Each month FBC member and certified nutritionist, Sondi Bruner, checks out ingredients that are commonly associated with specialty diets and allergies and tells us more about them and how we can all use them. This month she gives us the lowdown on tofu and tempeh.
While an array of vegan, gluten-free and vegetarian ingredients have exploded in popularity in recent years — kale, quinoa, coconut sugar, matcha, just to name a few — tofu is one of those items that still elicits a nose wrinkle and some kind of guttural lament.
But even if you haven't heartily speared a chunk of bean curd, chances are you've consumed soy products in some form or another. Canadian farmers produce an average of 4 million tons of soybeans annually and in 2013, soy grossed $2.4 billion. It's used to make a variety of edibles including soy milk, tofu, tempeh, tamari, miso, edamame and natto, plus it's found in a plethora of processed foods. From baking mixes to chocolate to condiments to snack foods, it's likely soy has wended its way onto your plate.
I'm not entirely sure why tofu has such a poor reputation. Tofu and tempeh aren't just for crunchy hippies who wear Birkenstocks and make potpourri — they can be delicious ingredients that add flavour, texture and nutrition to your cooking. In this post, I'll break down what tofu and tempeh are, their respective health benefits and how you can enjoy them.
What is Tofu?
Tofu is made from soy milk that's been curdled and then pressed into a cake or block. There are varying consistencies of tofu, from soft to medium to firm, depending on how much water has been eliminated from the tofu.
Tofu originated in China about 2,000 years ago, and soon spread to Japan, Korea and South East Asian cuisines. Farmers began to cultivate soybeans here in Canada in the 1800s, while tofu began its ascent in 1910 when two Japanese tofu shops opened their doors in Vancouver.
Health Benefits of Tofu
Tofu and soy products in general can be controversial when it comes to health benefits. There are experts who are pro-soy and those who are violently opposed to it. So, let's talk about the benefits and some reasons for caution.
First off, tofu is high in protein, making it a fantastic alternative for vegetarians and vegans. It's also rich in iron and calcium, and research shows that it can help reduce the risk of anemia and osteoporosis.
Soy foods such as tofu contain phytoestrogens, which are plant compounds that mimic estrogen in the body. Evidence indicates that soy may prevent breast cancer and alleviate menopausal symptoms. However, these estrogenic qualities can also disrupt the endocrine system, and disrupt brain and endocrine development. There is equal concern that soy may influence the growth of hormone-related cancers such as breast cancer, while some researchers state the evidence is so conflicting we can't say for sure either way.
Another concern of soy detractors is its genetic modification. Again, this is a controversial area of discussion. GMOs have been linked to health concerns for both humans and the environment. From my perspective, we simply don't know if they are safe or not; it will likely take decades until we learn the long-term effects. In the meantime, I'll err on the side of caution by consuming non-GMO soy.
Okay, so are you confused about whether soy is good for you or not? I think the key is the form of soy you're eating. Aim to consume soy that's as close to its whole form as possible, meaning products like tofu, tempeh, miso, edamame and soy nuts. But those soy sausages or soy bologna or other highly processed foods filled with soy oil or other soy derivatives? Perhaps leave them on the shelf.
Also, since soy is one of the top 10 allergens in Canada, if you are allergic to it or are cooking for someone who is, ensure you read labels to check if what you're buying is soy-free.
How to Use Tofu
Tofu on its own can be bland, but the beauty of tofu is it soaks up whatever flavours you add to it like a sponge.
Soft or Silken Tofu: This type of tofu is very soft, watery and custard-esque. It blends smoothly, making it a great choice for dairy-free mayo or sour cream, puddings, smoothies and as a substitute for dairy in blended soups, 'cheesecake' and baked goods. You can also use it in savory dishes such as in stir-fries and stews, or use it to mimic the consistency of eggs in a tofu scramble or quiche.
Medium, Firm and Extra Firm Tofu: These firmer-textured tofus can be used in so many ways! Cube 'em up and toss them in a stir-fry, stew or miso soup. Skewer tofu, along with vegetables, to create a kabob, or crumble it up to use as a replacement for ground meat in chili, pasta sauce, veggie loaves, lasagna and taco fillings. Tofu is wonderful when marinated and grilled or baked, and also sliced up as a sandwich or salad topping or rolled into vegan sushi. Really, the possibilities with tofu are almost limitless.
