Adventures in Tofu

Cultures for Health exhibited at Mother Earth News Fair in Puyallup, Washington last week – the biggest expo we’ve attended yet, with about 15,000 visitors over two days. We were invited to demonstrate how to make tofu and tempeh, two fermented soy products and I was asked to prepare a one-hour presentation for quite a crowd. Confession: I have never made tofu before! Luckily I had about four weeks to prepare and practice.

The first step is to gather all the equipment and supplies. The tofu press sold at Cultures for Health includes the press itself, a straining bag, a square of high-quality muslin and 24 pre-measured packets of good-quality nigari. (More about nigari in a minute!) In other words, everything except the soy milk!  You’ll also need a large pot and a thermometer.

I wanted to try making my own soy milk, but I also wanted a backup plan in case I needed to do it several times. I wanted to start with a milk that contained just organic soy beans and water. There are several brands, and I chose the WestSoy because it was on sale. I also got some soy milk from WestSoy that has rice syrup added.

Making soy milk is tedious, but probably worth the trouble if you want a high-quality product that you can control yourself all the way from the beginning. You start by soaking the soy beans overnight, or up to 24 hours. They will more than double in size as they soak up water! So for one quart of soy milk, you’ll start with about 1 cup (200g) of beans, which will turn into about 2½ cups after soaking in about 6 cups of water. This will make a tofu block about an inch high. If you want a bigger block, or if you want to make two of them, start with 2 cups and double all the quantities given here.

After you’ve soaked the beans, you may want to hull them. The hulls are quite fibrous and will make the finished tofu more firm and chewy, which some people like. If you want to remove the hulls, just rub the soaked beans gently between your palms and put them back in the soaking water. The hulls will float to the surface and you can remove them with a slotted spoon. You can also pinch the beans and pick off the hulls which is more thorough, but much more time-consuming!

When you have removed as many hulls as you want to, put the soaked beans in a blender with some of the soaking water. Blend them up until you have a purée about the consistency of thin oatmeal. You can add liquid if you need to.

Bring 5 cups of water to a boil in a large stainless steel pan. Use a pot that is at least twice as big as the amount of water you are boiling, since the liquid will foam up a lot. When the water is boiling, slowly add the bean purée, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. You want to keep an eye on this or the liquid will boil up over the edge of the pot and all over your stove. Trust me on this. Bring the mixture just up to a boil, then turn off the heat until the boiling has stopped.

Now slowly reheat the liquid and simmer for 7-8 minutes. Pour the boiled mixture into a straining bag that has been stretched over a colander or bowl. Twist the bag tightly to extract as much milk as possible. You can tie up the bag, and insert a set of chopsticks crosswise into the folds, then twist them in opposite directions to compress the pulp in the bag. (The stuff is still hot!)

The pulp that you’ve got left in the bag is called okara, and is made of soy fiber. You can form it into patties and cook it, or add it to soups. It also makes great compost! Measure out one quart of hot soy milk for use in making tofu, and let it cool to about 175°F (about 80°C). It will only take a few minutes. If you are using prepared soy milk, all you need to do is boil a quart of it for 5 minutes, then let it cool down to 175°. The boiling breaks down the proteins so the milk will coagulate better.

Now you will need to add a coagulant. Typically, Japanese tofu is made with Nigari, which is magnesium chloride that has been extracted from sea water. Chinese tofu is more likely to be made with Terra Alba, which is another name for calcium sulfate (gypsum). You can use a Nigari packet from the tofu kit, or measure out a tablespoon of liquid Nigari. You can also dissolve a teaspoon of Nigari flakes, or a teaspoon of Terra Alba. If you use more coagulant, you will get a firmer tofu. I tried all four options. I liked the packets that came with the kit the best.

Put the coagulant of your choice into a half cup of warm water and let it stand for a few minutes. (If you use flakes or Terra Alba, make sure the coagulant is fully dissolved.) Put the coagulant into the 175° soy milk, and let it stand for 15 to 30 minutes. Some instructions say not to disturb it, while others recommend you stir a few times. I liked what happened when I stirred it, and I let it sit for about 30 minutes or more.

Once the milk is thickened or curdled, you can put it in the press. I really like the tofu press. You could probably use a cheese press too, or even a cheese mold. You put some muslin into the press or mold with plenty hanging over the side. Put this on a baking rack in the sink, or some other setup that will let lots of liquid drain away. Pour the thickened milk slowly into the press, then fold the extra muslin over the top. The tofu press has a nice little lid, but you don’t really need it unless you want a flat block of tofu with a smooth top. What you do need is a weight, the heavier the better. You can also use a jar full of beans or water, or even a rock from the garden.

Let this sit for a minimum of 20 minutes or up to 12 hours. Then carefully lift the tofu out of the press and unwrap it on a plate. You will have a lovely block of creamy tofu! Wash the muslin in plain hot water. You can rinse it with vinegar to sterilize it. If you’re not going to eat the tofu within 24 hours, put it in a container with cold water, and change the water every 24 hours.

I ended up making about six batches of tofu experimenting with different methods. I found that the homemade milk, with a Nigari packet and a 20-minute press, made a 1” block of pretty firm tofu. The boxed milk that was just soy bean and water, with liquid Nigari and a 40-minute press, made a thick creamy blob of tofu that would have been 2” high if it had been firmer. The boxed milk that had rice syrup in it, with a Nigari packet and an overnight press, made a creamy block about 1” high. The boxed milk with just soy beans and water, and the Terra Alba, made a thick milk that drained right through the muslin with nothing left to press. I must have done something wrong there, because lots of people use Terra Alba with good results!

Making tofu at home is a fair amount of work, but if you are looking for a product that you can control from start to finish, this is how to do it. The results are not quite like commercial tofu, any more than your homemade bread is like the loaf you buy at the store. Would I do it again? Probably… because I like working in the kitchen, and I love the pride of having food I make myself!


Rosalyn is the Customer Service Manager at Cultures for Health. With her background as a Nutritional Consultant, she enjoys helping others learn about the value of eating real food. Rosalyn is a homeschooling mom who loves being in the kitchen and shopping at the farmers’ market. She’s a lifetime baker and enjoys improvising recipes. She can regularly be found experimenting with new flavors and varieties of cultured foods.

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