Homemade Tofu: Worth the Effort?

homemade three-color firm tofu

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Neatly boxed, brick-shaped, and sometimes shelf-stable, grocery-store tofu is an orderly food. It’s versatile, lending itself to seemingly infinite dishes: sweet or savory; hot or chilled. And it’s cheap, as sources of protein go. Even organic tofu won’t set you back more than $2 a box. Is there any advantage to making it from scratch? It requires only three ingredients — dried soybeans (available at food co-ops and natural foods stores), water, and a coagulant, such as apple cider vinegar — and it’s not difficult. Similar to cheese, tofu is simply curdled soy milk, strained of its whey, then weighted and pressed into a mold. The heavier the weight and the longer the pressing time, the firmer the tofu. Silken tofu (kinugoshi) — which is used in desserts and soups — is the cottage cheese of the soy bean world: It’s curds that have not been separated from their whey or weighted and molded.

The primary challenges of scratch-made firm tofu are three-fold: planning ahead enough to remember to soak the soybeans overnight; acquiring or creating a mold; and deciding what to do with the by-products of making soy milk — soy pulp (okara) and soy whey. I found that making soy milk yields a disproportionately large quantity of creamy, white pulp that has the appealing appearance and texture of mashed potatoes. You end up with more okara than you do tofu. Although I found and tested many recipes calling for okara, I didn’t find many that excited me enough to recommend them (I include a recipe for Okara Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies at the end of this story). The authors of The Book of Tofu, which is an excellent, albeit somewhat dated, resource if you are serious about making your own tofu, suggest that okara “be used in waffles, cornmeal muffins, spoonbread, and all yeasted breads. Use 2 parts flour to 1 part packed okara.” They suggest you add the whey to soups. Frankly, though I find it difficult to overcome the guilt of throwing out the okara and whey, I have come to view these items as waste products, not byproducts.

sliced cherry tomatoes and perilla over fresh tofu

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

In the end, I found that my homemade firm tofu didn’t taste substantially better than the store-bought variety, though it certainly contained fewer preservatives. It was also more perishable and fragile. I didn’t appreciate the expense of buying a tofu press or even minor hassle of making one and decided I preferred to use a cheese-cloth lined stainless steel colander as my mold, and a saucer weighted with a jar of peanut butter topped with a heavy book as my weight. Sure, the tofu came out a little funny-looking, but that’s part of its charm. I also found my homemade tofu was more sponge-like than store-bought, and, therefore, more readily absorbed flavors and sauces: perfect in David Chang’s Cherry Tomato and Tofu Salad (recipe below).

I also experimented with a couple of coagulants and actually preferred using apple cider vinegar versus the liquid nigari that I purchased from United Noodles in Minneapolis. The apple cider vinegar lends a slight tang to the final product. You can also use lime or lemon juice.

The real advantage of making firm tofu from scratch is having the opportunity to experiment with it. For instance: Tint your tofu pink by adding beet juice to the final soaking water. Or, tint it yellow Indonesian-style by adding turmeric to the soaking water. I lopped off the final two ingredients of a recipe for Five-Color Tofu (Gomoku-dofu), which is prepared in Japan on festive occasions and calls for adding grated carrot, green beans, corn, grated burdock root, and minced mushrooms prior to straining and pressing, turning it into Three-Color Tofu (recipe below).

But, unless you’re a serious tofu connoisseur interested in something other than plain, white, firm tofu, the advantages of making your own may not outweigh the hassles. You can buy fresh tofu at Dragon Star Oriental Foods in St. Paul.

Silken tofu, however, is a different story. It is faster and easier to make. And because you do not strain off the whey, okara is the only waste product of silken tofu. And there are no molds or weights to hassle with. Silken tofu can be made right in a casserole pan or even, once you get the technique down, individual custard cups. Make an earthy chilled green tea tofu dessert by sweetening your soy milk with honey and adding matcha powdered green tea (available at United Noodles). You can easily flavor silken tofu by adding grated or minced lemon or lime zest, ginger root, or fresh mint leaves to the soy milk right before adding the coagulant. You can temper three tablespoons of creamy peanut butter with a little of the hot soy milk, then use the mixture to flavor your soy milk. Silky and cool, this can be the tofu of your imagination.

