheesecloth. From what I could tell the volume of tofu produced was a little less than the volume of dried beans that I started with – I haven’t found any information on the exact ratio, if you know the hard numbers please leave a comment below.
- It doesn’t take that long to make tofu – about half an hour to make soy milk, and another half hour to make the finished curds. The most time consuming part of the process is soaking the beans overnight so that they are ready to use. It is a simple and fun learning experience – I highly recommend doing it at least once!
- It doesn’t take any special equipment to make tofu. You need a food processor, a large pot (a deep one if possible – see #3 above), a thermometer, a ladle, some large bowls, cheesecloth, a colander, a porous mold (a tofu press, a container with drainage holes poked in it, or a colander lined with cheesecloth), something heavy to use as a weight, and curiosity about how things are made.
- Good tofu embodies opposites – it is simultaneously ethereal and earthy, it is cloud-like but also dense, it is simple but also complex, it is creamy but also textured. Fresh-made tofu has a very subtle flavor but it is by no means as tasteless as the standard hermetically sealed store bought type. If you don’t feel like making your own tofu (and I don’t blame you if you don’t), find out if there is anyone making and selling fresh tofu in your area and buy from them.
- Making tofu is fun! It’s fun and really rewarding – I learned new things, I got do what is essentially a science experiment in my kitchen (without any danger of blowing stuff up), and I got to eat a tasty meal at the end. I highly recommend it – be sure to let us know how your adventures in making tofu turn out!
Sarah A. Maine is a Co-Founder and Editor of RecipeRelay. She heartily encourages everyone to look deeper into how their food is processed and to share any insights with the RecipeRelay community. What other mystery foods should we tackle?