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There are many different types of tofu, most of which break down into either regular or Japanese style tofu. It is important to check a recipe to find out what kind of tofu is required, since different types of tofu can behave very differently. Using the wrong type can cause a disaster in the kitchen.
Before delving into the types of tofu, it may help to know how tofu is made. Tofu producers create tofu by pressing soybeans for their milk and then fermenting them so that they coagulate into curds, just like cheese. The curds are pressed into molds which are allowed to drain, encouraging the curds to stick together. Depending on how long the tofu is pressed, and what kind of ingredients are used to ferment it, the texture can vary widely.
Japanese style, or silken tofu, has a very silky, creamy texture. It is ideal in vegan desserts such as cakes and cookies which may call for tofu, since it blends readily. In Japan, silken tofu is used to make a variety of desserts and main dishes, served with various sauces. This type of tofu breaks up very easily, making it unsuitable for stir fries and similar dishes, as it will simply melt away among the other ingredients.
Regular tofu is much firmer and more dry, with a more cohesive structure. There are a number of types of tofu in this family, ranging from soft to extra firm. The harder the tofu is, the more it will hold its shape when handled. Firm and extra firm tofu types can be deep fried, added to stir fries, and used in similar dishes, which softer types of tofu can be blended or crumbled apart for various foods.
Regular tofu can also be pressed to make it even more dry. Some people enjoy making baked tofu, which is pressed regular tofu which is marinated and then slowly baked. The pressing dispels water, allowing the marinade to seep into the core of the tofu for more flavor. Baked tofu can be used in sandwiches, salads, and other dishes to taste.
Many supermarkets carry a couple of different types of tofu to choose from. In addition to being available in fresh, refrigerated form, tofu can also be found packed into sterile packages. Aseptically packaged tofu can keep for several months at room temperature, as long as it is not opened. This kind is usually silken.
With two basic types of tofu and a variety of firmnesses to choose from, there is a lot of variety to consider when buying tofu. As a general rule, you may want to go for regular tofu, also called Chinese style tofu or bean curd, unless silken tofu is specified in a recipe.