Tofu, also known as bean curd or soy cheese, is thought to have originated in China more than 2,000 years ago. It is made by curdling soy milk and pressing the curds into a block. Today, tofu is used worldwide in recipes and is especially popular as a meat substitute to create tasty vegetarian dishes. Because tofu is bland, it works well with many flavors.

Tofu comes in varying textures and firmness. The most common ones found in grocery stores today are soft, firm, extra firm, sprouted and silken. Soft tofu is good in sauces and in recipes calling for blended tofu. Firm and extra-firm tofu can be cut into cubes or slices and added to stir-fried vegetables, baked or grilled. Sprouted tofu is made from sprouted soy beans, and is cooked the same way as firm or extra-firm tofu. It’s higher in nutrients, such as calcium, iron and protein, and easier to digest, but it has more calories per gram than regular tofu. Silken tofu has a custard-like texture, working well in smoothies, creams and spreads.

A good source of protein and iron, tofu can also be an excellent source of calcium, if calcium sulfate is used in processing. It’s very low in sodium and saturated fat and cholesterol-free. Half a cup of firm tofu prepared with calcium sulfate has 88 calories, 5 grams of fat (1 gram saturated), 15 grams of sodium and provides almost 25% of the daily value for calcium and 11% for iron.

Tofu is a perishable product and should be kept refrigerated unless it’s in a sealed package. Once the package is opened, leftover tofu should be covered with fresh water for storage and the water should be changed daily. Silken tofu does not need to be covered with water, but should be kept refrigerated.

Check out this Vegan Thai Curry with Tofu!

This article was originally published on Jan 13th, 2013 for the Heart Smart Column of The Detroit Free Press.