Making tofu with lego and lemon

Did you know that you you can make your own tofu at home? Using simple objects around the house (Hint: even lego plays a role!) with no fancy equipment. While making tofu is not a one-pot process, it’s also not difficult and is extremely rewarding.

Home-made tofu tastes worlds better than the shop-bought stuff, and you get to use the by-product (Okara), which is surprisingly versatile.

I won’t mince my words. Some would consider making tofu a labour of love. For a first-timer, it can be a little daunting, and actual tofu output is slim given the volume of soybean input that goes into the process.

But I guarantee you that:

  1. it tastes so much nicer and fresher
  2. it is a great process to have in your back pocket; sometimes e.g. when a global pandemic strikes — your local shop is out of the way, out of stock or just plain out of the question. Other times you might be hosting a dinner party and want something fancy to impress friends. And when your fridge is empty, you’ll come looking for this recipe
  3. it’s cool to understand where your food comes from — the inputs and outputs — how it’s made and exactly what goes into it, and what doesn’t, particularly if you’re concerned about any nasties like preservatives and additives
  4. it will reduce your waste – if you grow your own soybeans or buy your soybeans in bulk, no plastic will be created or harmed in the making of your tofu; and if you also put the byproduct pulp to good use (okara, refer to usage suggestions below), you’ll save money and create many delicious spin-off dishes
  5. You’ll amaze yourself! You have magically re-created a product you’re so used to buying pre-packaged in the shops, and have done it better.

We grow our own soy, mostly for edamame, but anything leftover at the end of the season goes into our tofu. You can get heirloom organic soybean seeds on our website.

If you are feeling daunted, watch the whole process in our video, and you’ll feel empowered.

The general idea here is straightforward:

  1. soak soybeans in water overnight
  2. blend them with water
  3. separate the liquid from the pulp (the pulp is also known as okara) with a cloth
  4. boil the liquid – this is the part we’re after
  5. coagulate what is now effectively soy milk
  6. press the resulting curds and you’re done. A very similar process to making cheese.

What you end up with after going through the whole process will largely depend on just two things:

  1. What sort of coagulant you use.
  2. The duration and amount of pressure that you apply during the pressing stage.

What are the sticking points?

But the devil is in the details here. First of all, because soybeans are rich in protein, they tend to froth up when wet. The first time I tried blending them in my food processor, the bean-water started spraying from the top of my machine. I’ve since learnt that the cleanest and most efficient approach is to mill the soaked beans without water until they resemble fine breadcrumbs, after which you add them to a larger capacity container, add in most of the called-for water, and blend them with an immersion blender.

And another sticking point arrives much later in the process — once you’re ready to separate curds and whey. To make sure this separation occurs properly, coagulant has to be added at the right time. If you add it while the soy milk is still at or near boiling point, or — conversely — if you wait too long and let it cool too much, you’ll find that your soy milk refuses to split. It’s not as finicky as it sounds, though; as long as you’re fully committed to the process and keep a watchful eye over the time, then you shouldn’t have any problems.

There are several coagulants around for making tofu — nigari, epsom salts, gypsum, vinegar, or lemon juice are all capable of making great tofu. Lemon juice results in a firmer product. While I love soft tofu, and it’s great for dishes like Mapo Tofu, I actually prefer to cook with firm tofu, as I find it a far more versatile ingredient — breaded it can stand in place of chicken, crumbled it works just like minced pork, large chunks of it are almost indistinguishable from cheese in Palak Paneer, and large squares are delicious in Thai curries.

A firmer texture is one reason why I coagulate my tofu with lemon juice. But it’s also because lemons are a common household ingredient — we have no end of lemons at our place — and they lend a bright, citrusy note to the final product. And part of my promise was that you wouldn’t have to run down to the store. Just have a ready supply of soybeans in the pantry and you’re good. Dry soybeans stay fresh for at least a few years.

