Tofu or not tofu?

2009 September 9


In between unpacking boxes and organizing things (did we always have so many sets of clothes?) I embarked on the great tofu making adventure. Well, the first. Because it was a failure.

Let me explain that I’m not necessarily dedicated to producing my own hand-crafted, artisan tofu. I’m lazy, as you probably realize, and if there was a decent and not-outrageously-priced tofu available in my city, you better believe I’d be on it like white on rice. Or white on tofu, as the case may be. But the only tofu at my local ICA is either A) the heat-packaged tofu in a box, which is perhaps okay to mix in something heavily flavored like mabo tofu, but definitely not for consumption on its own, in my opinion, or B) something they call tofu which came in the familiar water-filled packaging and yet had the consistency of, approximately, gouda cheese. Firm tofu can be a good thing (and I assume that this tofu is made firm to try to appeal to vegetarians and others hoping to achieve a “meaty” experience) but I have to draw the line when I could use their tofu to scrub pots.

And so now I am compelled to make my own tofu. I also like okara and yuba and all by-products of tofu making, so I figured I might as well go all out. It didn’t work, but I’m not too discouraged yet. So here’s a bit of the story.

The first step of the process — making soy milk from dried soybeans — is pretty straightforward and quite cheap. All you need is dried soybeans and water. The soybeans cost me something like 10 SEK (130 JPY/ 1.40 USD) for 400 grams and I only used half of them for this experiment, so if I had just stopped there, it would have cost me less than a dollar to make a big tub of soymilk and a big bowl of okara, the power-packed pulp that gets left over. But of course I didn’t stop there. Or even start there.

Things that I have learned:
1) Do not be lazy and attempt to use canned soybeans.

I am lazy. I am always looking for shortcuts and thinking, “Hey, how come no one ever thought of this?” It turns out that they did think of it, actually, and then they realized it was a huge mistake.

I thought I might be able to skip the overnight soaking that dried beans generally require by getting the nice squishy ones in a can. Obviously, that doesn’t work. Unfortunately, the ones in the can are nice and squishy and not rotten because they have been cooked, which as we all should have learned in Cooking 101, can do all sorts of crazy things to the chemicals that our foods are made up of. In this case, it changes the protein in the beans so that they will not become your ideal soymilk using the usual Japanese method:

Japanese style soy milk making:

Take dried beans, soak them overnight until they are soft enough to easily split. Grind them into a paste (or foam) and then boil this to force the cooked protein to separate from the milk. Strain the milk through a cheesecloth and, presto, you have a bowl full of soy milk and a cloth full of steaming-hot and protein- and fiber-rich okara in your hands.

If the protein is already cooked, it won’t separate out the way you want it to. However, you may still have some hope left in the other common method for making soy milk, which I didn’t attempt this time since I had already wasted my whole can of beans:

Alternative (American?) style soy milk making:

Take dried beans, soak them overnight, until they are soft. Then drain them, rinse them, and chuck them in a pot with water to boil for thirty minutes or so. After cooking, you add water, blend them in a food processor, add some more water, blend them some more, and finally strain this milk and then you should have a glass of soy milk and I assume something resembling okara.

This second method might have developed from an extreme form of the “island method” that Shurtleff and Aoyagi describe in The Book of Tofu, in which you partially cook the ground soybeans first, then strain them to get the milk, then cook the milk some more. In theory it may have worked to save my poor canned beans from the compost bin, but I didn’t think of it at the time, so that will be up to some other brave soul to attempt.

After I learned that canned beans wouldn’t work, I got some dried beans and began again. I left them to soak overnight and they swelled up to around twice their original size, just as they should, little darlings.In the food processor they went, along with enough water to cover them.

Beans go mash

You flick on your food processor (if you’re lucky enough to have one — if not, you get a good workout) and almost immediately, there is a frightening transformation: what was a nice little pile of shiny beans has turned into a seething foam, more than doubled in size.

It's alive!

Remember that this started out as just 200 grams of dried beans, an amount that wouldn’t even fill my two hands if I cupped them together. It doubled once upon soaking, once more about processing, and it’s not done yet.

