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The Best Firm Tofu
Check the nutrition label for a clue about your tofu’s texture.
Published Mar. 1, 2017. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 18: Three-Cup Chicken and Smashed Cucumbers
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What You Need To Know
Tofu dates back 2000 years to China’s Han dynasty and has long been a staple in Asian cooking and a favorite among vegetarians. And its popularity in the United States is on the rise: Americans spent $274 million on this mild-tasting soybean product in 2013, and sales are trending up. To find the best product for the home cook, we set our sights on firm tofu because it’s the type we call for most often, as it’s more versatile than silken or extra-firm tofu. We found five nationally available, American-made products, priced from $0.08 to $0.40 per ounce, and tasted each plain, coated with cornstarch and fried, and chopped and stir-fried in a filling for Thai basil lettuce wraps. A panel of tasters rated each sample on texture, flavor, and overall appeal.
Happily, our tasters liked the flavor of every tofu. Plain and in our recipes, the samples tasted “neutral” and “clean,” with subtle “sweet,” “nutty” notes. Regarding texture, most were exactly what we’ve come to expect in tofu: firm enough to hold their shape for cooking and frying yet still pleasantly soft and tender. But there was one outlier. Cut into cubes and tasted plain, this tofu was so dry, firm, and compact that our tasters compared it to rubber erasers. The lower moisture level meant that the cornstarch couldn’t completely gelatinize, so the coating turned pasty and sludgy when fried. And when we chopped this tofu in a food processor, it broke into irregular shards instead of forming small, tender crumbles.
Why was one tofu so different from the others? The answer lies in how tofu is made. All firm and extra-firm tofu begins essentially the same way: Dried soybeans are soaked and ground to create soy milk, and that liquid is separated from the soybean pulp—at this point, it’s actually a lot like making cheese. A salt- or acid-based coagulant is added to make the milk separate into solid curds and liquid whey. The curds are then placed in molds, drained, and pressed to squeeze out moisture and make them more compact. It’s the pressing that plays the biggest role in determining texture; firmer tofu is pressed more.
When we asked manufacturers for more detailed information on how their tofu is made, we found more similarities than differences. Most of the tofus in our lineup are made with soybeans grown in North America. They use a variety of coagulants—including nigari (a byproduct of extracting salt from seawater), calcium sulfate and magnesium chloride (two forms of salt), and an acid-forming substance called glucono delta lactone—and our tasting panel didn’t detect any meaningful differences in flavor. Manufacturers cited a range of processing temperatures (from...
Everything We Tested
Delicate, “clean” soy flavor and “consistent, even texture” earned this tofu high scores throughout the tastings. In both cooked applications, it was “creamy” and “tender” but held its shape and offered just the right amount of chew.
In every test, tasters liked the “neutral” and mild flavor of this tofu. Although it was one of the “wetter” samples, that wasn’t a bad thing. When fried, it had an especially “custardy,” “creamy” interior. When stir-fried, it struck the right balance between chew and tenderness.
Tasters detected “pleasant,” “fresh,” and “slightly sweet” flavor in this tofu in all three tastings. It was “tender” when sampled plain and when used in recipes. It’s also the cheapest tofu in our lineup.
Tasters liked the “clean” and “neutral” flavor of this tofu in our plain and fried tastings. In lettuce wraps, the flavor was “balanced.” We also liked its texture, which was appropriately firm and chewy without feeling overly dense or rubbery.
Flavorwise, this “neutral” and slightly “nutty” tofu hit the right marks. Texture was the problem. It contains twice as much protein as our other contenders, indicating that it’s been pressed to eliminate significantly more moisture—and our tasters could tell. In plain and fried tastings, its ultrafirm, dense texture prompted comparisons to cheese curds and rubber erasers. When pulsed in a food processor, it broke into rubbery, irregular shards that felt out of place in a stir-fry.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.