Making soya milk and tofu by Self sufficiency guru Nev Sweeney

Editor note, a lot of soya is grown by chopping down vast areas of rain forest check how sustainable yours is before buying some. You can grow soya in the UK, a strain has been developed so you could consider growing your own.

As a high protein food source that you don’t have to hunt, catch, kill, clean or do generally unpleasant things to before you can eat it, soy beans have fascinated me for a long time. The trouble is that they do not taste all that crash hot by themselves and you generally have to spend some time and effort to disguise the taste. Hence, after having tried a few things that were generally accepted as unacceptable by the family, I let the idea rest.

However, I am a lover of Asian food and have recently been doing some reading on how to go about it another way, processing the soy beans into an entirely new form of food – that bland white stuff called variously tofu, dow fu, or bean curd, depending on where you come from. The process is interesting and, dare I say it, fun to carry out, and you get high protein munchies at the end of it. What could be better? Well alright…………..lots of things, but if you are interested in becoming self sufficientish it is worth trying out to see if home made tofu is for you.

There are a number of steps to the process and at each step the result is edible in its own right, so you can get exposure to all sorts of oriental goodies, some more acceptable to my basically western palate than others, though. The two basic steps are turning soy beans into soy milk and then turning the soy milk into tofu.

Making Soy Milk

First grow or buy your soy beans. Seeing as Australia produces large amounts of soy beans they are neither expensive nor hard to find, being available in supermarkets or, if you want the organically grown variety, health food shops. I have tried both sources and not found a real lot of difference, to be honest. Look for beans labeled as organic to avoid using a genetically modified product.

The dried beans that you buy are like small, yellow ball bearings and are about as appetizing. These need to be rehydrated so the first step is to soak them overnight in plenty of water and they will expand. If you start off with one cup of dry beans, this is how the process runs.

Once the beans have absorbed the water and regained their more beanlike appearance they must be ground up so the milk can be extracted. The traditional Japanese way of doing this is to use a stone grain grinder. I imagine that a hand powered “Moulinex” style hand food processor would work as well, but I use a blender – so much for tradition. All you do is dump in the reydrated beans, add two cups of water and blend until you get a fine white sludge. The sludge looks like a soy bean flavoured smoothie, or thick shake and it tastes almost a s good as it sounds. In Japanese it is called go and may be fried up with garlic and onion in a bit of butter and salt and pepper to make a party dip, put into soups or scrambled eggs, used in bread mixes, or even made into vegetarian patties with breadcrumbs and diced vegetables and then deep fried. So, even if for some reason you get stuck at this stage it is still not a total loss.

Assuming you want to go on to the next stage, boil 6 cups of water in a large pot, say about four litre size, then pour  the soy bean puree and stir over moderate heat until the froth starts to rise. When it starts to rise it fills the pot very quickly, so keep stirring, reduce the heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes. The cooking of soy products is very important because there is a substance in the soy beans called a trypsin inhibitor which, funnily enough, inhibits trypsin, an enzyme essential for the digestion of protein. This substance is deactivated by cooking, so to get the full value out of your soy bean products they must be cooked…………………but enough of the theory.

Now that you have simmered your soy sludge, you need to filter out the gritty bits of ground up soy bean. The way I do it is to put an old flannelette pillowcase into a large colander or strainer and then put the whole assembly over an approximately 2 litre pot. Pour in the sludge. The soy milk flows through and the soy grits (called okara in Japanese) are left in the cloth. To get most of the soy milk out it is traditional to use a press, but not having on I fold the pillowcase over and wind it around to squeeze out the milk. The problem is that the stuff is still damn hot so wear a pair of thick rubber gloves and have some cold water on hand to take the sting out. Then pour another two cups of water over the okara and squeeze it out again to get the maximum amount of milk. Make sure the cloth that you use is well washed. The first time I tried this trick I got soy milk full of blue fluff!

You know have two products: soy milk and okara. The soy milk can be used a-is, converted into tofu right away or put in the fridge for later. In a closed container it will last a week or more in the fridge. The okara looks like breadcumbs and according to the books has a “subtle” flavour which to my gross western palate translates as “bland”. I must admit that the first ime I tried it I didn’t think much of it but the taste and texture (very nutty) tends to grow on you over time. If, after giving it a chance, you still don’t like it, it makes a high protein poultry food that our chooks love.

Now if you don’t want to use it for chook food, what else is it good for? It can be incorporated in vegetable soups, used as a thickener for onion, mushroom or curry sauces (when ground finely), put into scrambled eggs or bound with eggs, made into patties and fried (nice, but a bit gritty, and I HATE gritty!). It can also be made into balls with garlic, onion, ginger and bound with cornflour then deep fried and dipped in sweet and sour sauce. When added to flour products such as bread, pancakes or muffins it increases their protein content and adds nuttiness to the texture. So you see it can be a versatile food in itself and, being a by-product of the process it is virtually free, so don’t let the chooks have all the fun.

