Everything you need to know about tofu

Tofu looks like a block of cheese at first glance, but it's actually curdled soy milk. Also known as "bean curd," you'll most likely find it in the supermarket sold as a square, pressed cake. But tofu comes in many forms: you can find soft or silken tofu, fermented tofu, burgers, smoked tofu, and even freeze-dried tofu. This is far from all of the variations available today, either — after all, the soy industry is quite large. The staggering amount of health benefits alone makes tofu a staple dish from Asia to North America.

While it's an important source of protein in vegetarian and vegan diets, there are plenty of reasons everyone else should also take advantage of this incredibly delicious ingredient. So is tofu right for you? Here's everything you need to know about this powerhouse food.

Its origins might have come from ancient soup

Tofu is thought to have originated in East Asia, around 2,000 years ago (the exact location and date of origin is still disputed today). There's no shortage of theories as to how this soy product came about. A popular belief is that King Liu An, who ruled China from 179-122 BC, developed the soy milk patty. Another belief, known as the Accidental Coagulation Theory, theorizes that the popular food was created entirely by accident, while someone was attempting to cook soybean soup. However tofu came to be, our tastebuds give thanks!

How it's made

The process of creating this food varies, depending on the producer. It begins with soy milk (some companies take it upon themselves to make their own), then the milk needs to be coagulated. This is achieved through different methods: some manufacturers use enzyme coagulants, while others use either acid or salt coagulants. None of these methods are superior to others, though it's important to note that the method of curdling will affect the overall texture of the finished tofu.

After that, the milk needs to be pressed, to remove the curds that will ultimately be cut into square blocks. The finished tofu is then pasteurized (heated to 180 degrees Fahrenheit). Pasteurizing the product extends its shelf life up to an additional month.

So what DOES it taste like?

Tofu has a very mild flavor, so it's often seasoned to suit the dish it's being used in. This is what makes tofu such a versatile ingredient, and a staple in many vegetarian diets. Try mincing some garlic, and sauté it with a mixture of soy sauce and orange marmalade. Marinate your tofu in the sauce, then pan fry it in a small amount of sesame oil. Drizzle the cooked tofu with the sauce and garnish it with micro greens. This can be served as an appetizer or main course that will impress all of your guests. If you're short on time, you can also serve this dish raw, and it's perfectly healthy.

Tofu's myraid of health benefits

Why cook with tofu instead of your favorite meat or fish? For starters, tofu is an excellent source of protein on its own; but it's also high in iron, calcium, and has no cholesterol. In fact, a daily dose of soy can ultimately lower your cholesterol, and has been linked to the prevention of some hormone-related cancers. The FDA recommends that you consume about 25 grams of soy per day, and tofu is one of the tastiest (and easiest) ways to meet this quota. Tofu is a powerhouse of vitamins and extremely versatile, making it an easy substitute in your favorite recipes.

Another bonus? Tofu is extremely cheap, especially compared to the likes of indulgences like shrimp and steak. You can purchase a large block of tofu for around two dollars, making this an ideal ingredient for anyone on a budget. Your only options don't have to be the different burgers on the McDonald's dollar menu.

How to cook it

Since there are so many different kinds of tofu on the market, it's easy to become confused about which one to buy or how to cook it. Some of the most common types are firm and silken. If you're cooking breakfast, try buying some firm tofu to make breakfast burritos or use as a substitute for eggs in almost any breakfast dish. In order to make the breakfast burritos, heat oil in a frying pan and add the tofu. Stir occasionally until the tofu is heated through and resembles the texture of scrambled eggs. Stir in salsa, salt, and pepper. Fill a tortilla with the tofu mixture and top with sliced avocado.

If you're cooking with silken tofu, we recommend skipping the unhealthy Mrs. Smith's pie for dessert and indulging in a decadent tofu chocolate pie. Melt chocolate and, in a food processor, combine the chocolate, tofu, vanilla, cocoa powder, milk, and salt. Pour this into a graham cracker crust and refrigerate until the pie is firm enough to slice. Finally, a healthy dessert without the regret! If you miss feeling guilty, you can always call your mom.