Think tofu-making is better left to magic-conjuring professionals? Think again.
It’s actually not difficult to make tofu at home — all it requires is a bit of online ordering, some patience, and the willingness to tinker a bit to find your soybean zen. Plus, homemade tofu, even when made with organic, non-GMO beans, is loads cheaper than the storebought stuff and you can easily control the final texture — with no chalky soy sponges in sight.
I’ve learned to make tofu by combining techniques courtesy of America’s Test Kitchen and the tofu-master herself, Andrea Nguyen. Both are great resources for even more experimentation.
First things first, you’ll want to purchase or make a tofu mold, and you’ll need to go shopping for nigari. What’s nigari, you ask? It’s the coagulant used to turn soy milk into curds and whey (like cheese!), and it is most often sold in the form of magnesium chloride. It’s easy to find both nigari and tofu molds online, and if you can find them as a kit (with butter muslin included), even better. You’ll save money on shipping and everything you need will show up in a neat little box.
If you’d rather hack your way to a tofu mold, you can make one a la America’s Test Kitchen out of an empty quart-sized strawberry container: simply poke a few holes on the bottom and you’re good to go. Nguyen also recommends lining a colander with butter muslin and using that as a mold as well. (If you go the colander route, you will end up with round tofu, but there’s nothing really wrong with that.)
Me, I went ahead and sprung for a wooden mold, since I plan to make tofu more than just this once.
Once you’ve got your equipment sorted, it’s time to look for dried soybeans. If you have any concerns about GMOs, be sure to seek out organic soybeans and/or those that have been certified as non-GMO. You can usually find these at Whole Foods. If you’re less concerned, you should be able to find regular dried soybeans at Chinese or other Asian grocery stores.
Either way, you’ll need to soak the soybeans overnight in cold water. After soaking, they’ll transform from round-ish pea-like beans to yellow, oblong beans that look much like cannellini. Why they change shape is a great question — anyone who knows should chime in in the comments!
The next day, it’s time to transform the soybeans into soy milk. First, blend the soaked beans (in batches) with plenty of water until the milky slurry is as smooth as possible. Transfer all of that goodness to a large, deep pot.
I’m going to emphasize again that the pot should be large and deep. Dutch ovens will work, but wide stock pots are better. You’ll notice that the blended soy milk slurry is super foamy. Once you start heating the milk in the next step, the foam will stick around and can easily cause the whole thing to boil over. I stood right next to the pot, stirring constantly, and this still happened:
So be careful.
You will want to simmer the milk slurry for around 10 minutes. This step will help make the tofu more digestible and will get rid of that raw beany taste. That said, if you are interested in making raw tofu, I suspect that you could sprout the soybeans (see this tutorial on sprouting) to help with the digestibility issue, blend them with water, and then drain as I do below. I have yet to try this, but I don’t see why it wouldn’t work.
After the slurry is cooked, remove the pot from the heat and set up a draining station. I placed a strainer over a large pot in the sink, and then I lined the strainer with a thin kitchen towel. You can also use butter muslin or a triple layer of cheesecloth here, but I prefer using a kitchen towel because it won’t let any of the soy pulp through.
Carefully ladle the hot milk slurry into the lined strainer. The milk should easily run through the towel into the pot, leaving soybean pulp behind. This pulp is called okara, and it is also edible. Hodo Soy in Oakland sells it to a few Bay Area restaurants, which transform it into all kinds of crazy stuff. You can eat it like ricotta (season it first, though) or mix it into quick bread recipes for an extra dose of protein and calcium.
Once all the milk has been ladled through, grab the edges of the towel and twist the whole thing together to form a sack. Squeeze it tightly to push any remaining milk out of the okara. A pair of tongs can be helpful here as the okara will still be quite hot.
Measure out 8 cups of the soy milk and return them to the large pot or Dutch oven (clean it first!). Save any remaining soy milk for drinking or cooking. It is delicious.
Heat the soy milk back up to a boil and then remove it from the heat. Let it sit for a couple of minutes, stirring a few times to prevent a skin from forming on the top. (Side note: The skin that forms is edible, too. You’ll see it sold as yuba and it is a great gluten-free noodle substitute, among many other things.)
