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Firm, extra firm, soft, silken -- the vast array of fresh tofu varieties can seem daunting. What's the difference between them, and how do you choose which kind to use in a dish? To help answer these questions, I asked a couple of experts.
From least firm to most firm, the typical tofu textures are silken, extra soft, soft, medium, medium firm, firm, extra firm, and super firm. Non-silken tofu is also known as Regular tofu.
To find out what makes these tofus different, I spoke to Tim Kenny, vice president of marketing at Nasoya, a company that makes organic, non-GMO tofu. Kenny explained: "The difference is in how much water is pressed out of the tofu. The more water you press out of it, the firmer it gets. As we make it firmer, with less water content, both the fat and protein go up."
Kenny noted that as you move up in firmness, it takes additional time to bake or fry out extra water. "It really becomes personal preference how firm a texture you like to eat, and how much time you have," he said.
I also questioned Andrea Nguyen, author of "Asian Tofu: Discover the Best, Make Your Own, and Cook It at Home." Nguyen compares picking tofu to picking a clothing brand that you like. "There is a wide variety of tofu textures," she says. "Just like you have to try different brands of jeans to see what will look best, you need to try different kinds of tofu and see what you like. Fortunately, it's not as hard as choosing denim and it won't cost you so much!"
Some of these categories overlap depending on the manufacturer, and one company's firm tofu may be more or less dense than another's. However, in general, here's what you can expect, and the best uses for each variety:
While Andrea recommends the silken tofu found in plastic tubs, that's more difficult to find in my area. The boxed is more readily available.
This undrained, unpressed Japanese-style tofu has the highest water content and a custardy texture. Silken tofu can have different consistencies depending on how much soy protein it contains. It is often labeled soft, firm, or extra firm.
Silken tofu works well in creamy and blended foods like smoothies, desserts, puddings, salad dressings, sauces, and dips. It can also be used as an egg substitute in baking. Nguyen recommends buying silken tofu in plastic tubs rather than boxes. "The boxed stuff is emergency tofu," she says. "Though it doesn't need to be refrigerated and is handy for camping, it doesn't taste as good as the others."
Regular tofu is pressed and has a somewhat spongy texture. Like silken tofu, regular tofu comes in several consistencies.
Extra soft/soft: This is the Chinese-style equivalent of silken tofu. It is slightly less smooth but can be used in the same way.
Medium/medium firm: This is denser than silken or soft tofu but still fairly delicate. It can work well in gently simmered soups like miso and served cold like hiya yakko. Depending on the brand, it may be interchangeable with Firm tofu.
Firm: This tofu absorbs flavors well and can be stir-fried and pan-fried (how well it will hold together depends on the brand). It's also great crumbled and used in tofu scramble and as a substitute for ricotta cheese. Nguyen suggests using it in simmered dishes and braises like ma po tofu. "It will fall apart, but that's okay," she says.
Extra firm: This tofu holds its shape well and is excellent for slicing, cubing and all kinds of frying: pan-frying, stir-frying, deep-frying. It can also be baked, grilled and crumbled and used like ground meat. Nguyen notes that the more solid the tofu is, the more difficult it can be to infuse with flavor, "so choose your brand and texture based on that," she says.
Super firm: This tofu is very dense with a high protein content. It won't fall apart on you and there is less water to cook out, so it can be a good choice when you're in a hurry. However, it can also dry out more quickly if you're baking or grilling with high heat. This tofu is often vacuum-packed rather than sold in a tub. The reason why? Kenny says it's less intimidating to tofu newbies -- "It looks more like a package of cheese, you can see what it looks like and even squeeze it."
Tip: To firm up any kind of tofu, you can freeze it or press it (with the exception of silken or soft tofu, which would turn to mush).
"People think tofu is monochromatic, but it's not," says Nguyen. "Whether you're eating tofu for health or culinary reasons, just explore."