Soybeans Nigari Blender

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Three-Color Firm Tofu
Yield: about 1½ lbs

If you prefer to make plain, firm tofu, simply omit the carrots, corn, and green beans. Plain tofu is best for David Chang’s Cherry Tomato & Tofu Salad (below). For easier clean-up, rinse your utensils and pots as you go as the soy milk is insidiously sticky.

1½ c (approximately 9 oz) dried soybeans, rinsed, then soaked in 6 c water overnight, then drained, rinsed, and divided in half
7½ c water for the cooking pot
4 c water, divided in half, to blend with soaked and drained soybeans
⅓ c grated carrots (optional)
⅓ c corn kernels, blanched (optional)
⅓ c blanched and minced green beans (optional)

Coagulant:
1 c water PLUS 3 tbsp apple cider vinegar, divided into thirds OR
1 c water PLUS 4 tbsp lime or lemon juice, divided into thirds OR
1 c water PLUS 3 tsp liquid nigari, divided into thirds

Equipment:
To cook soy milk: large stock pot and wooden spoon
To puree soaked and drained soy beans with water: blender and rubber spatula
For filtering okara from soy milk: a large bowl into which you’ve placed a large stainless steel colander that has been lined with a large, moistened tea towel; a potato masher
To strain and press curds: a ladle; a large bowl into which you’ve placed a small stainless steel colander (or tofu mold) that has been lined with cheesecloth; a ladle; a saucer; a heavy book or two or whatever else you want to stack on top of your tofu to press it

To make soy milk:

  1. Heat 7½ cups water in stock pot over high heat. Do not boil.
  2. In an electric blender, puree half the soaked and drained soybeans with 2 cups water for 3 minutes until smooth. Scrape out blender with rubber spatula and stir into stock pot. Repeat with the other half of the drained and soaked soybeans.
  3. Heat water and soybean puree mixture, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon so the bottom does not burn. Do not boil.  When foam rises suddenly, remove stock pot from heat.
  4. Filter soybean pulp out of soy milk by slowly pouring stock pot contents into the tea-towel lined colander.
  5. Fold the ends of the tea towel in, then twist closed. Use potato masher to press out any remaining soy milk. The white, fibrous substance that remains in the tea towel is the okara: discard it or set it aside for other uses (including for the Okara Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe provided at the end of this story).
  6. Pour filtered soy milk back into stock pot. Stirring frequently, bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off heat.
  7. If using, add carrots, corn, and green beans.

To curdle soy milk:

  1. Using a back and forth motion, stir soy milk vigorously 5 or 6 times and, while stirring, pour in one of the three portions of coagulant-water mixture. With spoon still in mixture, cease stirring until turbulence stops. Stir 5 or 6 times more, then halt spoon mid-mixture once more. Remove spoon when turbulence stops.
  2. Drizzle the second third of coagulant-water mixture over surface of soy milk. Cover stock pot and wait 3 minutes.
  3. Uncover stock pot. Curds should be forming. Drizzle final third of coagulant mixture into curdling soy milk.
  4. Slowly stir top ½ inch of curdling soy milk for 20 seconds. Cover stock pot and wait 3 minutes.
  5. Uncover and stir top ½ inch for another 30 seconds. The mixture should be separating into white curds and liquidy, yellowish whey.
straining homemade tofu into mold

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

To strain out whey and press tofu:

  1. Gently ladle curds into cheesecloth-lined stainless steel colander (see photo above).
  2. After all of the curds have been ladled, fold cheesecloth over the curds.
  3. Place a saucer on top of curds. Weight with books weighing ½ to 1½ pounds in total.
  4. Wait 10 to 15 minutes, then remove weights.
  5. Fill sink or basin with cold water, then lift stainless steel colander containing pressed tofu out of the bowl and invert it into the basin of cold water and gently liberate the tofu from the colander. (Discard the whey that remains in the bowl or set it aside for other uses.)
  6. While the tofu is still submerged in cold water, gently peel off cheesecloth, then cut the tofu in half.
  7. Let tofu firm up in cold water. If you wish to stain the tofu with turmeric or beet juice, add those now and let the tofu sit in the colored water for 15-20 minutes. Otherwise, 5 minutes is sufficient.
  8. Gently lift tofu out onto a plate. Serve chilled, garnished with soy sauce and sliced scallions. You can also slice and deep fry it. It will keep 2-3 days covered in water in a sealed container. Change the water daily.
In the Green Kitchen tofu and tomato salad

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

David Chang‘s Cherry Tomato and Tofu Salad
(Adapted from In the Green Kitchen by Alice Waters)

Shisho is Japanese for perilla. Fresh shisho can usually be found in the produce section of your local Asian market, including at United Noodles in Minneapolis.

Serves 2

Dressing:
2 tsp soy sauce
2-3 drops toasted sesame oil
Dash sherry vinegar
2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt to taste
Freshly-ground black pepper to taste

1 tsp sesame seeds
1 c ripe cherry tomatoes, halved
2 slices very fresh tofu, ½ inch thick and about 2 inches wide by 4 inches long
4-6 fresh shisho leaves

  1. To make dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the soy sauce, sesame oil, sherry vinegar, and olive oil, salt, and pepper.
  2. Add the dressing and the sesame seeds to the cherry tomatoes and gently mix.
  3. Slice the tofu on the bias, then arrange on a plate.
  4. Spoon the tomatoes and dressing over the tofu.
  5. Cut fresh shiso leaves into thin ribbons and scatter over the tomatoes.
  6. Serve.
silken tofu smoothie and chocolate tofu mousse

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Silken Tofu (adapted from The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi)
Yield: about 2 lbs

Use silken tofu in smoothies or desserts, including the Silken Tofu Berry (or Peach) Smoothie or Alton Brown’s Moo-less Chocolate Pie recipes provided below. This recipe can easily be cut in half. For easier clean-up, rinse your utensils and pots as you go as the soy milk is insidiously sticky.

1 c (approximately 6 oz) dried soybeans, rinsed, then soaked in 2 quarts water overnight, then drained and rinsed
½ c water for the cooking pot
2 ⅔ c water, to blend with soaked and drained soybeans
¼ c water to rinse blender
⅓ c shredded carrots (optional)
⅓ c corn kernels, blanched (optional)
⅓ c blanched and chopped green beans (optional)

Coagulant:
2 tbsp water PLUS 1 tsp apple cider vinegar OR
2 tbsp water PLUS 4 tsp lime or lemon juice OR
2 tbsp water PLUS 1 tsp liquid nigari

Equipment:
To cook soy milk: large stock pot and wooden spoon
To puree soaked and drained soy beans with water: blender and rubber spatula
For filtering okara from soy milk: a large bowl into which you’ve placed a large stainless steel colander that has been lined with a large, moistened tea towel; a potato masher
To chill tofu: a 1½- to 3-qt casserole dish; plastic wrap.