This mess all goings into a huge pot of boiling water, where it proceeds to do its level best at boiling over and destroying your entire stove. That’s why you want a huge pot. A massive pot. And even that’s not enough if you’re making a full batch; you’ll need to divide it up into separate pots.

Bubble bath, anyone?

But even as you lower the temperature to medium and fight furiously to keep it in the pot, you’ll see the foam begin to change from its thick and creamy state to something light and bubbly, as the different bits begin to sort themselves out.

Eventually it stops foaming and settles down into something which looks more like milk, and then you get ready to strain. Strain it through a cheesecloth, or if you haven’t one, then whatever bit of thin cloth you might have laying around or might have bought at a 100 yen store.

Mm, fishy soymilk

And there you have soy milk! And also okara, which is a great source of fiber and protein. You could stop right there and just enjoy your soy milk and maybe I should have, but I was after tofu. So how do you turn innocuous soy milk into a solid chunk? With one of your choice coagulants: nigari, epsom salt, gypsum, vinegar, or a citrus juice. These are the top coagulants normally given in recipes and nigari is the the preferred coagulant which Japanese tofu makers use when they are making tofu. It is basically the bittern — as you may guess, the bitter solution — that is left over after salt has been crystallized from sea water. It is mostly magnesium chloride, with a handful of other fun minerals thrown in. Next up you can use epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) or gypsum (calcium sulfate). Now try as I might, I could find no sources for nigari in Sweden, either in English, Swedish, or Japanese. I next searched for epsom and gypsum, but to no luck either. At a health food store, I finally bought what the store clerk said was the same as epsom salt: glaubersalt. Turns out it is sodium sulfate. Here began the great tofu experiment:

I attempted to make tofu with the Glauber’s salt, hoping it might indeed have the same effects as epsom salt, but mixing it into a glass of 75 degree soy milk had no effect whatsoever. It may work for the body in the same way as epsom salt, but it definitely doesn’t work for tofu in the same way.

Next I tried lemon juice and vinegar, which are both recommended by more “mainstream” and Westernized recipes for making tofu at home. The lemon juice had an immediate effect when poured into one of my cups of soy milk, but in the end produced a something like tofu but far too soft for even kinugoshi tofu and it fell apart before I could even take it out of the mold. It may have been my fault because it was not fresh lemon juice, but still a failure.

I next tried vinegar and at last! Victory was in sight! It coagulated nicely and made a firm tiny pat of something that definitely looked like tofu. It just didn’t smell like tofu. Tofu is often treated to a cold bath under running water to remove any residual bitterness from the coagulants but no matter how long I soaked my little tofu, the tang of vinegar did not completely go away.

I probably should have got some snaps of my failed attempts, but while a picture may be worth a thousand words, it sure doesn’t convey the overwhelming taste of vinegar.

Things that I have learned:
2) Hang the substitutes. Just get the bloody nigari, for goodness sake!

I could keep trying to find a better balance with the vinegar, but I’m thinking that 1200 years of Japanese craftsmanship can’t be wrong and so I’m going to have to give in and order some nigari from abroad. Once I get my hands on some, I’ll update with my further misadventures with soy products. Until then, I’ve been making the soy milk into smoothies each morning, with bananas and local lingonberries, and having an all soy breakfast by combining it with the okara crumble I made, thanks to La Fuji Mama. Mine is a simpler version (remember that I’m lazy!) and so I just toss it together with a bit of vegetable oil, a healthy swig of maple syrup, and a handful of cinnamon and fresh lingonberries before baking. It is amazing.

Breakfast of champions!

So overall, I’m not too disappointed with my failure. I still want some real tofu, but at least I got delicious breakfast for a week out of my attempt. If you wish to make your own attempt, and have detailed instructions, then I would recommend Maki’s guide to Milking the Soy Bean.


One Response to “Tofu or not tofu?”

  1. […] itsy-bitsy chemical level. But as I have to always keep reminding myself, heat changes things (cf. Things that I have learned #1) and in this case it changes that nice crystalline structure into one that is not so inclined to […]

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