While the milk is heating, get the nigari ready. You’ll need to dissolve it into small amount of water to it can evenly incorporate into the soy milk. A few stirs does the trick.
Add the nigari-water mixture to the soy milk in three batches. The first addition you’ll do while stirring: Use a wooden spoon to stir a z-shaped pattern in the milk while pouring in about ⅓ of the nigari mixture. Keep stirring several times to make sure you’ve got even distribution. End the stirring session by circling the spoon to the center of the pot and then stopping it right there in the center. Hold the spoon steady until the milk stops moving, and then remove the spoon.
Now sprinkle another half of the nigari-water mixture over the surface of the soy milk, cover the pot, and let it sit for three minutes. During this time, the nigari will start to work its magic on the soy milk, separating it into fluffy curds and clear yellow whey.
After three minutes, remove the lid and sprinkle on the remaining nigari mixture. Try to get it into spots that still look more like milky liquid. Use your wooden spoon to gently mix the nigari into the surface of the milk. Cover the pot and again let it sit for three minutes.
At this point, the soy milk should have mostly curdled. If you still see some milky sections, give those a gentle stir and let the pot continue to rest, covered, for another few minutes. You should see a pot full of curds floating in clear whey.
If you’re still having trouble getting a full separation between curds and whey, try adding more nigari: Dissolve ¼ teaspoon nigari flakes into ¼ cup of water. Sprinkle it over the milky areas of the mixture and gently stir it into the surface of the milk. Let the mixture rest for a minute or two; it should now be fully curdled. But if you’ve just bought your first bag of nigari, you shouldn’t have this problem.
While you’re curdling the soy milk, it’s a good time to get your tofu mold set up. Place the mold on a rimmed baking sheet and line the bottom and sides with butter muslin, leaving the rest to hang over the top. Make sure the draining holes on the sides and bottom are clear.
Once the curds are ready, use a ladle to scoop out some of the whey and pour it into the mold, just to moisten it up a bit. Use a slotted spoon to very gently transfer the curds to the mold. The only trick here is to try to keep the curds in large pieces. (You’ll get tofu with a creamier texture this way.) Some breakage is inevitable, so don’t sweat it too much.
Now cover the tofu curds with the remaining muslin and pop on the lid. You’ll now need to weigh down the lid — I used a couple of cans of food, which worked well, but you can use anything that fits evenly on top of the lid.
Let the tofu rest under the weight until it has reached your desired firmness. I like creamy, light medium tofu, so I let it rest for about 15 minutes. For firm tofu, it’ll need to sit for more like 30 or 45 minutes. Medium tofu will have compressed to about half its original height and firm tofu will have compressed to about one third of its original height. You can check on the tofu periodically and give it a poke to see how it is doing. Keep in mind, though, that it will firm up a bit as it cools, and that there’s no right or wrong answer here. Tofu that’s not quite the texture you’re looking for is just an excuse to experiment and make some more!
Finally, once the tofu is pressed, you’ll want to unmold it and let it cool. I leave it wrapped up in the muslin to keep it moist while it cools, but you can also transfer it to a bowl of cool water. Once it’s cool, move the tofu to the fridge to continue to firm up. If you’re eating it tonight, there’s no real need to put it in water, but if you want to store it for a few more days (it’ll keep for up to a week), move the tofu to a container of water. Switch out the water every day or so to keep it fresh.
Eat your tofu cold and drizzled with soy sauce and sesame oil, coat it in cornstarch and fry it, stir it into mapo dofu, or do just about anything else to it. The world’s your tofu-oyster!
Recipe: Homemade Tofu
Makes about 1 pound
Notes: If you’re worried about GMOs, look for organic or non-GMO certified soybeans. You can find nigari online, along with a tofu mold. (Look for a tofu-making kit for the best deal.) You will also need butter muslin and a thin kitchen towel or (lots) of cheesecloth. If you have access to freshly made soymilk at, say, a Chinese or Japanese grocery store, you can skip steps 1-6 and start the recipe by measuring out 8 cups of the milk into a large pot.
