First off, this isn't a comprehensive guide to soy foods. I am just relaying some experiences I've had with soy products in the hopes that it will help you if you'd like to try cooking them yourself.
If you've tried to cook with tofu and didn't like it, chances are it was you, not the tofu. (No offense and all, but it's easy to screw it up.) It was the way you prepared it, seasoned (or didn't season) it or bought the wrong type for the application you were trying it in. Tofu is not terrible. There was a time when I thought it was. But tofu, it wasn't you, it was me.
If you are a tofu newbie or have tried and failed to cook it properly, I suggest you first try dishes at restaurants. They know what they're doing (hopefully) so you'll know it wasn't your tofu skills if you don't like it. You will notice that their tofu is usually NOT bright white and is usually has much more texture than tofu straight from the box. From this we infer that they must work some magic on it to create the lovely chewy, brown skin, tender (but not dripping wet) innards and delicious flavors that can be found. How do we create that ourselves? We will soon find out!
If you've shopped for tofu, you know there are at least a couple of different types available. Each type is good for different types of dishes. The main categories available in most grocery stores are:
Silken tofu- great for blending into a smoothie to add protein or mixing half and half with sour cream and seasonings to make a low-fat dip!
Soft/Medium tofu-Excellent for crumbling into pasta dishes and casseroles.
Firm/Extra-Firm tofu-The best for keeping its shape in stir fry or when baked as slices.
Stir-Fry and other ideas for Firm and Extra Firm
Number one rule-you cannot just plop the tofu out of the package, cut it up and add it to your stir-fry, you will be grossed out and disappointed. Half of tofu cooking is actually tofu preparation.
If your tofu comes packed in water, you will need to drain that water off and press the tofu to remove even more water. Place the block of tofu between a couple of paper towels and put it into a colander. Put a small plate or saucer over the tofu and weight it down with a can or two of veggies or soup. Leave this set-up in the sink or over a bowl to drain for at least 15 minutes. Then you're ready to cut!
I like my tofu cut into small pieces because it gives more surface area to get crispy and delicious. Larger pieces will result in crispy outsides and tender, juicy insides so go with what you like.
Coat the pieces in cornstarch. Just toss them in a plastic baggie with a few tablespoons of the stuff to complete cover.
Then fry the pieces in a non-stick skillet with a tiny bit of olive or vegetable oil over medium high heat. Don't move it around too much, leave the pieces to cook on one side for a good long time, then flip them all to a new side to create a great crust.
When my tofu is just about done, I like to scoot it over to one side and cook some other veggies in the same skillet. This keeps the tofu warm. One of my favorite things to do with crispy tofu is make a wrap sandwich so I cooked up some onions here.
Then I plop it all onto a burrito and add whatever I have in the fridge, tomatoes, carrots, lettuce, mushrooms, sour cream, salad dressings, and salsa are all ideas. Tofu prepared in this way can also be stir-fried with veggies and served over rice!
To add even more flavor to the tofu, you can marinate it before cooking. Tofu, like a sponge, soaks up whatever flavor you put with it. The easiest way it to used a bottled marinade made for meat! But you can also throw together some soy sauce, vinegar, brown sugar, etc and make your own. Marinated tofu can be fried like above, baked, grilled, so many options!
Another trick to try with tofu is to freeze it! Freezing tofu changes the texture and makes it more crumbly. This "ground meat" texture makes it great for adding to casseroles and such where you don't want identifiable triangle or square shapes in your food. Ok, it's great for when you're trying to "hide" it in things. :)
Soft Tofu Ideas
Soft tofu fits in excellent with Italian food! It's a great substitute for Ricotta cheese but you can't substitute it for ALL the cheese because you still need something with flavor. I love making stuffed shells (when I have spare time on my hands), ha ha) and half cheese (ricotta, parmesan and mozzerella mix), half mashed soft tofu works out great.
Silken tofu is great for using in smoothies! (Soft tofu works too but you might have to blend it a bit more to work the lumps out.) You can either make non-dairy smoothies with just tofu, fruit and flavorings or slip some tofu into your yogurt smoothie to get the soy benefits without too much difference in taste.
Other Soy Products
There are a lot of "fake meat" type products out there, some soy based and some not. These are great substitutes with lower fat! I love crumble-type products for adding to casseroles, spaghetti sauces and tacos. Soy flour can be a great addition to baked goods that adds protein and soy isoflavones. But you can't make baked goods with only soy flour because it contained no gluten. I can usually substitute soy flour for about 10-20% of the white flour in recipes. But here's a tip, when using soy flour in cookie dough, do not eat the dough raw, it tastes terrible! Soy flour is used in a TON of manufactured foods so why not try it in your own kitchen! It's great for thickening sauces and gravy, and I've read that in fried foods, like doughnuts, soy flour reduces the amount of fat that is absorbed by the dough.
I'm no soy expert but being vegetarian I am always trying to sneak more protein into my diet. (I should really try to sneak more iron in too, maybe I'll do some research and write about that too!) I hope this has helped those of you who have limited experience with Tofu and other products like it. And while I'm in the kitchen, I'll show you my new cabinet hardware!
My dear, sweet husband spend most of one afternoon removing the handle and two hinges from each door and replacing them with these fun nickel ones we both like! Here's the before picture: