homemade tofu: easier than you think ::::
The one time I tasted freshly made tofu, I knew it was something I had to try making myself. It opened my eyes to the true flavor of tofu, unfettered by the plastic packaging undertones in each bite. Food & Wine magazine ended up in my maibox last month. And there it was. The recipe.
Finding dried soy beans was easy. The nigari flakes, however, a problem. Nigari, or sea salts such as magnesium chloride, is a key ingredient to coagulate the soy milk to set it for tofu. I called the local Chinese market conglomerate: nigari flakes were out of stock, the clerk told me in perfect English, maybe later this week they’d have some more. Maybe? Like you don’t know if there will be more? Not enough of your clientele make their own tofu to have it on stock? I called the local Korean market. “Uhhhhhh….” [inaudible mumbling] “No understand,” came the reply. “So sorry.” Having been to the market before, I knew it provided authentic Korean fare. Still, the response on the phone was not suggestive tofu-making enthusiasts came there either.
The Japanese market was a little more of a drive. After striking out at the other places, I had no choice but to check out Mitsuwa. There, in their recently-stocked shelves, nestled between salts and beans, was nigari. Kind of. Pre-mixed. No flakes. None of the nearby salts exacted the ingredient description of the nigari I needed, so I compromised. The clerk was adamant that nigari came no other way: “Liquid only,” she said firmly, when I asked for the flakes. “Liquid ONLY! This nigari.” She waggled her finger at the bottle, adjusted her bifocals, and hopped off to some other aisle, away from me and my questions.
She was wrong.
Upon revisiting the store after my tofu making and muddling my way through its continuous construction work and shelf reorganizations, I did find nigari flakes. Only it wasn’t called nigari. Or flakes. Magnesium chloride was right there, sitting slumped over in a flimsy bag, leaning over to meet my eyes. Ah, I wish I would have spotted you earlier.
So this “Liquid ONLY!” nigari was my coagulant for my first go-round. The first step in tofu making involves making soy milk, then coagulating it to make a silken (soft) tofu, finally pressing this to form a firmer tofu. The aroma of soy milk was comforting: I almost wanted to stop at this point and enjoy it with some sugar. Store-bought soy milk, even in the Asian markets, pales in comparison. When you’ve tasted fresh soy milk, it’s hard to ever go back to the others. Just like if you go Asian, you never go back. I’m a prime example of that, marrying the first Asian dude I ever dated.
I moved on in the recipe, using the nigari to make the silken tofu, then the firm. As suggested by the recipe, I used two plastic berry pint containers for my molds, although the weighting to press the tofu did not work as well as I envisioned. A better tofu press would have distributed the weight equally; my idea of stuffing a lemon and an apple in each of the weighting containers (also berry containers) — not so good. It took about 3 hours for a semi-firm tofu to form in this manner. I also thought about placing more evenly distributed weights in the containers to press. The only thing I had that would fit and been heavy enough, ironically was store-bought tofu blocks, now relegated to the back of the refrigerator.
Although the consistency was just about perfect, the saltiness of the tofu was not what I expected. Because I used the pre-mixed nigari instead of the nigari flakes, I wasn’t sure how much salt I was actually adding. Despite the afterthought of an English label tacked on the bottle, there was no indication of the salinity of the nigari solution so I had to guess how much to use for the recipe. My hunt for a pre-mixed nigari solution tofu recipe came up for nought. Even the Japanese cookbook from the library, overflowing with rice dishes, noodles, and dashi did not have such a seemingly basic recipe. Why? Exclusivity. Those who make tofu are inducted into a special club, those where tofu recipes are passed on in families or between business partners.
The results: disappointing. The consistency and aesthetics were as expected but the flavor, too salty. Even my cilantro in the photo looks a little wilty and sad. If I had followed the recipe and not used the pre-mixed nigari, I think I would have had a better result. Lucky for me, I have some black soy beans I’d like to use next. And I have the wherewithal and tenacity to find nigari flakes. If you follow this recipe with nigari flakes, then I expect you will have better success than I did. UPDATE: Per the original recipe, nigari flakes can be ordered online at www.myworldhut.com. I wanted to avoid this method of obtaining nigari to save money on shipping costs. (I should have just sucked it up and done it at the outset!)
Remember: once you try fresh tofu, it’s hard to go back to the mass-produced, plastic-wrapped blocks at the grocery store. Fresh soy milk is awesome. Finding the right recipe for tofu is the trick, as is knowing exactly how much nigari to use. Don’t believe everything store clerks tell you either. I will forever be haunted by “Liquid ONLY!” and a holier-than-thou finger waggle.
- 1⅓ cups (8 ounces) dried soybeans (I used tsurunoko daizu)
- filtered water (I actually used distilled water)
- muslin or thick cheesecloth
- nigari flakes (sea salts, magnesium chloride) - order at www.myworldhut.com
- Special equipment: 16 quart pot
- In a large bowl, cover soybeans with 3 inches of cold water (you don't need the filtered water here). Cover and allow to sit overnight.
- Drain the soybeans and transfer to a blender. Add 3 cups of filtered (or distilled) water and puree at high speed until as smooth as possible.
- Line a large sieve with clean cotton napkin or 3 layers of cheesecloth and set sieve over a heatproof bowl. In a large pot (at least 3 quarts, or bigger), boil 3 cups of filtered water. Add the soybean puree and boil over moderately high heat for 8 minutes, stirring constantly with a heatproof rubber spatula to prevent sticking and scorching.*
- Carefully pour the mixture into the prepared sieve. Let stand until just cool enough to handle, about 20 minutes. Gather the ends of the cheesecloth and squeeze to extract as much of the soy milk as possible; the remaining solids should be nearly dry. Discard the solids and skim off any foam from the soy milk. You should have about 4 cups of soy milk. Stop here if you just want soy milk.
- In a small measuring cup, dissolve 1 teaspoon nigari flakes in ¼ cup filtered water (this is what the original recipe said to do, not what I did). Spoon 2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons of the nigari solution into a large heatproof glass bowl. (I just measured this amount from my pre-mixed nigari solution.)
- In a large saucepan (I washed and used the same pot from above), heat 4 cups of soy milk to 185 degrees F (I used an instant read thermometer and medium heat). Pour the hot soy milk into the bowl with the nigari solution and quickly stir but only to combine thoroughly (it's easy to accidentally scramble the rapidly coagulating tofu). Cover and let stand undisturbed until fully set, 5 minutes. Discard the remaining nigari solution. Stop here if you want silken tofu.
- Set a cheesecloth-lined sieve, colander or other mold (i.e., plastic berry baskets) with drainage over a bowl (see my photos), and spoon freshly made silken tofu into it. Neatly fold the overhanging cheesecloth over the tofu and top with a small plate or other light weight to gently press out excess water. Let tofu drain for at least 15 minutes or up to 2 hours (I did mine for 3 hours, because of my wonky weights), depending on the desired firmness. Unwrap and serve.
- Firm tofu can be refrigerated for up to 3 days, covered in water. Serve with black radish slices and soy sauce, or a miso glaze. I served with soy sauce, ginger, and cilantro.