Vegans have a strict diet consisting of plants and plant-based foods only. Luckily, tofu falls in that category. While tofu is made from coagulating soy milk into curd, the milk comes from the soaking of beans and not animals.
So, is tofu vegan-friendly, yes! Unfortunately, not all types of tofu are to be consumed by vegans. Keep reading as we answer frequently asked questions such as the types of tofu, its benefits, and how to prepare it.
What Is Tofu?
Tofu is a type of food made by coagulating soybean milk and pressing the curd into blocks. Its origin dates back 2000 years ago in China during the Han dynasty regime, where Chinese legends ascribe the invention of tofu to Prince Liu An of Anhui province.
From China, the Japanese discovered tofu during the Nara period. From there, tofu became known in Vietnam in the 10th-11th century. After that, its discovery spread to Southeast Asia and soon was a staple in many countries, including Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea.
Tofu production entails three steps:
- The preparation of soy milk
- The coagulation of the soy milk to form curds
- The pressing of the soybean curds to form tofu cakes
The process begins when dried soybeans are cleaned and soaked in water, crushed, then boiled. The mixture is then separated into the pulp(okara) and the soy milk. A salt coagulant is added to separate the curd from the whey fiber further.
The soy milk is poured into molds so the high carb whey can drain off; the result(tofu cakes) is now cut into squares and preserved underwater for sale. The resulting tofu can have different textures from extra soft, silken, firm, or extra firm, more on this in the next section.
The process can use salt coagulants such as calcium and magnesium chlorides and sulfates or acid coagulants like citric acid or Glucono Delta-Lactone(GDL), a coagulant used in cheese making. You should know the texture from using salt coagulants will be smooth, tender, and a little brittle.
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Tofu is white but could be off-white and yellow depending on the soybeans used, protein composition, and the coagulation process. Yellow tofu is attributed to high levels of color compounds such as anthocyanin, isoflavones, and polyphenol. The whiter version contains more salt, precisely calcium salts that disperse more light giving a whiter appearance.
As for the taste, tofu has a subtle taste, a very bland flavor. Some may have a bean flavor, but pure tofu has no taste and only picks up flavor through preparation.
Types Of Tofu
There are many types of tofu characterized by their texture and added components. More water content makes the tofu softer/silkier, and vice versa. For the first category, we shall look at the difference in texture.
- Silken – it’s soft and creamy tofu with very high moisture content and more delicate than the regular. It’s used to substitute dairy products in smoothies and baking.
- Regular – also soft but holds up its form better than the silken type. Best for use in soups, broths, and stews.
- Firm – most prevalent in the market. It is sold while still submerged in water to keep it fresh. It has a texture similar to feta cheese and is very versatile in the kitchen.
- Extra-firm – contains less water hence doesn’t absorb marinades as well. However, it’s suitable for frying either pan, stir, or deep frying.
- Super firm – it’s the densest type with almost no moisture content. The best meat substitute for vegans.
You may notice that soft/silken or regular tofu is called unpressed. It only means that the water is retained while pressed tofu( firm, extra firm, and super firm) has its moisture drained.
Processed tofu is impure tofu that has been processed to add to its shelf life. Here are the different varieties:
- Fermented – it can be pickled tofu or stinky tofu.
- Frozen – kori tofu that’s freeze fried
- Seasoned tofu – available in different flavors such as tomato and basil. It could also be raw, roasted, or fried.
- Smoked tofu – a type of extra firm tofu that has a smoky flavor.
Another type of tofu you may hear about is the by-products sold in the supermarkets. They include:
- Tofu skin
- Tofu sticks
- Fried tofu
- Tofu pockets
- Tofu puffs
Yes, they are 100% vegan-friendly. Soy milk and tofu are made from soybeans, a legume/plant-based food. The soy milk is extracted after soaking and boiling the beans, while tofu is what’s coagulated into curd.
The only ingredient in soy milk is soybeans and water, while tofu is produced from soybeans, water, and a coagulant. That means it’s safe to be consumed by vegans.
Nonetheless, not all tofu is vegan-friendly. Tofu for vegans has to be pure and unprocessed. From the above section, there are multiple tofu varieties, some of which have added animal products. As for vegans, no animal products are allowed, so impure tofu isn’t vegan-friendly.
Is Tofu Raw Vegan?
You can consume tofu while raw, but again, it has to be the pure version without flavor or processing. Read more about its preparation in the last section.
Is Sesame Tofu Vegan?
Yes, sesame tofu is vegan and can be prepared in two ways. You can marinate your tofu in sesame oil, then fry or roast it, or you can make original sesame tofu by grinding sesame seeds into a paste, adding liquid and starch, then cooking the mixture until it curdles.
Is Coconut Tofu Vegan?
Coconut tofu is also vegan. A common way it’s made is through Bacem, a cooking tofu method from Indonesia, Southeast Asia. The tofu is boiled in coconut water, mixed with lengkuas, Indonesian bay leaves, coriander, shallot, garlic, tamarind, and palm sugar. Allow some time for the spicy coconut water to evaporate; then, you can fry the tofu until it’s golden brown.
Consuming tofu has many incredible benefits, including providing a source of low-fat protein and protection from illness. Here are the top four benefits of tofu.
Rich In Nutrients
Tofu, as a by-product of soy, contains many nutrients, including low calories, B-vitamins, and high protein content (7). It’s also rich in iron, calcium, and magnesium levels, depending on the salt coagulants used in production.
A block of firm tofu weighing approximately 122 grams can contain:
- 177 calories
- 5.36 g of carbohydrate
- 12.19 g of fat
- 15.57 g of protein
- 421 mg of calcium
- 65 of magnesium
- 3.35 mg of iron
- 282 mg of phosphorus
- 178 mg of potassium
- 2 mg of zinc
- 27 micrograms (mcg) of folate
Easy To Digest
During production, soybean curd is separated from the whey fiber, making it easy to digest. For vegans who feed on plant-based foods, digestion can be a long process since plant foods have antinutrients that could block enzymes needed to digest protein.
