How to Make Tofu

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Learn how to make tofu at home.
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Click on the Image Gallery for this article to see referenced figures.

From TheBook of Tofu, copyright 1975 by
William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi. Excerpts used by
permission of Autumn Press, Inc.

Making Tofu at Home

If you find that fresh tofu is not available at a nearby
store, try preparing your own at home using either whole
soybeans or powdered soymilk. It’s as enjoyable as baking
bread … and considerably faster.

We have found the following recipe, based on the
traditional Japanese farmhouse method, to be easy to follow
and virtually foolproof. The tofu will be ready 50 to 60
minutes after you start. One pound of soybeans yields about
3-1/2 to 4 pounds of tofu at a cost about one-third to
one-fourth that of commercial tofu and less than one-half
the cost (on a usable protein basis) of hamburger.
Solidified with nigari (the mineral-rich mother
liquor that remains after salt is extracted from seawater
… also known as “bittern”), made from soymilk simmered
over an open fire (rather than steamed), and served at its
peak of freshness, homemade tofu contains a fullness of
flavor and subtle sweetness seldom found in even the finest
store-bought varieties.

Utensils Needed for Making Tofu

To make fine homemade tofu, you will need the following
common kitchen tools (see Fig. 1) and ingredients:

An electric blender, food or grain mill, or meat
grinder.
A “pressing pot” with a capacity of 1-1/2 to 2 gallons, or
a basin of comparable size.
A 2-quart saucepan.
A wooden spatula, rice paddle, or wooden spoon with a long
handle.
A shallow ladle or dipper about 1 inch deep and 3 or 4
inches in diameter, or a large spoon.
A rubber spatula
A sturdy 1 -quart jar or a potato masher
A 1-cup measuring cup
A set of measuring spoons.
A large, round-bottomed colander (that will fit into the
“pressing pot”).
A flat-bottomed colander (“settling container”) preferably
square or rectangular.
A shallow fine-mesh strainer or bamboo colander. (zaru)
A coarsely woven cotton dishcloth, 2 feet square, or a
“pressing sack”.
A 2-foot square of cheesecloth, or a light cotton dish
towel of comparable dimensions.

Two special pieces of equipment, both easy to assemble,
will make the work even easier:

[1] Make a “pressing sack” of the coarsely woven cotton
dish towel mentioned above, or use a piece of sturdy cotton
cloth with about the same coarseness of weave as
cheesecloth. Fold the towel or cloth end to end and sew up
the sides to form a sack about 15 inches wide and 15 inches
deep. Or use a small flour sack with a fairly coarse weave.

[2] The flat-bottomed colander listed above is for use as a
“settling container” which gives its shape to the finished
tofu. If a 1-quart strainer or small, round-bottomed
colander is used in its place, the tofu will naturally be
rounded.

Make a Tofu Settling Container at Home

The three settling containers shown in Fig. 2 can easily be
made at home. Container A is prepared from a 1-1/2-quart
wooden, Tupperware, or plastic box with an open top and
non-removable bottom. In containers B and C the bottom is
removable, allowing for easy removal of the tofu without
immersing the container in water. Good dimensions for the
container are 5-1/2 inches square by 3 inches deep, or 8 by
4 by 3 inches deep. Use a drill or heated ice pick to bore
3/8-inch-diameter holes about 1-1/2 inches apart in the
bottom and sides of the container. Fashion a flat wooden or
plastic pressing lid (with or without holes) to fit down
inside the rim of the box.

Soybeans

The soybeans now sold at almost all natural and health food
stores, most co-op stores, and many supermarkets will make
good tofu. However, to obtain the highest yield, try buying
soybeans directly from a tofu shop (if there’s one in your
area), for they have been carefully chosen by the tofu
maker.

Solidifier

The solidifiers; most readily available in the West are
Epsom salts, lemon or lime juice, and vinegar. All make
delicious tofu, although they are not used in Japanese tofu
shops. Japanese-style solidifiers are available from many
natural food stores, local tofu shops, Japanese food
markets, chemical supply houses (check your phone
directory), or your local school chemistry lab. Usable
seawater can be retrieved from clean stretches of ocean.
Natural nigari is available at some salt refineries and can
be ordered from Japanese natural food distributors … or
it can be prepared at home using natural salt. We recommend
the use of refined nigari unless the natural nigari is
certified to have come from a clean source of seawater.
While we believe the nigari-type solidifiers are the
easiest to use and result in the best tasting tofu, Epsom
salts and calcium sulfate seem to give somewhat higher bulk
yields and a softer end product by incorporating more water
into the tofu. The yield of tofu solids or nutrients is
about the same regardless of the type of solidifier used,
except that lemon juice and vinegar give rather small
yields. ( NOTE: Calcium sulfate, a fine
white powder, is sometimes mislabeled in the West and sold
as nigari. The latter usually has a coarse, granular, or
crystalline texture … natural nigari is beige and refined
nigari is white.)