If you’re on to my way of thinking, and you’d like a firmer product, then I recommend pressing the tofu for upwards of 20 minutes with a large weight.

How do you press your tofu?

To press and shape your final block of tofu, you’ll need at least two components:

  1. a weight, and
  2. a mold to confine the tofu while it’s under pressure.

There are plenty of tofu presses available online, but if you’re after a low-investment option and aren’t too fussed about making a block of tofu, then a small colander sitting inside a bowl works quite well.

For what it’s worth, we’ve also found that Lego — that’s right, Lego — makes a great mold for lots of different applications. It’s infinitely configurable, and if you have kids (or never stopped being one yourself) then you probably have some at home already.

All you need is to create a rectangular mold with a cavity of around 5cm depth and an area of about 8cm x 10cm. Don’t forget to leave holes at the bottom to allow water to drain out.

To press your tofu, place a muslin cloth over the base of the mold, pour your tofu curds into it, fold the cloth over again, and then apply pressure from above. The easiest way to apply pressure is to put a mortar or a bunch of books on top.

What do I do with all of that leftover stuff?

And, before you go, there’s something else to be gained here — trying something new can very often surprise you, and I can assure you that learning to make tofu surprised me on several counts. Whilst the ratio of usable tofu to soybeans is a little paltry, you do get something else out of the process — a lesser-known ingredient called “okara” (a fancy, Japanese term for soybean pulp). On a commercial scale, okara is used for livestock fodder or simply wasted — which is a shame, as it’s highly nutritious and versatile.

Okara is unassuming. At first glance, it seems to be a pale crumble, largely flavourless, with a hint of bean. But okara is high in protein and fibre, and as such it has a dense and chewy texture, which makes it perfect as a substitute for TVP (textured vegetable protein) or minced meat. It also contains Vitamin B, D, E and a host of other nutrients.

Check out our Bolognese recipe, if you’d like some inspiration for how to use your leftover soybean pulp. We’ve made delicious vegan sausages with them, incorporated them into veggie burger patties, used as a mince for stir fries, added to cakes for extra fibre and crunch. But honestly, the possibilities are endless.

If you have any other brilliant ways for using okara, or any leftovers really, then please drop us a comment.

Have fun!

Soy Milk and Tofu

Prep Time 12 hrs
Cook Time 1 hr
Total Time 13 hrs
Cuisine Chinese
Servings 1 block

Equipment

  • Something heavy
  • Colander
  • Muslin/cheese cloth

Ingredients
  

Soy Milk

  • 3 cups soy beans
  • 5 litres water

Tofu

  • 1 small lemon
  • 1/2 cup water

Instructions
 

Soy Milk

  • Soak the beans overnight, or for at least 12 hours.
  • Drain the soaked soybeans.
  • Add the soybeans to a food processor and process for a minute or until the beans have become a fine meal reminiscent of breadcrumbs.
  • Empty the soybean meal into a large pot and add 5 litres of water.
  • Blend the soybean water for 2 minutes using an immersion blender.
  • Using a cheese cloth or a piece of muslin, extract the soy liquid from the pulp. You will want to add the remaining 1 litre of water to wash as much of the soy protein from the pulp.
  • Boil the extracted liquid for 15 minutes. Try not to boil it for much longer as you may destroy the protein.

Tofu

  • Lay a muslin cloth over your tofu press.
  • Let the soy milk cool for a few minutes.
  • Juice the lemon and dilute it with half a cup of water.
  • Carefully stir the diluted lemon into the soy milk.
  • Wait for a minute, or until you can see that the curds and whey have separated.
  • Using a sieve with large holes, skim the curds from the mixture, making sure to remove any excess moisture.
  • Put the curds onto the muslin cloth you prepared earlier.
  • Cover the curds with a piece of the muslin cloth and place a weight on top.
  • Leave for 10 to 20 minutes depending on desired firmness.
Keyword beans, legumes, soy, vegan, vegetarian
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