"If you can't find a local product, the next best bet is buying a package with the latest expiration date from a store that turns over a lot of tofu."

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[Photographs: Michael Natkin]

These days, when even die-hard carnivores are looking for more meatless meals, tofu is a mainstream product. But not all tofu is created equal. Some tofu has a mild, sweet beany flavor and a smooth consistency, while other brands have flavor defects and strange textures.

In Japan, it's understood that top-shelf bean curd is an artisanal product made with only the best soybeans and spring water and processed with labor-intensive traditional techniques. That level of appreciation is unusual in the United States, but perhaps it will become more common as we realize that tofu is a versatile and delicious food in its own right, not a replacement for meat.

I tasted six brands of firm or extra firm tofu to help you out on your next grocery trip.

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Firm tofus are best for stir-frying or pan-frying to brown the surface, which adds a lot of flavor. Just be sure and pat the cut surfaces dry before browning in a single layer to maximize hot surface area. You can see an example of the technique in this red-curry tofu with delicata squash.

Now, onto the tasting!

The Winner

Thanh Son Tofu. Never heard of it? Not surprising. Thanh Son is a local Seattle company that makes fresh tofu, soy milk, tofu pudding, deep-fried tofu and other delicacies every day. If you wander into their International District store in the afternoon and buy a pound for a whopping $1.25, you will be rewarded with a still-warm, sweet, tender, luscious block of tofu. Yes, I said luscious and tofu in the same sentence. This stuff is so good, you might want to eat it plain, just dipped in a little soy sauce.

Now you rightly ask, "what good is this to me? I don't live in Seattle." Here's the deal. If you live in a major metropolitan area with a significant Asian population, there's probably a similar small factory right under your nose. It's well worth your time to seek them out. You'll be supporting a local business and eating the freshest, tastiest tofu you can buy. (If you can suggest a producer in your area, please let us know in the comments below.)

The Middle of the Pack

There really wasn't that much difference between the Sun Luck, Nasoya, Azumaya, and Trader Joe's brand products.

Azumaya and Trader Joe's are organic, so that earns an edge in my book. All had only water, soybeans and either calcium sulfate or magnesium chloride (the minerals that coagulate the curd) as ingredients, with no additives or preservatives. All had reasonable flavors and not overly mealy textures.

This particular batch from Trader Joe's wasn't quite as sweet as the rest; there was a slight hint of sourness. Other times when I've purchased this brand, it's been near-perfect for grocery store tofu. The difference is most likely in age and handling.

So if you can't find a local product, the next best bet is buying a package with the latest expiration date from a store that turns over a lot of tofu. If you can see through the top plastic, look for signs of yellowing or excessive mealiness as indications that it isn't as fresh as it could be.

The Inedible

Mori Nu produces a widely available tofu that doesn't have to be refrigerated, and has a shelf life of many months. I hadn't tasted it in decades, but the memories still haunted me. I was hoping they had improved over the years.

My hopes were dashed on the first bite. This stuff has an extremely creepy pudding-like texture even when extra firm. I'd try to describe it further, but I literally couldn't take a second bite. I don't know whether the addition of isolated soy protein and gluconolactone is necessary to make it shelf-stable or whether they actually want it to have this texture, but either way, I'd avoid this brand at all costs.

About the author: Michael Natkin is the author of the vegetarian recipe blog, Herbivoracious, which was recently nominated for Saveur's first annual food blog awards.

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