Although historically found in many dishes throughout Asia, tofu has recently gained popularity in Western cuisine as a rich source of meatless protein for vegans and vegetarians. But what exactly is tofu? What are the differences between silken, soft, firm, and extra firm tofu? Where can you use it in your cooking? And, for those who cannot eat gluten, is tofu gluten free? Well, maybe.

Gluten is a protein found in grain-based foods like wheat, spelt, barley, and rye. Grains like oats are actually gluten free, but they often carry traces of gluten from being processed in the same facility as the other grains mentioned above. For those suffering from conditions like Celiac disease or choose to follow a gluten-free diet, it is important to know which foods contain gluten and which don't.

Tofu Ingredients

The basic ingredients to make tofu are soybeans, water, and an agent that curdles the soy milk. Traditionally, this curdling agent is a molecular compound found in ocean water, known as calcium sulfate. Alternatively, curds can also be produced by acidic foods like lemon juice or vinegar. Following the curdling process, the mixture is pressed into blocks and cooled, producing tofu. 

The texture of tofu is determined by how much liquid is squeezed out of it. The more water or soy milk you press out of it, the firmer it gets. As it gets firmer and the water content goes down, the fat and the protein content of the tofu goes up. As such, the different varieties don't taste drastically different from each other. Tofu ranges from silken to firm textures.

Is Tofu Gluten-Free?

vegetable, stir-fry, tofu, pepper, meat
Katherine Baker

Being that all of the basic ingredients are gluten-free, tofu technically fits the bill. However, this only refers to plain, unprepared tofu. In order to make a variety of tofu, many manufacturers add flavorings to it which may contain gluten. Additionally, the preparation can also contaminate it with gluten. The main culprit: soy sauce.

Soy sauce, although it contains "soy" in its name, usually contains wheat as an ingredient in the fermentation process in addition to the soy. Because soy sauce is a significant ingredient in a lot of Asian cooking, it's a big problem for someone who's gluten-free. This isn't just limited to the way it's made either; the prominence of it may make it come in contact with other ingredients and tools the chef may be using. Thus, the dreaded cross-contamination becomes a hazardous element. Additionally, some rice wines and fish sauces can contain gluten as well.

If you're itching to buy pre-flavored tofu, look for one that's seasoned with tamari instead of soy sauce. Tamari and soy sauce are very similar because they're both a fermented soy product, but most brands of tamari don't conatin any wheat. However, you should always check the labels to make sure the tamari you're buying is completely gluten-free.

Gluten-Free Tofu Recipes

Thankfully, there are also many delicious ways to prepare tofu besides adding soy sauce. It's an incredibly versatile ingredient that makes a fantastic addition to dishes like stir-fries, soups and even desserts. The possibilities with tofu are endless.

Sweet or Savory Tofu Pancakes

Analiese Trimber

Using only three ingredients, you can prep this quick meal in a matter of minutes. Using firm tofu as a source of moisture, these brilliant pancakes can be made sweet or savory, making them them the perfect breakfast for all tastes.

Vegan Tofu Scramble

vegetable, pepper, onion, meat, saute, carrot
Kimberly Kao

In my opinion, tofu tastes best alongside its vegetable brethren, (I mean, it does come from soybeans) and what better way to combine the two than in an incredible vegan breakfast made out of tofu cleverly disguised as eggs? This protein-packed breakfast uses firm tofu to make a filling breakfast or lunch.

Miso Soup

Judy Holtz

This quick and easy miso soup is a must have in your culinary arsenal, with the star ingredient being miso paste. Miso paste is a Japanese fermented paste of beans and grains. There are gluten-free miso pastes and some brands help by identifying the bean or the grain in the name of the miso (for example, barley miso or brown rice miso). Always make sure to check your labels. With the addition of medium tofu, this soup makes it ideal for a homey and comforting cold day.

Vegan Tofu Salad Sandwich

Caitlin Johnson

The combination of firm tofu and mayo (vegan, of course) seems a bit weird but it's actually delicious. The tofu salad uses the power of creamy mayo and acidic pickles to give this sandwich its impressive height and flavor, and with additions like alfalfa sprouts and carrot, it's a filling lunch that's hard to beat. 

Tofu Veggie Stir-fry

vegetable, broccoli, chicken, rice, stir-fry, pepper, meat
Katherine Baker

What's easier than tossing everything into a pan and sautéing until golden? For this veggie-filled stir fry, a firm tofu will work best to maintain its integrity. 

Vegan Chocolate Tofu Pudding

Katherine Baker

Here it is—the wild card. This pudding is made with silken tofu, giving it a luxuriously creamy texture without piling on the calories. It's super quick and easy to make, taking only five minutes to combine the four ingredients. This makes this slightly indulgent dessert absolutely perfect for a quick sweet tooth fix. 

Tofu is one of the most underrated ingredients of the culinary world. It's so versatile and can be used in every style of cuisine. Luckily for everyone suffering from an intolerance or allergy, tofu is indeed gluten-free and can be enjoyed in many dishes.