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What Are the Differences between Soy and Tofu?

By Cynde Gregory
Updated May 16, 2024
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The soy plant is cultivated for its protein-dense edamame pods, which contain soybeans. Soybeans, a complete protein, can be cooked and eaten on their own. Tofu is one type of product made from the soybean. A staple in a number of Asian cuisines, tofu has become a popular meat substitute in Western cuisines both because of its health benefits and because it can be prepared in a multitude of ways. Despite their differences, soy and tofu produce products that are becoming more popular every day.

The soy plant is valued for the many soy and tofu foods that are made from it. Soy sauce, soy milk, and a fermented bean cake called tempeh are becoming increasingly available in grocery stores. Many people with sensitivity to cow’s milk find soy-based yogurt, ice cream, and spreads a good substitute. Miso, a paste made from fermented soybeans, can be used to flavor sandwiches or added to soups for a nutritional boost.

Sold in a range of textures, tofu is almost tasteless on its own but can inherit all manner of flavors by absorbing them from marinades, herbs, and stronger-flavored foods cooked with it. Silken tofu is the smoothest and is used to make soy dressings, soy-based smoothies, and tofu mayonnaise. Firm and extra firm blocks of tofu can be sliced and deep fried, scrambled like eggs, boiled in soups, or baked into casseroles. Extra firm tofu that has been marinated in a combination of oil, liquid smoke, or other condiments then sliced thinly and fried produces vegetarian "bacon."

As more and more health-conscious people purchase and eat soy and tofu products, manufacturers reciprocate by introducing new types of foods. Chocolate and berry-flavored tofu has begun to appear in mainstream grocery stores. It can be whipped into a dairy-free mousse or pudding that contains fewer calories and fat than those made from milk and sugar. Pureeing dessert-flavored tofu with strawberries, raspberries, banana, or mango results in an easy and healthful "milkshake."

Refrigeration is necessary for tofu that is purchased packed in water and sealed in containers. While tofu has a relatively long shelf live, once it is opened, it should be eaten within three or four days. Some groceries also carry vacuum-sealed tofu that can be kept on a shelf until ready for use.

Versatility is a huge benefit of the soy plant and applies to manufacturing as soy beans do in cooking. The beans and plant material are used to make ink, cleaning solvents, and soap. Women who use soy-based cosmetics claim they are gentler than many of their chemically based counterparts. The beans and plant fibers are also used in the manufacture of cloth. Given the range of soy and tofu products, it is clear that these healthy meat substitutes that were once considered exotic have become familiar to many home cooks.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By Lostnfound — On Mar 22, 2014

Tofu is good for many, many dishes. It's a good substitute for meat and also for many dairy dishes, like yogurt and ice cream. It's high in protein, which makes it an attractive substitute for meat.

I've tried tempeh -- I just couldn't get into it. I ate it, but it wasn't something I'd really want to eat again, unless I had to. Tempeh is a hard sell, but tofu isn't.

People also say that soy products have natural estrogen compounds, so men might want to be careful about consuming too much soy.

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