I want to take the fear out of a product of one of the world's most useful plants. Whether you are a new vegetarian, just like vegetarian food, or are clueless about what to do with it, I hope this helps you.
I am not a tofu expert but I've been eating it for quite a while. Tofu doesn't judge you or worry about morning breath. Tofu doesn't mind being kept in the fridge when you sometimes forget it behind your jar of tahini or your leftovers. Tofu doesn't care that you disguise it. Tofu is a jack of all trades- it can take the leading role and showcase itself or it can be used for the structural integrity of a dish. It can also be used as a binder (like eggs) in many baked goods. You can use tofu pockets for sushi and you can use it in desserts..
What the heck is it?
Tofu is pressed blocks of soymilk that has had a coagulant added. It is actually a lot like cheese-making. The soy milk (from water and soybeans) is treated with a thickener, oftentimes this thickener (coagulant) is calcium-based. It is then pressed into blocks and the water is pressed out. It is packaged in water (needs refrigeration) or in sterile aseptic packages (which do not require refrigeration until opened).
Types of Tofu: there are basically two types of tofu (and different levels of firmness).
"Regular" tofu is packaged in a small amount of water. I have heard it referred to as "Chinese tofu", "block tofu", "water-packed tofu", etc. Usually when tofu is the star of a dish, this is it. There is soft, medium, firm, and extra firm. In some areas where there are Trader Joe's you can get super-firm (I haven't seen it). Baked tofu in stores is made from this type of tofu. This is also the type of tofu used in tofu scramble, fried tofu in restaurants, etc. It is my go-to tofu for all sorts of dishes, including scrambled tofu.
"Silken" tofu is a smooth creamy tofu. It is also sometimes sold in plastic containers in water, but it is most commonly found in the aseptic packages. Silken tofu is great when used as a base. You can make dips, soups, and mousse (chocolate mousse!) out of it. It can also be used as a creamy dessert base for other things like quiche.
How Do I prepare it?
For water-packed/Chinese tofu, you will need to get the water out. Tofu is very good at absorbing the flavours around it, but it doesn't have too much flavour on its own. There is a distinct taste to it that I personally like so often my tofu is plain sauteed, but I still press it for this application.
Pressing Tofu:You can spend a lot of money on fancy tofu presses but all you need is something clean and absorbent and something with weight. If you need to do something with the whole block of tofu, then you may need to press longer (up to an hour) but I like to slice it and press for just a few minutes.
*Place clean, absorbent item (paper towel or my choice- a clean kitchen towel. VERY absorbent and you can reuse it) on the bottom. Place tofu on top of towel. Place another towel on top of tofu. Put a weight on top of towel. Many people will use: counter-towel-tofu-towel-plate-can of soup. Use what ever you want.
Flavour Infusion- Since tofu doesn't have much flavour, you can marinate it in a number of different sauces. Press it first (see above) and marinate for a couple of hours. If you are using only tofu and vegetables in the marinade, feel free to use the marinade as a sauce. You can reduce the marinade (cook until some of the liquid evaporates). I don't often marinate my tofu but many people like to.
Freezing- Freezing tofu changes the texture. It becomes chewier and more sponge-like. Drain excess water (not necessary to press) and store in an air-tight container. Freeze for 24 hours or longer. Thaw in refrigerator. Once thawed, squeeze water out with hands. Marinate or cook as desired.
Baking- Baked tofu in the grocery store is expensive. You can do the same thing at home. Slice and press firm or extra firm tofu , drizzling with olive or peanut oil and seasonings. Generally, it's baked for 45 minute-1 hour at 350 or 375 degrees (F). Search baked tofu recipe and you'll find a lot of them. Less expensive than store-bought and exactly to your individual preference.
Different Tofu Applications- Besides what I listed here (and some reiteration), you can do a tofu scramble (saute up some vegetables, add pressed tofu in chunks/crumbles and add seasonings such as nutritional yeast (NOT Brewer's yeast), soycheese, etc).Don't forget stir fry, General Tao's/Tso's Tofu, sushi, etc. Here is some Inari/ Inarizushi- litte pockets of sweet tofu used for stuffing with sushi rice and fillings.
. You can get it in cans at your local Asian Market.
There is SO much to do with tofu. If you've never tried it before, you may want to go to a Chinese restaurant and get a vegetable fried rice, minus egg, add fried tofu. Or you could try some of the recipes at a number of websites. A simple search of tofu recipe yields over 1 million links!
Amazon search of "tofu" (Be warned, the Tofu Noodles are not vegan as they derive their calcium from seashells or something)
Barnes and Noble Tofu Cookbooks Search
More than you wanted to know and could possibly be false information but is generally accurate on Wikipedia
I haven't even begun to scratch the surface. Feel free to add your own experiences, problems, and successes with tofu. Hope you aren't missing out on this awesome food!