To make soy milk:

  1. Heat ½ c water in covered stock pot over low heat. Do not boil.
  2. In an electric blender, puree the soaked and drained soybeans with 2 ⅔ cups water for 3 minutes until smooth. Scrape out blender with rubber spatula and stir into stock pot.
  3. Pour ¼ cup water into blender, swish it around to capture any remaining soybean puree, then pour it into the stock pot.
  4. Increase heat under stock pot to medium-high. Stir the mixture frequently with a wooden spoon so the bottom does not burn. When foam rises suddenly, remove stock pot from heat.
  5. Filter soybean pulp out of soy milk by slowly pouring stock pot contents into the tea-towel lined colander.
  6. Fold the ends of the tea towel in, then twist closed. Use potato masher to press out any remaining soy milk. The white, fibrous substance that remains in the tea towel is the okara: Discard it or set it aside for other uses (including for the Okara Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe provided at the end of this story).
  7. Pour filtered soy milk back into stock pot. Stirring constantly, bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce heat to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from heat.
  8. If you are going to flavor the tofu using any of the variations, do that now.

To curdle soy milk:

  1. Pour soy milk into casserole dish.
  2. Using a back and forth motion, stir soy milk vigorously 5 or 6 times with a wooden spoon, then pour in the coagulant. Stir 5 or 6 times more, making sure to scrape the bottom of the casserole dish.
  3. Stop stirring and hold spoon upright in the middle of the mixture until turbulence stops. Remove spoon.
  4. Let stand uncovered and undisturbed for 30 minutes. Do not bump or jiggle the casserole dish.
  5. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for 2 hours.

Variations:

Fragrant tofu: Stir in ¼ tsp lemon zest, lime zest, grated ginger, or 12 minced mint leaves. Proceed with curdling step.
Peanut tofu: In a small bowl mix 3 tbsp smooth peanut butter with 1 tbsp hot soy milk. Stir peanut butter mixture into soymilk. Proceed with curdling step.
Green tea tofu: Stir 1 tbsp green tea powder (matcha) and 3 tbsp honey into soy milk. Proceed with curdling step.

Silken Tofu Berry (or Peach) Smoothie
Serves 2

½ c silken tofu
1 c fresh or frozen berries or peaches
1 ½ c milk, unsweetened orange or berry juice, or combination
3 ice cubes (if  using fresh fruit)
Honey to taste

Blend ingredients until smooth in electric blender or using immersion blender. Serve.

Recipe for Alton Brown’s Moo-Less Chocolate Pie

okara and okara chocolate walnut cookies

Lori Writer / Heavy Table

Okara Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies

Makes 20 cookies

These cookies are buttery and tender, with a mild peanut butter taste. They are best eaten the first day but will keep for 3-4 days in an airtight container.

¼ c butter
¼ c sifted raw cane sugar
1 egg, lightly beaten
½ c peanut butter
¼ tsp salt
¼ tsp baking soda
¾ c okara
½ tsp vanilla
¼ c dark chocolate chips (we like Ghirardelli 60% Cacao Bittersweet Chocolate Chips)
¼ c toasted chopped walnuts

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F.
  2. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  3. Beat butter until soft. Blend in sugar, then mix in the remaining ingredients.
  4. Using a teaspoon measure and rubber spatula, scoop heaping teaspoons onto lined cookie sheets.
  5. Bake for 15 minutes until golden brown.

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6 Comments

  1. Andy P. 08/23/2010

    Whether worth the effort or not to obtain the tofu, I sincerely believe that the learning from an endevor such as this is priceless. Thank you for sharing. This is exactly the kind of article I’m looking for when I come here.

  2. rational54 08/23/2010

    Does Peninsula sell the tofu they make at the restaurant to retail buyers? For my money that is the best non commercially made tofu in town.

  3. kassie 08/23/2010

    I was just going to make basically the same comment as rational did about Peninsula. Best damn tofu in town.

  4. jane 08/24/2010

    Thank you. I will continue not making my own tofu. :)

  5. Mamiek 03/23/2011

    Indonesian people use okara for making “tempe gembus” (“gembus” means spongy).

  6. BEverCurious 02/29/2012

    This is an excellent article since we take these basic food for granted in the modern world. But, I was wondering about what to do with the soy.milk that naturally curdles when it is kept too long in the refrigerator.
    I’ve always just poured it in the garden for fear of food poisoning. Does it have any other use? Seems a waste.