Making Tofu

Making Tofu


There's nothing like fresh, handmade Japanese "silken" tofu (called kinugoshi in Japanese). Coaxed from just soybeans, water, and nigari, a coagulant derived from seawater, it's a quintessential expression of Japanese cuisine -- the idea of finessing something so sublime from a few simple elements. I first tasted the real deal at the workshop of a traditional tofu maker in Kyoto I visited one morning before sunrise. With a lovely custard-like texture, delicate natural sweetness and seductive fresh soybean flavor, their tofu had as much to do with the stuff sold in supermarkets as a beautiful farmstead ricotta does with a tub of Polly-O.

Here in New York, my friends at En Japanese Brasserie have made fresh tofu a centerpiece of their menu since the restaurant opened. It is absolutely wonderful tofu, and has gained a legion of devoted fans. Many customers have asked Chef Yasuhiro Honma how to make tofu, so now En runs occasional tofu-making demonstrations at the restaurant, which I help moderate. The latest one was yesterday.

You need soymilk and nigari to make silken tofu. You can produce soymilk from scratch, but a good ready made soymilk will work fine, too. Okay, so what's "good soymilk?" Soy milk is not the stuff you see in health food stores or supermarkets. Those products are watered down and loaded with (albeit natural) additives, flavors, salt and sometimes sweeteners. Even "unsweetened" commercial so-called soymilk doesn't cut it (read the label). You need real, fresh soymilk, made from two ingredients: soybeans and water. You can find said soymilk at Japanese and Asian food markets. Like cow's milk, it comes in half-gallon jugs and has an expiration date.

Nigari is magnesium chloride extracted from sea water (the salt is removed and water evaporated). It acts just like rennet does with animal milk in cheesemaking -- it coagulates the milk to produce curds and whey. You can also buy it in Japanese markets.

Now, there are two overall kinds of Japanese tofu: momen, a firmer tofu, and kinugoshi. Producing momen is a lot like making cheese -- the nigari breaks the soy milk down in to curds and whey, and you press the whey to form tofu blocks. With kinugoshi, though, you first thicken the soymilk by boiling off some of its water, then carefully add nigari in a such a way that it doesn't separate the soymilk. It you do this right, the soymilk remarkably coagulates into silken tofu. If you screw it up, it doesn't. You'll know right away.

You'll need: 2 quarts soy milk, 1 tablespoon liquid nigari, a wooden spatula and a square container (square is important -- Chef Honma calls for a 7 by 7 by 7 inch container).

Okay, here's how Chef Honma explained it:

Heat 2 quarts of soy milk over medium heat. Cook the soy milk until it's reduced by 80%. Now bring it to a temperature of 135 degrees Fahrenheit (use a kitchen thermometer).

Remove from heat and pour the soy milk into the square container. Now, pour the tablespoon of nigari into the soy milk all at once. Using the wooden spatula, stir with a back and forth motion a few times to mix well. Then stop the spatula upright in the center of the container and hold it there for a couple of seconds to halt the motion of the soy milk. Pull out the spatula, cover the container with plastic wrap and let it sit for 15 minutes.

The trick is in adding the nigari. If you stir too vigorously, you'll break the soy milk into whey and curds. You want the nigari to just combine with the soy milk, then halt the liquid from moving inside the container, which is why you stop the spatula in the center, which interrupts the movement. Also, a square container prevents the soy milk from swirling too much.

Okay, once you unwrap the container, if everything worked... you'll have tofu! Scoop out the tofu and eat it fresh and amazing, accented with a little soy sauce and ginger, or whatever you prefer. To can also cook with it -- just wrap the tofu in cheesecloth, place in a bamboo basket and store it for a few hours in the fridge so it releases water and firms up, just like in the photo above. Then go to town.

Let me know if you try making tofu -- how did it work out?

UPDATE 3/18: I spoke with Chef Honma some more and he says the temperature of the soy milk could even be hotter, between 140 and 160 degrees F. You'll have to experiment which temp works best with the nigari you've bought!

Posted by Harris Salat in Tofu | Permalink | Comments (17) | Email | Print

Comments (17)

I'm thinking of getting a soy milk maker (my daughter is allergic to cow's milk). Would milk from one of these work? Just out of curiosity, will nigari coagulate dairy milk?
Hi Michelle, yes, a soy milk maker would be perfect, and seems easy, too. All you need is soybeans and water. I think nigari only coagulates soy milk. You'll need to experiment a bit to get the tofu right. You also may want to check out "The Book of Tofu" which is out of print but available on Amazon used. It goes into a ton of detail about soy milk and tofu. -- Harris
Hi Harris - I thought I would try this method and unfortunately, it did not work for me well. The tofu did not have the silky feel I associate with kinugoshi tofu and it did not set up quite right at all. I'll try this a few more times. Kinugoshi is still a mystery to me.

Hi Nona,

Thanks for your comment. Have you seen The Book of Tofu? This book goes into deep detail about making tofu at home. I think it can help you. Let me know how your tofu making goes!

Thanks, Harris

Michelle, you're looking for rennet.
Hi thanks for the info. Just a couple of questions: 1. You stated a quarter soya milk, that's not very helpful as it's very vague. How many cc or litres are we talking about here? 2. When you refer to kinugoshi, is that the cantonese equivalent to tofu fa or toho (filippino), tofo hwa (taiwanese)? Thank you in advance.
Thanks for your comment, Pingu. I'm planning to revisit tofu making very soon and will be posting new information that I hope will be helpful to you. Stay tuned!
any ideas on how to get around using cheesecloth?
I cut the recipe in half, reduced the soy milk only a litte, maybe 20%, and used solid nigari that was disolved in a tiny amount of water, but the milk did not really coagulate, and the taste was very chemical??? Is reducing that important? thanks ian
Hi Ian, I'm not sure, tofu making is the function of so many variables. I have yet to figure out a fool proof method to explain. You're not really reducing the soy milk, it's a function of temperature and type of soy milk and type of nigari. I know that's not very helpful, but I'm going to try to figure this out at some point and report back! Thanks, Harris
Hi Harris, is this how to make Japanese tofu?? what I know, that making Japanese tofu need some white eggs, is that true?
Hi Andrew, there are no eggs in tofu, just water, soybeans and nigari (bittern, a natural coagulant) -- Thanks, Harris
Hi Harris, I make my firm tofu at home by using lemon juice? Do you think lemon juice would work also as a coagulant to make silken tofu? Thanks.
Nigari and other tofu coagulants are hard to get here, and expensive. Are there any other methods that could get me tofu? Would salt water (regular table salt dissolved in tap water) work? What should the ratio be? Because to my understanding, Nigari is salt extracted from sea water. Thanks!
Rachel, there's different types of coagulants used in making tofu... Nigari is what is typically used in Japan (a salt type and is derived from seaweed). There are different types of coagulants (salts, acids & enzymes)... here's a wiki link of different types of coagulants used for making tofu. Hope it helps :)
How much nigari do I mix with one tablespoon of water? As far as I know, Nigari is not sold in liquid form correct? Thanks!
Hi, I only have the dry form of nigari, do you know how much should I use in this recipe? Thanks in advance.

Post a Comment

Type the characters you see in the picture above.

Email This Story

Email this article to:
Your email address:
Message (optional):