Thanks to soaking and cooking the soybeans, antinutrients such as phytates and trypsin inhibitors are deactivated and eliminated. Tofu now has reduced antinutrients making it easy to digest and allows minerals to be easily absorbed in the body.
Sprouting soybeans before tofu production can also reduce phytates by 56% and trypsin inhibitors by 81%, while also increasing protein content by 13% (3). All this allows the tofu to be easily digestible.
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Tofu contains low amounts of saturated fat, which can help reduce blood cholesterol and ultimately reduces the risk of heart diseases. Many studies and reports claim that replacing animal protein with tofu, as a soyfood, can significantly decrease serum lipids and triglyceride concentrations, leading to better health. However, this didn’t mean an increase in the high-density lipoprotein, which is the “good cholesterol” (1).
Soy phytoestrogens absorbed onto the soy protein also aid in lowering serum cholesterol levels, which help the body fight against many health conditions. More about phytoestrogens, next!
Tofu is high in natural plant compounds called isoflavones. They have many properties, including anticancer, antioxidant, and antidiabetic. These properties carry with them significant benefits, including:
- May reduce the risk of osteoporosis caused by reduced bone density and increased fractures.
- May lower the rates of hormone-induced cancers such as breast, endometrial, and prostate cancer. Because of their antioxidant properties, they may inhibit the growth of cancer cells.
- It may reduce menopausal symptoms thanks to phytoestrogens, which have both estrogen-agonist or estrogen-antagonist properties (8).
- May aid to fight against cardiovascular diseases (6).
- May help with type two diabetes.
- Soy isoflavones may have a positive influence on memory and brain function, especially for older women.
How To Prepare Tofu?
Silken, regular, and firm tofu can be taken raw, in stews, scrambled, or fried. Firmer tofu needs more aggressive heat, hence best prepared by frying, barbecue, grilling, or roasting.
Below are the different methods you can use to prepare tofu:
- Raw – it’s safe to consume raw just cut into smaller pieces, so it doesn’t feel too coarse, best for smoothies or dip.
- Heating – silken tofu can easily be added to heated foods like soup or broth. Just cut into bite-size pieces.
- By steaming – if you’re looking for a velvety texture. Steaming is reserved for silken and regular tofu only. Steam for just ten to 15 minutes, cut, marinade, and enjoy.
- Stewing – this is the best way for tofu to absorb flavors. Use either firm or extra-firm tofu, so it doesn’t break as it cooks.
- Frying – you can pan fry, stir fry, or deep fry your tofu, but firmer tofu styles are best for this preparation.
- Scramble – use silken tofu to crumble with a fork over high heat, like you would for scrambled eggs.
Furthermore, you can roast it in the oven as a snack for about 20 to 35 minutes or barbecue/grill the tofu for just five to ten minutes. Always use extra-firm or super firm tofu, so it doesn’t crumble in the process. Remember not to toss it often.
Cutting And Draining
For most of these recipes, you have to drain the tofu further to remove moisture. Moisture interferes with the cooking and doesn’t absorb marinades well. Using paper towels, press down against the tofu and allow it some time to get rid of the water.
There are many ways you can cut your tofu, but this can affect the texture. Thicker pieces absorb less marinade and remain spongy, while thinner cuts are best for frying as they crisp better.
Several cutting options include:
- Grating – added on top of your meals as you would with cheese.
- Tearing – added to soups and broths.
- Scrambling/ crumbling.
- Pureeing – this makes it very smooth/ paste-like added to smoothies.
As for marinating tofu, tofu soaks up flavors, but that’s limited to stewing or heating. It would be best to marinate it to maximize flavor when frying, grilling, or using other dry heat forms. You can soak it in an acid like lemon, rice wine, or vinegar with the herbs and spices you want.
Don’t add oil while marinating, as it will form a layer over the tofu, making it hard to absorb flavor. But for deep frying, use plenty of oil. Add sugar, honey, or syrup for an extra crunch to your deep-fried tofu.
Don’t forget to add salt as it’s naturally low in tofu. If you use sauces like soy, Sriracha, or any other sauce, you can skip this part. For the best results of marinating, give it ample time to absorb flavors. That’s more than 15 minutes to overnight; the bigger or thicker the tofu, the more time it needs.
In summary, “is tofu vegan”? Yes, but stick to the pure unprocessed kind. “Is it beneficial”? Yes, it has many possible health benefits to your bones, heart, reproductive system, memory and brain function, and even losing weight.
Tofu contains a high protein, low fat content. It’s a superfood and one of the best meat substitutes for vegans, and the best thing is that it comes in many types. Plus, you can prepare it in many ways, from steaming, stewing, frying, roasting, or taking it raw.
This article is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional advice or help and should not be relied on to make decisions of any kind. Any action you take upon the information presented in this article is strictly at your own risk and responsibility!
- A meta-analysis of the effects of soy protein intake on serum lipids (1995, pubmed.nih.gov)
- B vitamins (nd., harvard.edu)
- Effect of sprouting of soybean on the chemical composition and quality of soybean and tofu (2014, ncbi.nih.gov)
- Everything you need to know about tofu (2017, medicalnewstoday.com)
- Isoflavones (2017, sciencedirect.com)
- Soybeans, isoflavones, and cardiovascular health (2006, pubmed.nih.gov)
- Straight talk about soy (nd., harvard.edu)
- The potential health effects of dietary phytoestrogens (2016, online library.wiley.com)
- The vegan diet (2018, nhs.uk)