1 ⅓ cups (8 ounces) dried soybeans
9 ½ cups water, plus more for soaking the beans
1 ½ teaspoons nigari flakes
The night before making the tofu, place the soybeans in a large bowl and cover them with at least 2 inches of cold water. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight.
The next day, the soybeans should have plumped up considerably and should now look oblong instead of round. Drain the beans in a colander and rinse with cold water.
Transfer 1 cup of the soybeans to a blender and cover with 3 cups of the water. Blend on high until the mixture is relatively smooth and has turned white and milky, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Pour the soy milk slurry into a Dutch oven or other large, deep pot. Repeat with the remaining soybeans in two batches, adding 3 cups of water with each batch. (You’ll have ½ cup of water left over.)
Place the pot over medium heat and slowly bring the soy milk slurry to a simmer. Stir frequently and do not walk away from the pot; the milk slurry is incredibly foamy and will boil over easily. Once the milk slurry is simmering, reduce the head to medium low. Continue to simmer for 10 minutes and then remove the pot from the heat.
Place a strainer over a large bowl or pot. Line the strainer with a thin kitchen towel or a triple layer of cheesecloth. Ladle the soy milk slurry into the towel-lined strainer, letting the milk drain through.
Bring the edges of the towel together to form a sack and twist to squeeze out more of the milk. If the sack is too hot to handle, you can use tongs to hold and squeeze the sack. Try to get out as much of the milk as possible. Reserve the soybean pulp (aka okara) for another use, or compost it.
Rinse out the Dutch oven. Pour 8 cups of the strained soy milk back into the pot. Save any extra soy milk for drinking or cooking. It’ll keep for 3 to 5 days in the fridge.
Place the pot over medium-high heat, bring the soy milk to a boil, and then remove from the heat. Let the milk sit for 2 to 3 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent a skin from forming.
Meanwhile, dissolve the nigari in the remaining ½ cup water.
While stirring with a wooden spoon, pour about one third of the nigari-water mixture into the soy milk. Continue to stir in a z-shaped pattern six to eight more times. Stop the spoon in the center of the pot and hold it there until the milk stops moving. Remove the spoon.
Sprinkle another third of the nigari-water mixture over the soy milk. Cover the pot and let the mixture rest for 3 minutes.
Uncover the pot. The soy milk mixture should be curdling at this point. Sprinkle the remaining nigari-water mixture over the top and use the wooden spoon to gently stir it into the milk. Try to get it into any spots of the milk that don’t look curdled, but try not to disturb the curds too much with your stirring. Cover the pot and let the mixture rest for another 3 minutes.
Uncover the pot and take a look. If you see curds fully separated from clear yellow whey, you’re ready to move on. If you see still see milky areas in the pot, gently give those areas a stir, cover the pot and let it sit for another 3 minutes. At this point, the soy milk should be fully curdled; if not, you will likely need to add more nigari (see story above).
While the soy milk is curdling, set up the tofu mold on a rimmed baking sheet. Line the mold with the butter muslin.
When the soy milk is ready, use a ladle to pour a bit of the whey into the mold to moisten the cloth. Using a slotted spoon, gently transfer the curds to the lined mold. Try to keep the curds as intact as possible while you’re doing this; you’ll get a much better final texture.
Once all of the curds have been transferred, fold the muslin over the top of the tofu. Place the lid on top of the muslin and then place a weight on the lid. A can or two of beans will work well as a weight.
Let the tofu rest under the weight until it has reached your desired texture. For medium tofu, let it sit for about 15 minutes; it should have compressed to about half its original height. For firm tofu, let it sit for 30 to 45 minutes; it should have compressed to about one third of its original height. You can check on the tofu periodically and give it a poke to see how it is doing. Keep in mind, though, that it will firm up a bit as it cools.
Once you’re happy with the firmness of the tofu, remove the weights, lid, and side of the mold. Let it rest, still wrapped in muslin, until it has reached room temperature. Unwrap the tofu and refrigerate until you’re ready to eat. If you’re going to store the tofu for more than a day, you’ll want to place it in cool water in its storage container. It will keep for about a week.