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Homemade Tofu

Don't be scurred of the curd.

Homemade Tofu

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Chasing a dish from Manhattan’s Koreatown

The first time I had the complimentary bowl of homemade tofu at Cho Dang Gol on West 35th street I wasn’t expecting my reaction. I remember not even knowing what I was being handed; a bowl of soup?

“Oh, it’s tofu.”

That’s a pretty ballsy move. We’re going to give you this bowl of homemade tofu. It has no accompaniments or sauces to attempt to mask or enhance what it is. There’s no salt. It is literally a bowl of fresh curds in its plainest, simplest form: non-pressed and silken, in a pool of the whey they were formed in. You’re going to eat this and you’re going to like it, despite your likely expectation that it’s going to be tasteless and boring.

Yo. It is freaking marvelous.

Growing up in a Korean household tofu was a staple of many meals, from spicy tofu-based stews, egg-battered and pan-fried slices, and soups made with soaked and blended soybeans. Tofu gets a bad wrap in American food circles because the expectation is that it’s a sufficiently delicious vegetarian replacement for things like red meat. Tofu is nothing like red meat. In no universe is a tofu burger a sufficient replacement for the beauty of a medium-rare, maillard reaction-ed, freshly ground and lightly manipulated patty of moderate-fat chuck.

Tofu is a different thing entirely. It’s not without its own flavor, which is mild and subtle. To me tofu is more about texture and being a conduit for more intense flavors and spices. That’s why tofu works best when paired with very spicy soup bases, salty soy sauces, the tartness of ground ginger or the umami-bomb of katsuobushi.

Another example of fresh tofu in NYC that I enjoy is the homemade silky tofu appetizer at Cocoron in the LES. It’s accompanied by strong flavors: sliced seaweed, grated ginger, sliced scallions and katsuobushi flakes. When mixed it’s soft enough to be reminiscent of mascarpone, which is probably why I’m often surprised by how good NYC bagel spots can make tofu cream cheese (I’m lactose intolerant).

Five pounds of raw soybeans from Amazon Five pounds of raw soybeans from Amazon.

The difference between fresh and store bought tofu is not unlike the difference between fresh and store bought bread. For most people there is no difference, and in a world where I don’t have the time to pursue every nerdy food distraction that comes across my mind chances are I’d fall into that subgroup. But bread making has been a gateway drug into the world of wondering if I could make that semi-complex, multi-step but super fresh menu item at home. Because for the other subgroup of humanity who wants to care about a difference in freshness and taste there is a difference, and the journey is as fun as the destination.

Picture of raw soybeans

Measuring out half a cup of raw soybeans

Soybeans in water, pre-soak I soaked roughly 0.75 cups of dry soybeans overnight.

Soybeans in water, post-soak They expand a lot; something around a 2x yield in volume.

The most annoying part about making soymilk/tofu (the former begets the latter) is peeling the soaked soybeans. It is incredibly tedious and there doesn’t seem to be a consistent prevailing wisdom about its effectiveness. Maangchi does it in her soy/nut milk drink video (starts here) and it’s a lot of repeated rinsing and rubbing beans together and hoping the skins come off. It supposedly impacts the final flavor – the soymilk is “less beany” if the skins are removed – but I haven’t executed the scientific method on soybean skin removal. Many recipes exclude this step entirely.

The Food Don’t Lie method: remove some skins until you get tired of doing it and move on.

Cleaned soybeans in a colander

Bowl of soybean skins and a dead bean Some skins removed, and a dead bean or two.

After rinsing/removing skins you fill a blender with the soaked, skinless beans and fill the blender with fresh water. For 1.5c soaked beans, I added 5c water.

I’m not sure what the correct proportion is here but I’m sure an ideal proportion exists, as the water content of this blended mixture becomes the soymilk that becomes the tofu. Most of the recipes I came across on the web were intended for way bigger amounts of tofu than I wanted to make so some ingredient amounts were improvised.

Vitamix blender filled with soybeans and water, pre-blend The Vitamix is the Cadillac of blenders.

Vitamix blending soybeans and water Blend until smooth.

Froth from blending soybeans and water, in blender It’ll be frothy. More froth coming soon.

At this point you have raw soaked soybean liquid, which is not good eats. Get a big non-stick pot – big enough that the liquid doesn’t go much higher than half way up – and pour in the blender contents and bring everything to a boil. The idea here is to cook the soymilk into a palatable state.

Non-stick is important. Otherwise the residue of the hard bits will stick to the pot and be particularly annoying to clean off.

Soybean mixture in a pot on stove Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally to help loosen the stuck bits. Once it’s at a boil drop to a simmer for 10 minutes while maintaining that occasional stir.

Froth from boiled soybeans in container The soymilk will froth a lot as it cooks, potentially over the edges of the pot. You can spoon a lot of this froth off.