The recipe below calls only for solidifier Your choice of
solidifier depends upon the type of tofu you want.

FOR SUBTLY SWEET, NIGARI TOFU USE: 1-1/4
teaspoons magnesium chloride or calcium chloride, or 1to
1-1 /2 teaspoons granular or powdered natural nigari, or 1
to 1-3/4 teaspoons homemade liquid nigari, or 1-1/4 to 3
teaspoons commercially prepared liquid nigari, or 1 cup
seawater (freshly collected).

FOR MILD, SOFT TOFU USE: 1-1/4 teaspoons
Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate) or calcium sulfate.

FOR SUBTLY TART OR SLIGHTLY SOUR TOFU USE: 2-1/2
tablespoons lemon or lime juice (freshly squeezed), or 2
tablespoons (apple cider) vinegar.

Homemade Tofu

(MAKES 22 TO 26 OUNCES)

1 cup soybeans, washed, soaked in 4 cups water for 10 hours, rinsed, and
drained
11 cups water, approximately
Solidifier

Prepare in advance:

Place pressing pot in sink and set colander into pot.
Moisten pressing sack lightly and line colander with sack,
fitting mouth of sack around rim of colander. Or line
colander with a moistened 2-foot-square dish towel (Fig.
3).

Moisten cheesecloth or thin cotton dish towel and use to
line bottom and sides of settling container. Place
container on rim of large bowl or pan placed in sink.

Fill a 2-quart saucepan with 2 cups water and warm over
very low heat on a side burner.

After making the above preparations, proceed as follows:

Heat 5 cups water over high heat in cooking pot. While
water is heating, combine beans and 2-2/3 cups water in a
blender and purée at high speed for about 3 minutes,
or until very smooth. (if using a grain mill, food mill, or
meat grinder, grind beans without adding water and add
2-2/3 cups more water to cooking pot.)

Add soybean purée (gô) to water heating (or
boiling) in cooking pot, rinsing out blender with a little
water to retrieve any puree that may cling to blender’s
walls. Taking care that pot does not boil over, continue
heating on high heat, stirring bottom of pot frequently
with a wooden spatula or spoon to prevent sticking (Fig.
4). When foam suddenly rises in pot, quickly turn off heat
and pour contents of cooking pot into pressing sack (Fig.
5). Using a rubber spatula, retrieve any soybean
purée that may still cling to the sides of the
cooking pot and transfer to pressing sack. Quickly rinse
out cooking pot and replace on top of stove.

Twist hot pressing sack closed. Using a glass jar or potato
masher, press sack against colander, expressing as much
soymilk as possible (Fig. 6). Open sack, shake
okara (soybean pulp) it contains into one of its
corners, close and press again. Now empty okara
into the 2 cups warm water in saucepan on side of stove …
stir well, then return moistened okara to pressing sack set
in the colander. Close sack and press well as before;
squeeze by hand to express the last of the soymilk (Fig.
7). Empty okara into the 2-quart pot and set aside.

Measure solidifier into dry 1-cup measuring cup and set
aside.

Pour soymilk into cooking pot and bring to a boil over high
heat, stirring frequently to prevent sticking. Reduce heat
to medium and cook for 5 to 7 minutes. Turn off heat.

Add 1 cup water to solidifier in measuring cup (unless
using seawater) and stir until dissolved. With a to-and-fro
movement, stir soymilk vigorously 5 or 6 times and, while
stirring, pour in 1/3 cup solidifier solution. Stir 5 or 6
times more, making sure to reach bottom and sides of pot.
Bring spoon to a halt upright in soymilk and wait until all
turbulence ceases. Lift out spoon (Fig. 8). Sprinkle 1/3
cup solidifier over surface of soymilk, cover pot, and wait
3 minutes while curds form. Using a measuring spoon, stir
remaining 1/3 cup solidifier solution, uncover pot, and
sprinkle solution over surface of soymilk.

Very slowly stir upper 1/2-inch-thick layer of curdling
soymilk for 15 to 20 seconds, then cover pot and wait 3
minutes. (Wait 6 minutes if using Epsom salts or calcium
sulfate). Uncover and stir surface layer again for 20 to 30
seconds, or until all milky liquid curdles.

