What food contains more protein than an omelet, more iron than spinach and as much calcium as cottage cheese — all for as little as 25 cents per homemade pound? You guessed it: tofu. When my family was introduced to this oriental import, it was love at first bite. We were soon feasting on scrambled tofu for breakfast, sipping tofu shakes with lunch, enjoying bean curd burgers for dinner and savoring slices of soy cheesecake for dessert.
However, with the nearest health food store some 30 miles away and our favorite food selling for $1.30 a pound, it wasn't long before our appetites outdistanced our pocketbooks. Necessity demanded that we make our own tofu, so for a few weeks, I diligently mashed, boiled, strained and curdled the soybeans...and usually came up with only a pound of bean curd to show for several hours' work. The results were tasty, though, and rather than becoming discouraged by our small return, we were all the more determined to make the process economically feasible.
The answer to our predicament was a homemade wooden tofu press that can hold as much as 15 or as little as 2 pounds of soy cheese at one time. This efficient device enables me to strain the initial soymilk-and-mash mixture and to press the bean curd while the liquid is still near boiling, thus speeding up the tofu-making operation and sparing me some burned fingers and spilled whey. The press cuts down on the waste of useful by-products, as well: Since the bottom edge of the contraption fits snugly over a large basin, it's an easy matter to save the whey for use in baked goods, soups or pet food. And when the tofu is firm, the front panel of the press lifts out to let the curd be cut and removed easily. What's more, the implement cost us only about $5 in materials and took a mere two hours to construct...and it saves us more than a dollar per pound of tofu each time we use it.
How to Make a Tofu Press
To make a tofu press, you'll need an assortment of pine lumber and plywood (our design requires 5 feet of 1-by-6 pine board for the sides, a 1-foot section of 1-by-12 pine board for the lid and a 12 ½ -by-13 ½ -inch piece of ¼ -inch plywood for the base): 18 to 20 No. 6-by-1 ¼ -inch rustproof wood screws; a drill with 1/8-inch, 9/64-inch and 3/16-inch bits; a circular saw or a handsaw; a chisel; a screwdriver; some sandpaper; and enough vegetable oil to coat the finished product. (Consult the second image in the image gallery for a handy diagram.)
First off, you'll need to decide what you'll be using to catch the soymilk and whey as they strain through the press, because it's best to make that container a permanent part of your tofu operation. The catching vessel should hold at least 5 gallons of liquid and be able to withstand temperatures up to 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Our press is designed to fit snugly over a stainless steel basin that sits in our kitchen sink. Whatever container you choose — whether it's a plastic tub, large bucket, enameled canning pot or similar vessel — you'll want to design your press so that two of its sides hang several inches over the edge of your catching pot, while the perforated bottom rests almost an inch below the top. (This design prevents the press from sliding off center and splashing out boiling liquid.)
Once you've calculated the size of your press, cut the two sides out of the 1-by-6 pine board (ours measure 16 ½ inches in length). At each end of the side sections, cut out a small rectangle ¾ inch up from the base and 2 inches in from the sides. Directly in from this indentation, cut a ¾ -inch-wide vertical slice ¼ inch into the panel, as shown in the drawing. (Because commercial lumber is measured before it runs through a planer, your 1-by-6 board will actually be ¾ -by-5 3/8 inches, which is why the groove is ¾ inch wide.)
Next, cut the front and back pieces from the remaining 1-by-6 board (ours are 12 ½ inches long). These sections should fit securely into the side grooves. Thoroughly sand all the pieces and secure the back panel into place with four screws. The front panel is not screwed in, instead, it merely rests in the opposite slots so that you can slide it up and remove the pressed bean cheese with ease.
With that done, cut a base from the ¼ -inch plywood — ours measures 12 ½ -by-13 ½ inches — sand it, and screw it onto the back and side panels, using four or five fasteners per side. Next, on the underside of the press, pencil a grid of ¾ -inch squares 1 ½ inches in from each side and drill holes — using the 3/16-inch bit — at each crossing to allow for drainage. Then sand the board again, making sure to remove any loose chips in the holes.
Now measure to determine the appropriate size for the cover. The lid should slide easily down into the press to help squeeze out extra liquid, so leave about a 1/8 inch gap on each side between the panels and the cover (our lid measures 10 ¾ -by-11 ¾ inches). Cut the "cap" from the 1-by-12 pine board and sand it smooth.
Choose a scrap of wood to form a handle for the lid. We used a coping saw to shape an elegantly curved handle, but a simple 1-inch section of 1-by-6 would certainly work. Sand the handle and attach it to the center of the lid, using two screws.
All that's needed now is a quick coating of vegetable oil to protect the wood, and you're in (the tofu) business.
Using a Tofu Press
There are probably as many different ways to make tofu as there are varieties of this creamy soy cheese. William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi, authors of The Book of Tofu, describe visiting hundreds of Japanese tofu masters, each of whom employed his or her own particular method of making bean curd. The most widely used method in this country is what I call the "two-step tofu technique," which produces a soy cheese very high in protein. To make 5 pounds of tofu using this method, you'll need 4 cups of dried whole soybeans, 10 to 12 quarts of water and 2 tablespoons of nigari (a sea salt derivative used to curdle the milk) dissolved in 1 cup of water. (You can use other curdling agents, as well. Nigari forms large curds and adds extra minerals to the final product, while lemon or lime juice or cider vinegar makes a softer — and more tart — cheese. When substituting the juice for the nigari, use six times the amount called for and don't dilute it with water. Epsom salts, which can be used in the same amounts as nigari, is perhaps the least desirable coagulant, as it gives a slightly salty taste to the cheese and renders the whey inedible.)
Sort the dried beans and soak them overnight in about 12 cups of cold water. Then rinse the beans and puree them in a blender, using 1 cup of soaked beans to each quart of water (you can also use a food grinder or processor for this step, adapting as necessary). Pour the resulting slush into a large cooking vessel and bring it to a boil. Then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring continually. This is one instance in which it pays to watch the pot: Soymilk can foam up and boil over very quickly.
When the mixture has cooked for the allotted time, situate your cheesecloth-lined press over the catch container and pour the hot liquid through. Cover the strained mash, or okara, with the folds of cloth, place the lid over it, and push down slowly to force out any excess soymilk. At this point, you might want to set aside a quart or two of fresh soymilk (it's especially tasty when mixed with a teaspoon of honey). Save the okara for later use, too.
Now, rinse out the large kettle and return the soymilk to the pot. Bring it to a near boil, then turn off the heat. Next, stir the liquid rapidly in one direction, pour in 1/3 cup of the diluted nigari, stir once or twice in the opposite direction, sprinkle in another 1/3 cup of the salt mixture, and cover the pot. After 3 minutes, lift the lid and softly poke the curds to determine if the whey has completely separated. If the whey is still milky, add the last 1/3 cup of the solution, stir it briefly, and wait another couple of minutes.
When the milk has completely curdled, pour it slowly through your cheesecloth-lined press, cover the curds with the cloth, place the lid on top...and plan on enjoying a delicious meal of tofu in about four hours.