The key thing to remember when using tofu is marinating it first. I like to press my tofu before adding a marinade; this further squeezes out water so the tofu can absorb even more flavour. Here's how to do it: cut the tofu into slabs and wrap them in a tea towel, then place a few heavy cookbooks on top. Leave the tofu to drain for about an hour, then unwrap it and toss in your marinade.
What is Tempeh?
Tempeh is made from whole soybeans that have been fermented using a fungus strain called Rhizopus oligosporus and then bound into a block or cake. It originated in Indonesia centuries ago, but wasn't introduced into the North American diet until the 1970s.
I'm not going to lie: tempeh is an acquired taste if you are unaccustomed to fermented foods. However, if you already dig sauerkraut and kombucha and kimchi and pickles, you're more likely to enjoy it.
Health Benefits of Tempeh
As a fermented food, tempeh can feed the beneficial bacteria in our guts, aid digestion, boost bio-availability of nutrients, improve our immunity, and it has anti-diarrhea and anti-bacterial properties.
Traditionally, tempeh was an excellent source of Vitamin B12, an important vitamin for the brain and nervous system that's rarely found in plant-based foods. However, as tempeh processing has increased, the newer and cleaner machines yield tempeh that no longer contains B12.
As a soy product, tempeh also offers the benefits of tofu discussed above, such as being a great vegan protein option and a source of phytoestrogens.
How to Use Tempeh
Nobody puts Tempeh in a corner. Its strong flavour stands out, so work to highlight rather than hide it in dishes. Since I developed a taste for tempeh, I will usually choose it over tofu.
Similar to tofu, tempeh can be cubed, sliced, grilled, marinated and crumbled in a variety of dishes. I love having it alongside steamed or roasted vegetables, in chili, and as a filling for shepherd's pie. It also makes an awesome vegan bacon, and I've even used it as a substitute for bread.
You can purchase tempeh plain or pre-marinated, and you also find it mixed with whole grains, too. If you're a tempeh newbie, I'd recommend starting off with one of the marinated versions.
If you haven't experimented with tofu or tempeh before, I highly encourage you to give them a try! There is a great roundup of 19 Tofu Recipes here. And this recipe is one of my favourites, and it works well with both tofu and tempeh. If using tempeh, you can skip the pressing step, as tempeh isn't watery.
- 1 350g block of organic firm tofu, pressed (I like to press tofu so it will soak up more sauciness, but you can definitely skip it if you're not in the mood, or are short on time)
- 1 cup sunbutter
- ¼ cup + 2 tbsp coconut oil, melted
- ¼ cup maple syrup
- ¼ cup gluten-free tamari
- ½ tsp cayenne pepper, or more to taste
- 4 heads broccoli, chopped (about 5 to 6 cups)
- Slice your tofu into a couple of slabs and lay them out on a kitchen towel folded in half. Place another folded towel on top of the tofu, then add something heavy on top, like a few big cookbooks. Press the tofu for 30 to 60 minutes.
- Mix the sunbutter, coconut oil, maple syrup, tamari and cayenne together. Taste and adjust spiciness or other seasonings to taste.
- Cut your tofu slabs into half-inch cubes and put them in a bowl.
- Take half of the marinade and pour it over the tofu, mixing well to ensure everything is coated. Let it sit for at least half an hour.
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the tofu onto a large baking tray lined with parchment paper. Make sure everything is in one layer.
- Bake for 30 minutes, stirring the pieces around occasionally. Bits of the marinade will crumble off the tofu (they taste delicious!).
- While the tofu is cooking, steam your broccoli for about 5 minutes.
- When the tofu is finished, toss it together with the broccoli and add the rest of the marinade. Serve hot, room temperature or cold.
Tofu Recipe Ideas
For even more great tofu recipe ideas visit our Tofu pinterest board!
Check out some of Sondi’s Allergen-Friendly Recipe Remixes for great ideas on revamping your favourite recipes to make them allergen friendly! Here are a few to check out:
Got a favourite recipe you’d like to see get an Allergen-Friendly Makeover? Let us know in the comments!
Sondi Bruner is a holistic nutritionist, freelance writer and food blogger. She educates people who follow allergen-friendly diets about how to eat simply, deliciously and safely, allowing them to rediscover the pleasure of food. When she’s wearing her writer’s hat, she works with natural health brands to create content that will help their customers live fulfilling, healthful lives. Find out more at www.sondibruner.com. Or you can follow Sondi on Facebook or Twitter.