Lately I’ve found myself staring at the white blocks of fresh tofu in their plastic tubs of cloudy water on the grocer’s dairy shelf, in hopes of cooking lower on the food chain. The stuff doesn’t look alluring. But when pan-seared to be crisp outside and creamy within or when simmered in a spicy-tangy sauce, it’s light and ethereal, with a flavor so pleasingly neutral, it’s surprisingly versatile and easy to use in all sorts of dishes.

This ancient food originated in China more than 2,000 years ago, traveled to Japan with Buddhist monks several centuries later, then to Spain via 16th-century explorers. It was introduced to California in the early 1900s by T.A. Van Gundy, a food manufacturer.

Making tofu is a lot like making fresh cheese, such as ricotta, except the “milk” extracted is from ground soybeans. The soy milk is heated, then treated with a form of salt. Like rennet, it separates the milk into curds and whey. These are ladled into “settling” boxes so the whey drips out and the curds are pressed into firm, dense blocks.

Regular tofu comes in three varieties — soft, firm or extra-firm — all of which can be used in stir-fries or sautés. For grilling or broiling, extra-firm is the best choice.

In another process, the heated soy milk is thickened with lactone and a coagulant so that the mixture solidifies on its own. This tofu is soft and custardy, closer to dense yogurt than the familiar bean-curd blocks. Referred to as “silken” tofu, it is sold in asceptic cartons and is best used in soups or stews.

The Upper Midwest supplies the world with more than half of its soybeans. Though most of the major tofu manufacturers are in California, Michigan’s China Rose Tofu (from Rosewood Products) is made from organic Midwest soybeans. I am a fan of its mild taste and firm texture.

Tofu is a nutrition powerhouse — the average 4-ounce serving delivers about 10 grams of protein, lots of calcium, some iron, no cholesterol, little fat and very few calories. Compared price per pound with animal protein, tofu is a real bargain.

Here are a few tips for working with tofu:

• Most regular or firm fresh tofu comes in plastic cartons of 14 to 20 ounces. These serve two to four at a meal. The smaller 5-ounce packages of silken tofu serve about two people.

• To prepare regular, firm or extra-firm tofu, drain off the water it’s packaged in. Wrap the tofu in a clean dish towel and set it on a cutting board; set a baking sheet on top and weight this down with a heavy can or another pot. Tilt the board toward the sink and drain off the excess water for about 10 to 30 minutes (the longer you drain it, the drier and firmer the tofu will be).

• To store leftover regular tofu, return it to the plastic tub and refill with fresh cold water. Cover and refrigerate. If you’re not using it right away, drain and refill the water every day. It will keep for about three days. If it begins to smell “off,” discard it.


Beth Dooley is the author of “The Northern Heartland Kitchen.”