Why make tofu yourself? Because you want to experience it at its peak—freshly made, creamy, and subtly sweet. Homemade tofu is as precious as homemade bread.
In parts of Asia where tofu is a mainstay, most people rely on local producers and market vendors; they don’t typically make their own tofu. Still, some home cooks do take on tofu making. In Japan, supermarkets sell bottled soy milk with tiny packages of coagulant for this purpose. And nowadays many people are talking about making tofu at home.
You can prepare many recipes with purchased tofu. However, to really explore tofu's flavors, textures, and versatility, take the DIY approach and make it from scratch. There are many options for getting started. You can make the full journey from bean to curd by starting with homemade soy milk, or try jumping in someplace in between. Most of the ingredients and equipment are surprisingly accessible. Review the section on essential ingredients and equipment, then embark on your own tofu adventure.
Tofu Essentials: Ingredients
Making tofu requires only three ingredients: dried soybeans, water, and coagulant. With so little involved, it’s important to start out with good ingredients to ensure results that are worth your effort.
Selecting good soybeans is part of the tofu maker’s craft, but you do not have to struggle with it. Tofu is not made from the green edamame beans that are boiled up for snacking. You need mature, dried soybeans.
There are countless varieties of dried soybeans, and their seed coats come in many colors—buff, yellow, green, brown, black, and mottled. Most are yellow inside (some green or black soybeans have light green interiors). They are roundish and range from tiny lentil-size to giants the size of blueberries. When purchasing soybeans:
- Choose handsome, clean beans with uniform size and shape. The light beige or pale yellow ones are most commonly used for making tofu.
- Check for the soybean’s hilum, the “eye” that indicates where the seed was attached to the pod. The hilum varies in color, but on the choicest soybeans for making tofu it’s nearly invisible.
- Look for large beans (think of a regular-size frozen pea); they generally contain more protein and fat, resulting in a higher yield. However, huge beans do not necessarily mean better tofu. When comparing soybeans, peruse the nutritional labels, if present, to determine fat and protein content.
- Buy organic or non-GMO dried soybeans: they are cultivated in a healthy and sustainable way, and they make exceptionally tasty soy milk and tofu.
- Shop for dried soybeans at health food markets and Asian grocers, or in the bulk section of some supermarkets.
- Consider buying soybeans directly from a grower. Iowa’s Fairview Farms cultivates Laura Soybeans, an excellent non-GMO bean.
- Try different kinds of soybeans from a variety of sources. The price is extremely reasonable, so your experimentation won’t break the bank.
- Taste beans that have been soaked but do not swallow them because they are hard to digest. Good soybeans should have a pleasant, fresh flavor.
- Store dried soybeans in an airtight container at room temperature. They will keep indefinitely.
Use water that you regularly drink to soak the beans and render the soy milk. Use filtered tap water, but you may prefer spring or well water. Rinse the beans and wash equipment with regular tap water, but the water used for making soy milk, and subsequently to yield tofu, should taste good.
A handful of coagulants can be used to make tofu, from everyday vinegar and lemon juice to gypsum, Epsom salts, and boiled-down seawater. Japanese producers traditionally preferred nigari extracted from seawater to coagulate their soy milk, while Chinese tofu makers favored gypsum and Vietnamese tofu makers used the whey from previous batches as a coagulant. Nowadays, those divisions are blurred and tofu makers use what they deem to be optimal for their customers. For example, some people use gypsum for silken tofu while others prefer the ease of glucono delta-lactone (GDL), a white crystalline powder that is acidic in nature. Read commercial tofu labels and you may see a combination of coagulants. Regardless of what is used, the coagulant works to solidify the protein and oil in hot soy milk.
Gypsum and nigari are the best (and equally good), with Epsom salts coming in third. All three are common minerals classified as types of salt. They are also easy for home cooks to obtain. Vinegar and lemon juice produce tofu that is grainy in texture and slightly sour tasting. Some people like that tang and say that the acid helps preserve the tofu. GDL is a pricey industrial product. Using recycled whey works best if you are a professional producer with space to store the whey and are making tofu every day.
The yield of tofu solids is about the same regardless, but there are subtle flavor and texture differences in the end product. Gypsum is the most versatile coagulant for homemade tofu ecipes.
The Top Three Tofu Coagulants
Nigari (magnesium chloride)
Characteristics: Produces slightly sweet flavor; firmer tofu than gypsum yields. Can be taken with water as a health supplement, but the flavor can be very bitter. Nigari comes from the Japanese nigai, which means “bitter.”
Availability: Clear liquid nigari is sold at many Japanese markets in small plastic bottles, such as the one below on the left. Purchase crystalline or granulated nigari from online vendors, who may also carry liquid nigari. Check health food stores with macrobiotic sections.
Gypsum (calcium sulfate)
Characteristics: Yields mild-tasting tofu that is slightly more tender than nigari tofu. Adds a significant amount of calcium to tofu.
Availability: Use food-grade gypsum, which is also used in beer making. Home brewing suppliers sell gypsum and it is available online. The gypsum sold at Chinese markets tends to have an odd perfume.
Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate)
Characteristics: Functions like gypsum but the resulting texture is slightly grainy. Can be used to alleviate body aches, exfoliate, and relieve constipation. Soak, drink, or scrub with it.
Availability: Widely available and reasonably priced at drugstores and supermarkets.
