I was shopping for tofu today at Trader Joe’s and young guy was standing in front of the tofu section with a confused look on his face. Trader Joe’s sells four (4!) kinds of tofu in tubs or vacumn- sealed packaging. I usually am the one lingering at the tofu section trying to find the package that has the farthest out “Best By” date. He was standing and staring so I asked what he was looking to make with tofu.
“What’s the difference between all these?” he said. I noted that in his basket, he already had a package of teriyaki flavored “baked tofu”. But he was looking to pick up some unflavored tofu too. In his twenties, his nails and cuticles were a little dirty from having worked with lots of dirt or grease. A gardener or mechanic? I wasn’t about to ask about his profession. I was happy to know that tofu intrigues and appeals to many kinds of people.
Sensing that he was feeling awkward admitting his tofu confusion to a stranger, I gave him the very quick low down in about 90 seconds. When I finished, he said, “Thanks for the tofu primer! Enjoy your tofu.”
Tofu is a mystery to many people and buying it can also be difficult. Like clothing sizes, there’s no standardization for the silken, soft, medium, medium-firm, firm, extra-firm, and super-firm. Manufacturers have a lot of latitude on the texture.
If you wonder about how to buy tofu at the store, here’s a short video produced for the Asian Tofu cookbook.
I made and bought a lot of tofu for the book. And in general, the firmer the tofu, the harder the texture, and the more protein it contains by weight. You can guesstimate the texture and density by the amount of protein in a standard 3-ounce serving. Look at the nutrition label.
My benchmarks for buying tofu that is neither too soft nor too firm for its class are:
This is what I bought today at Trader Joe’s:
What determines the firmness of tofu? Tofu texture depends on several factors, including how much pressure is put on the curds and the coagulant(s) used. Because the Trader Joe's tofu contains a coagulant called glucono delta lactone, the texture is a touch firmer than extra-firm. More on other kinds of tofu coagulants here.
Are there cultural differences between tofu textures? Sometimes a brand may have a protein count that’s different because it’s producing for a different audience. In general, Japanese-style tofu is softer than other kinds. Vietnamese tofu is a bit firmer than Japanese and Chinese because it’s traditionally shaped as logs. The shape, made in long molds, produces a skin around the tofu block which holds its shape.
In addition to the buying tips that I gave to the young man at Trader Joe's, I added this: Don’t be afraid of the tofu breaking up during cooking. Use tender (less firm) tofu because it absorbs flavors better. Super-firm tofu is good for certain things but it is so dense that it doesn't take on seasonings well.
If you have a tofu question, let me know! I'll try to answer it.