Friday, March 19, 2010

Tofu-ling around

When I was growing up, my mother had to make a special trek to a Chinese grocer to find soy sauce or tofu. Yogurt was just becoming the magic health food, and tofu was unheard of at the local supermarket. Forget about asking the store manager about it -- hardly any non-Asians had even heard of it.

Now it's so easy to get all sorts of soy products, including tofu -- soft, firm, refrigerated, vacuum-packed shelf-stable blocks, organic, plain or preseasoned -- at many suburban supermarkets.

Even so, I've had an obsession with making it. From scratch. From a cup of dried soybeans. Someone maybe has too much time on her hands? Hardly. But I do like to know a little about where my food comes from and how it's made. I've learned from my research online that making tofu is pretty simple if you have a little time. Just some water, soybeans and a coagulant (to form curds). That's it.

And talk about economical. I got close to four quarts of soy milk from a scoop of dried beans that cost me only 90 cents. I drank a couple cups of that and still got more than a pound (17.5 ounces) of tofu from the rest of the soy milk.

The flavor was super fresh and tasty, although the texture of the tofu wasn't nearly as smooth as the Mori Nu tofu I get at the supermarket. I couldn't find a traditional coagulant such as calcium sulfate or nigari (which is mostly magnesium chloride), so I used lemon juice, which gave the tofu a tanginess better suited to a more heavily seasoned recipe such as hot and sour soup or ma po tofu.

If I were just making soy milk, I'd make only half a batch. If I were to do this regularly, I'd get a soy milk maker, which would save me labor and mess (and therefore time).

For me, the three most useful internet sources in learning to make tofu were:

Homemade soy milk
Yield: 3 1/2 to 4 quarts

1 pound roughly (400-500 grams) dried white soy beans (amount does not have to be exact)
water for soaking dried beans
3 1/2 quarts water

1. Soak beans for 8 to 11 hours in water (change the water a few times).

2. Discard the soaking water and buzz the soaked beans in a food processor with 2 to 3 cups of fresh water (taken from the 3 1/2 quarts) for about 2 minutes until they are finely ground. The result should look about the consistency of cooked farina or loose mash potato. You probably would have to do this in more than one batch. For instance, in my food processor I ground half of the beans with about 1 cup of water. Then I processed the rest of the beans with another cup of water.

3. Combine the pulpy mixture in a very large stockpot with the rest of the water (no more than about halfway up the side because the liquid tends to foam up a lot). Or divide equally between two pots. Bring to a simmer and continue to simmer for about 20 to 25 minutes.

3. Extract the milk by placing the mush into clean muslin or similar cotton material and draining/squeezing the liquid into another pot or large bowl. You could use rubber gloves to protect yourself from the hot liquid. I had no gloves and so had to let the liquid cool enough for me to handle.
You could try straining with cheesecloth too, but I imagine that you'd have to use many layers to prevent the small grinds from passing through the holes.

4. Dump the solids into another bowl. Called okara in Japanese (I don't know the Chinese word for it yet), the crumbly solid can be used in place of bread crumbs in meatloaf, and there are recipes on the internet for using it in baked goods too.

5. Enjoy the fresh soy milk or use it to make tofu as I did.

Homemade tofu
Yield: about 1 pound

3 1/2 to 4 quarts homemade soy milk
coagulant (1/4 c. lemon juice mixed with 3/4 c. water, or nagiri mixed according to package directions)

1. Heat the soy milk in a large pot to 175 degrees F.

2. Add coagulant until you start to see curds.

3. Cover and maintain heat 10 to 15 minutes.

4. Check for formation of larger curds separating from the liquid leaving a clearer "whey."  If large and many curds are not forming, add a little more coagulant if needed (if so, cover and allow 10 more minutes to separate).

6. If curds have formed, ladle out excess whey (shielding curds with a strainer).

7. Ladle tofu curds into a makeshift tofu press (a drainer or strainer lined with muslin or layers cheesecloth), fold the cloth over the top of the curds, and put a light weight (eg. an empty bowl) on top. Let sit until the curds come together into a block, anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes. More time means a firmer tofu.

8. Remove tofu from cloth. If it's bitter or sour, give it a very gentle running water wash for about 20 to 30 minutes. Otherwise store in airtight container for same-day use or pack in water for use within a few days.

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