(White “clouds” of delicate curds should now be floating in
a clear, pale-yellow liquid . . . the whey. If any milky,
uncurdled liquid remains suspended in whey, wait I minute,
then stir gently until curdled. If milky liquid persists,
dissolve a small amount of additional
solidifier–about 1/4 of the original amount–in
1/3 cup water and pour directly into uncurdled portions.
Stir gently until curdled.)

Place cooking pot next to settling container in sink.
Gently press fine-mesh strainer into pot and allow several
cups whey to collect in it. Ladle all of this whey into
settling container to re-moisten lining cloths (Fig. 9).
Set strainer aside.

Now ladle curds–and any remaining whey–into
settling container one layer at a time. Ladle gently so as
not to break curds’ fragile structure (Fig. 10). Fold edges
of cloth neatly over curds (Fig. 11), place a lid on top of
cloth (a small board or flat plate will do), and set a 1/2-
to 1-1/2-pound weight on top of lid for 10 to 15 minutes,
or until whey no longer drips from settling container (Fig.
12).

Fill pressing pot, a large basin, or sink with cold water.
Remove weight and lid from atop tofu, then place container
holding tofu into basin of water (Fig. 13). Slowly invert
container, leaving cloth-wrapped tofu in water. Lift out
container. While it is still under water, carefully unwrap
and cut tofu crosswise into halves. Allow tofu to remain
under water for 3 to 5 minutes, until firm. To lift out,
slip a small plate under each piece of tofu. Drain briefly
(Fig. 14).

Store tofu in a cool place until ready to serve. (if not to
be served for 8 to 10 hours, store under cold water.) The
remaining 6 to 7 ounces (1 firmly packed cup) of okara can
be used in various other recipes, or refrigerated in an
airtight container. Use the 6 to 7 cups whey in stocks
and/or for washing your utensils.


More About Tofu

Just as the word “bread” is used in reference to a wide
variety of baked goods, the word “tofu” in its broad sense
refers to a number of different soybean foods.

“Tofu” is also used in a more limited sense to refer to
“regular tofu”, the simplest, least expensive variety and
the one most widely known in the West. This tofu has no
exact equivalent in Western cuisine and does not quite fit
the English terms “soybean curd” and “soybean cheese” often
used to describe it Tofu is made from soybean
curds just as cheese is made from dairy curds:
after ladling off whey from the soymilk curds in his
curding barrel, the tofu maker scoops the curds into two
cloth-lined wooden settling boxes and tops them with a
pressing lid and heavy weight for about thirty minutes.
During this time the curds are firmed and made into tofu.
Similarly, although the finished tofu, stored under water
in deep sinks, has the color and shape of a light cheese,
it is not fermented, aged, or ripened … hence the name
“soybean cheese” is also inappropriate.

According to ancient Chinese references, as well as to
popular tradition, the method for preparing both soymilk
and tofu was discovered by Lord Liu An of Huai-nan in about
164 B.C. A famous scholar and philosopher, ruler and
politician, Liu An is said to have been interested in
alchemy and Taoist meditation. A close friend of many
students, he may have undertaken his experiments ‘With tofu
as a way of introducing nutritious variety into their
simple meatless diet. Historians believe that Liu An’s tofu
was probably solidified with either nigari or seawater and
had a firm texture similar to most of the tofu made in
China today.

About 900 years passed from the time of the discovery of
tofu in China until its arrival in Japan. (As tofu became a
part of the language and culture in Japan it came to be
used in proverbs and sayings. When someone wants to tell a
person to “get lost”, he may say “Go bump your head against
the corner of a cake of tofu and drop dead.” Or when
speaking of something as being hopeless he might say “It’s
as futile as trying to clamp two pieces of tofu together.”)

Up until the start of World War II, virtually all Japanese
tofu was prepared in small household shops from gô cooked over a wood fire in an iron
cauldron and soymilk solidified with natural nigari. Only
after World War II did new solidifiers (such as calcium
sulfate) and ways of cooking (such as with pressurized
steam) come into vogue. In recent years, large shops and
factories have begun to mass-produce tofu: each 10-1/2
ounce cake is water-packed in a polyethylene container,
thermally sealed with a sheet of transparent film, and
pasteurized by immersion for one hour in hot water to give
a shelf life of up to 1 week. Distributed over an area of
several hundred miles in refrigerated trucks, this tofu is
sold in supermarkets and neighborhood grocery stores at a
price slightly below that of the tofu sold in most
neighborhood shops.

Another 1,200 years passed before tofu made the leap from
Japan to America … where there are now more than 50 tofu
shops, the oldest of which has been in business since the
turn of the century. The history of tofu in the West,
therefore, has only just begun.