At this point you have cooked soymilk but with a lot of blended soybean hard parts. If you’re interested in flavored soymilk (i.e. sugar/vanilla) you’d add vanilla extract or a vanilla bean during the simmer.

Filtering out those hard parts is as simple as running the hot liquid through a few layers of cheesecloth, or better yet, a reusable mesh food grade nut milk bag (which I purchased after taking these photos).

Soybean solution in cheesecloth, being filtered into a bowl

Empty pot with residue stuck to sides Why this pot should be non-stick.

Filtered soybeans in rolled up cheesecloth

Pressing liquid out of rolled up cheesecloth with tongs The milk at this point is still hot, but you can squeeze out the last remnants of soymilk from the beans with a pair of tongs.

Okara in cheesecloth Okara

The remaining soybean hard parts is called Okara, and every video I’ve seen talks about how you can use it in baking or other types of food to add fiber to dishes.

I’m sure you can. It tastes like dry, crumbled soybeans. I threw it out.

Filtered soymilk in bowl Fresh, plain soymilk, for all of your lactose intolerant latte needs.

If you’re interested in soymilk you stop now. You wait for the milk to cool to room temperature, skim off any skin-like thing that may form on top, put the milk in the fridge and drink it within a week.

Since we’re making tofu we clean the pot, return the soymilk to it, and bring the soymilk back to a boil.

Filtered soymilk back in pot on stove

Tofu is made when you heat soymilk and add a coagulant. Tofu traditionally uses nigari, which is the Japanese term for magnesium chloride, which is a salt typically extracted from sea water. Many at-home recipes call for lemon juice or vinegar as a sufficient and easily accessible substitute.

The type of coagulant you use is supposed to effect the flavor of the resulting tofu. As a tofu amateur I just wanted coagulation without the cost of a potentially overpowering flavor (i.e. vinegar/lemon juice). Luckily you can buy 8oz of nigari on Amazon for $10.

The firmness of tofu (silken/soft, medium, firm, extra firm) is a function of the weight and duration of how long the curds are pressed, which is a proxy for moisture content. All freshly coagulated tofu begins as curds of silken tofu, and the bricks of tofu you’d buy in a grocery store are a result of being pressed in a mold for some time period. You can form tofu in pretty much any type of container but I bought a plastic tofu mold for kicks.

Base of plastic tofu mold in sink Base of the plastic tofu mold.

Cheesecloth in base of plastic tofu mold Mold with cheesecloth.

Spatula in heated soymilk, making a Z like motion Once the soymilk boils turn off the heat. Move a spatula in a “Z”-like motion to begin a “churning” pattern for the coagulant.

Photo of 10oz bag of Soyajoy nigari A bag of nigari this size will last a long time.

Measuring out 1 tablespoon of nigari Dissolving 1tsp of nigari in 1c hot water.

Pouring half of nigari solution into soymilk After taking the soymilk off the heat and starting the churning motion, add in half the nigari solution.

Light curds beginning to form in soymilk The curds begin to form immediately. Wait 2 mins, pour in the rest of the nigari solution, mix gently and cover for 20min.

20 minutes later, significant curd development 20 mins later.

Close up of curd development The curds are large and distinctive at this point.

Separating curds from whey with a spider strainer Spoon the curds out of the whey and into the tofu mold with a slotted spoon or spider.

Fresh tofu curds in tofu mold

Cheesecloth of tofu mold folded over curds

Pressing the curds with a salt container and a bottle of olive oil Cover and weigh down for 20-40 minutes, depending on your desired firmness. I pressed for 30min.

Side shot of tofu brick on cutting board Boom. Tofu!

Side shot of tofu brick in water Tofu needs to be stored covered in water.

Overhead shot of tofu brick in water

So you have tofu. Now what?

I wanted to try to replicate something similar to what I ate at Cocoron. I enjoyed the umami of the combination of soy sauce and katsuobushi, and I figured I’d add various Korean ingredients I have already in my pantry for additional complexity.

Tofu sliced into cubes Not silken but not firm. Lightly firm? Sliced into big chunks.

Spread of Korean and Japanese ingredients Clockwise from top left: Korean hot red pepper flakes, katsuobushi, scallions, sesame seeds, sesame oil, tofu, grated ginger, soy sauce.

Bowl of tofu composed of the spread of Korean and Japanese ingredients Layered in a bowl. Simple and super flavorful, I really enjoy dishes like this.

But one small bowl a tofu a meal does not make. Throwing in some other ingredients from our pantry and a Japanese grocery store in Midtown, it’s pretty easy to throw together a substantive but pretty light Japanese meal.

Overhead shot of Japanese-inspired dinner: soba, sashimi, tofu, and onigiri Soba (buckwheat) noodles, soba sauce from scratch, sashimi, and onigiri.