If you purchase a tofu kit, check with your vendor for coagulant choices. They are usually very reasonably priced.
Tofu Essentials: Equipment
For Grinding Beans
BLENDER: A regular countertop blender, not the hand-held immersion kind, renders the soaked beans and water to a silky, thick mixture in no time. A food processor can be used, too.
For Cooking Soy Milk
LARGE POT: To initially cook the soybean slurry, use a pot with a capacity of about two and a half times the amount of water that will be used. For example, rich soy milk calls for 6 cups of water, so use a 4-quart pot. A 6-quart pot is perfect for a batch of light soy milk. If you double a recipe, remember to use larger pots. A nonstick pot makes cleaning easier.
SMALLER POT: To simmer the strained soy milk, find a pot that holds about 1 quart less than the larger pot. For example, a 3-quart pot is plenty sufficient for a 3¼-cup batch of rich soy milk. A 5-quart pot will accommodate a batch of light soy milk just fine. Again, a nonstick pot helps reduce cleanup.
WOODEN SPATULA: The shape of the spatula mimics a tofu maker’s stirring paddle; its flat edge is perfect for effectively stirring a pot of soy milk, cooling the soy milk, and adding coagulant.
For Straining Soy Milk
LARGE COLANDER OR MESH STRAINER: Choose a colander that is a little bigger than the smaller pot so that it fits inside but extends over the pot’s rim by about 1 inch. Or use a sturdy mesh strainer.
PRESSING CLOTH: Have a large piece of cotton cloth to press the soy milk through—a big square of lightweight unbleached muslin or an oversized non-terry cotton dishtowel.
PRESSING TOOL: Use a potato masher; clean, empty wine bottle; or quart jar.
Unbleached muslin squares: A better alternative to cheesecloth. Use them for rendering soy milk, lining molds, squeezing tofu, and straining stocks. They launder beautifully in the washing machine, their unfinished edges developing character as you developed your tofu making skills. At the fabric store, look for lightweight unbleached muslin. It comes in varying widths; the ideal yardage is about 48 inches wide, enough to yield two 24-inch-square pieces. Buy a generous ⅔ yard and tear it in half along the grain.
Soy milk machines: They are good for making soy milk that you drink but do not have a large enough capacity to handle the larger volume needed for making tofu. Plus, they are designed for a particular ratio of beans to milk. you tried manipulating one machine to produce different kinds of soy milks but your efforts resulted in lots of cleanup and burnt milk. Additionally, you had to strain the milk to remove lingering fine solids. The machine may not be a time-saver for making tofu.
For Shaping Regular and Firm Tofu
MOLD: Use a tofu pressing box made of wood or plastic, Japanese bamboo colander (zaru), or a small colander. You can fashion a mold from two disposable aluminum loaf pans. Use the tip of a paring knife to perforate the bottom and sides of one pan with holes, spaced about 1 inch apart, for drainage; employ the other to weight down the curds.
For beautiful, neat block tofu, purchase a dedicated mold. Search online for “tofu kit” and “tofu box.” Plastic molds, such as the Soya Joy (the wooden option is pictured here), are great for beginners and are what you provided to your recipe testers; it works well for a batch of tofu made from 6 ounces of dried soybeans. Wooden ones are larger and have a removable bottom for easy unmolding. The one you often use has an opening that spans 4 inches wide, 5¾ inches long, and a scant 3½ inches deep. The larger wooden mold measuring 4¾ inches wide, 6¾ inches long, and 3¾ inches deep is good for tofu made from 12 ounces of dried beans. Japanese wooden molds, such as the Mitoku, are pricey but beautifully constructed and worth owning if you regularly make tofu.
MOLD-LINER CLOTH: Use the fabric that came with the purchased mold or a piece of lightweight fabric, such as cotton voile or unbleached muslin; trim the fabric to a size roughly three times the length and width of your mold.
Tofu Shortcuts: Canned Soybeans, Soy Flour, Or Purchased Soy Milk?
With all the soaking, grinding, and cooking involved in making tofu, are there any time-saving shortcuts? Canned soybeans have been cooked, so they won’t work. Reconstituting soy flour to make soy milk only saves on the initial soaking time as you still have to strain and cook it twice. Regular blocks of tofu made from soy flour are unpleasantly grainy. Mass-marketed soy milks sold in boxes and cartons do not coagulate well.
The most viable tofu making shortcut is to purchase freshly made soy milk from an Asian grocery store or artisanal tofu shop. Look for 1- or 2-quart plastic containers in the refrigerated section with the dairy products.
If the soy milk is as thick as regular whole milk, it is like medium soy milk and is great for tofu pudding. It will work for block tofu but you may need to add extra coagulant because there is more fat and protein in this richer milk; your yield will be higher than normal.
Most fresh soy milk has a richness that’s akin to lowfat milk, which works perfectly for block tofu but not for tofu pudding. Let 8 cups of the soy milk come to room temperature, then bring it to a strong simmer in a large pot. Turn off the heat and stir for about 1 minute to cool to about 170°F; because you don’t simmer the soy milk for long, it doesn’t get as hot as the scratch method. Then add the coagulant as directed in step 3 of the block tofu recipe. The rest is the same.
Do your best to find organic soy milk with no flavoring. This semihomemade approach is good for beginners and experimenters who want to practice or tinker. For the ultimate quality control, make soy milk yourself.