Making Tofu

The process of turning soy milk into tofu is similar to turning cows’ milk into cheese, but a different type of coagulator is used. The coagulators used for making tofu are various calcium of magnesium salts, the tow most readily available being calcium sulphate (plaster of Paris or gypsum) and magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts). The traditional coagulator which achieves the finest flavour and texture is nigari, which is a mixture of calcium and magnesium salts extracted from the sea. I would like to digress for a moment because the way nigari is obtained is fascinating!

Many moons ago, when my interest in self sufficiency was just starting, I was reading about making salt from sea water. The book said that the easiest way was just to boil up sea water until the salt crystals were left in the bottom of the container, but that this method left impurities called “bittern salts” which gave the salt a bitter flavour. This is where the book left it, with no hints on how to extract the bittern salts and get decent tasting salt, so I filed that information away in the back of my mind and carried on. Just recently, while reading up about tofu, I read about the process of making nigari. First make sea salt by the boil-down method, then put the salt crystals into a Hessian bag and suspend over a trough or pot in a humid atmosphere (like by the sea!).

The nigari is exceptionally water soluble and it absorbs water form the air and liquefies, dripping into the pot underneath, where the water can be boiled off again leaving bitter crystals. So there you have it, the Japanese not only worked out a way to extract he impurities from their salt, the found an important use for the impurity. Amazing!

If you want to use the traditional coagulator but don’t want to go to all that trouble, it is available in Australia form the old traditional health food shops (if you can find ‘em).

You and start the process of making the tofu off as soon as you have extracted the soy milk, or put the soy ilk in the fridge and then pull it out and do it up to a week later. I find that the soy milk will keep a week to 10 days in the fridge. If you are using fridges soy milk you will need to reheat is to a simmer for five minutes, removing it from the heat once this has been accomplished.

To coagulate the soy milk resulting from our hypothetical one cup of dry soy beans requires about one and a half teaspoons of dry coagulant (nigari or Epsom salts) dissolved into half a cup of water. The plaster of Paris is not water soluble but a similar amount will need to be stirred with water before addition to the soy milk. The liquid coagulant is then poured over the top of the hot soy milk, one third of the volume at a time, and mixed gently through it. Then cover your pre-tofu and leave it stand for 10 to 15 minutes to finish coagulating.

What you end up with is soft white curds floating in a yellowish whey. The next step is to filter the curds and press them into tofu. You can retain the whey and use it in bread making or as soup stock. To filter out the curds I press my long suffering blue flannelette pillowcase into service again and use it to line a white plastic strainer. The curds and whey are then poured through the pillowcase/strainer assembly and the whey allowed to drip through, to be caught if desired.

What you do next depends of how firm you like your tofu, I like mine firm, so it holds together when it is stir fried or whatever. What I do is fold the pillowcase over the top of the tofu and place a saucer or small plate on top and then place an 800 gram tin and a 425 gram tin on top of the saucer to act as a weight to press the tofu. That is then left there overnight and the result is a very firm tofu. The next morning you just remove the weights and the saucer, unfold the pillowcase and there it is. Was off any blue bits of flannelette and put the tofu in a container and cover it with water and store it in the fridge until you want to use it. It will last a week or two if you change the water every few days.

Now that you have made your tofu, it can be stir fried with veggies, noodles, meaty bits or whatever and marinated in your favourite sauce or the sauce added after it is cooked. It can be deep fired until it is golden brown, then eaten by itself or placed in other dishes. It is especially nice if you dip it in soy sauce before you deep fry it. It can be added to Japanese or Chinese style soups or used as an ingredient in a Chinese firepot dinner. It can even be cut into slabs and put on the barbecue to make Aussie style tofu which might shake up your guests a bit or even convert the over to a new taste. Tofu, because of its subtle (or dare I use the term again – bland) flavour and its ability to take on the flavour of other foods, is very versatile. I recommend the scanning of Asian cookbooks, even those at the local library and copying down promising recipes.

So you can see that to make tofu is not all that complicated, and is certainly no more work than pasta making or baking your own bread. It is a lot of fun and you get a nutritious foodstuff at the end. Tofu can be an important source of protein (about 7 grams per 100 grams) particularly if you are following or considering a vegetarian lifestyle and is high in calcium (about 500 milligrams per 100 grams). Or it can just be a change, something new and tasty to add to the family’s diet.

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