A Guide to Soy (and How to Make Tofu Taste Great)
Soy has been a staple at the core of vegan and vegetarian diets for some time. Further afield, soy-based foods have been staples of the cuisines of many cultures for countless centuries. Things like tofu, miso and tempeh have formed the very basis of East Asian diets for hundreds of years, despite having only recently gained popularity in the West.
Revered for their outstanding nutritional content and versatility, these are the kinds of products that open the door to limitless creativity in the vegan kitchen. But what’s interesting is how even today, the subject of soy in general tends to be one of widespread myth and misunderstanding.
Even if you consume soy-based products on a regular basis, evidence suggests you might not understand them quite as extensively as you think you do!
The Remarkable Nutrient Content of Soy
All soy-based products across the board have one thing in common - they derive from soybeans. While it’s true to say that all beans across the board are loaded with nutrients and have a high protein content, none come close to packing the same protein-rich punch as soybeans.
There’s a good reason why soy has become the protein source of choice for those who prefer to avoid animal-based products. Without getting too deep into the science of the whole thing, soy is one of the only ‘complicate protein’ sources derived from plants. It’s therefore able to provide the human body with all the benefits of animal-based protein, with none of the associated drawbacks.
As an added bonus, soybeans are naturally cholesterol-free and have an extremely low saturated fat content. They also come loaded with magnesium, calcium, potassium and a range of B-vitamins, complemented by a solid dose of omega-3 fatty acids
Long story short - soybeans really are the dictionary definition of a super food, with the added bonus of being easy to incorporate into almost any dish imaginable.
What Different Sources of Soy Are Available?
Bringing more plant protein into your daily eating habits can be an absolute breeze, if you pick up the right soy products. There’s no shortage of options to choose from, but the following are by far the most popular sources of soy for vegans and vegetarians:
- Soy protein powder - As the name suggests, this is a high-protein powder made from dried and crushed soybeans, which can be used as the basis for all different types of smoothies, shakes, soups, stews and so on.
- Edamame - Arguably one of the most delicious ways of consuming soy, served in the form of fresh green soybeans that simply need to be steamed (or boiled) and sprinkled with a little salt.
- Miso - The gorgeously salty soup base, made from fermented soybeans. Miso brings the added benefit of a massive probiotics content into the mix, and is one of the most versatile forms of vegan stock for getting creative in the kitchen.
- Tofu - Love it or hate it, tofu is no less than a marvel of plant-based alchemy that can be used in more ways than it’s possible to begin listing. It’s more or less a type of cheese made using soy milk instead of dairy milk, available in a variety of forms and textures.
- Soy milk - Speaking of which, soy milk can be used in pretty much the exact same way as regular milk, though with a much higher protein content. It’s made by rehydrated dry soybeans and grinding them up with water (why not try making your own)?
- Tempeh - An absolute revelation for plant-based living, tempeh is a fantastic meat substitute that has a firm texture and a distinctive savoury flavour. Any recipe that calls for meat can be switched to a vegan or veggie dish by adding this stuff.
This isn’t an exhaustive list by any stretch of the imagination. Head to the vegan section of any supermarket and you’ll find more weird and wonderful soy-based products than you’ll know what to do with.
Nevertheless, these are by far the most common and popular sources of soy, which can be brought into a plant-based lifestyle with ease.
Myths and Untruths about Soy and Soy Protein
As previously touched upon, the subject of soy is one of surprising controversy in some circles. Which can be attributed to longstanding myths regarding the health benefits (or otherwise) of this remarkable natural protein source.
If you’ve ever bought into any of the following misinformation, it could be time to rethink your views on soy and soy-based products:
MYTH 1: Soy isn't a good source of protein
There is absolutely no truth in this whatsoever. In fact, it’s quite the opposite - soy is one of the only ‘complete’ sources of protein in the plant world and can therefore deliver all of the benefits you would get from a comparable source of animal-based protein.
In addition, a single serving of soybeans is packed with as much as 22g of low fat protein - more or less what you would get from a lean steak of a standard size. However, the protein content of products made using soybeans isn’t nearly as high as when they are consumed in their natural form. A serving of tofu, for example, will typically contain around 9g of low-fat protein.
MYTH 2: All soy-based products are nutritious
This is the assumption reached by many purely on the basis of the fact that soy-based products are typically vegetarian or vegan. Unfortunately, just because something is meat-free and made primarily from soybeans does not automatically make it healthy.
Vegan and vegetarian products can be just as highly processed and packed with additives as their meat-based counterparts. They also have the potential to be loaded with fat, sugar and salt. Soybeans are a fantastically healthy and nutritional ingredient, but you also need to check carefully what else makes it into the mix.
MYTH 3: Soy causes breast cancer
This origins of this myth stem from the fact that soy bears some chemical similarities to oestrogen, and has in some studies carried out on animals been found to increase the risk of tumours. However, the way the human body processes the isoflavones in soy is completely different to the way they are processed in rodents.
To date, all studies conducted on human beings who consume high quantities of soy have produced no evidence whatsoever of an elevated cancer risk. In fact, many studies conducted into the risks and benefits of soy have found that a plant-based diet which includes plenty of soya products can reduce the risk of developing various forms of cancer.
MYTH 4: Soy protein supplements are as good as the real thing
It would certainly be convenient if this was the case, but sadly it isn’t. Switching natural soy products for soy protein supplements would be the same as swapping healthy fruits and vegetables for vitamin and mineral supplements. You’ll still get some of the good stuff you need, but will also rob yourself of much of the nutrient content of soy in its unprocessed form.
This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with soy protein supplements in their own right, but they’re not quite on the same nutritional level as unprocessed soy.
MYTH 5: Men should stay away from soy
Last up, the fact that the isoflavones in soy bear chemical similarities to oestrogen has led many to assume that men should stay away from soy entirely. In reality, this simply isn’t the case - no clinical study to date has drawn links between the moderate consumption of soy and any specific ill effects for healthy males.
If soy posed a risk to men, we’d have found out about it by now - think about how much of the stuff is consumed every hour of every day by hundreds of millions of men of all ages in the Far East.
How to Make Tofu Taste Great
Rounding things off, there’s a quick and easy recipe for making great-tasting tofu even the most sceptical carnivores will love. It’s simply a case of taking a block of firm tofu (usually around 400g), treating it to a tasty marinade and roasting it to perfection.
Here’s what you’ll need for the marinade:
- 3 tbsp light soy sauce
- 3 tbsp rice vinegar
- 1 tsp sugar or honey
- 1 tsp sesame oil
- Pinch ground ginger
- Pinch garlic powder
- Pinch white pepper
- Olive oil
Mix all of these ingredients together in a bowl and pour into a shallow baking tray.
After unwrapping the tofu, give it a good blot on all sides to soak up as much residual moisture as possible. Cut the block into segments in any shape you prefer and place in the marinade, turning a couple of times to ensure that they are fully covered.
Pop some clingfilm over the tray and let the tofu soak in the marinade in the fridge for up to 48 hours (the longer the better).
Then, all you need to do remove them from the marinade and place them on a greased baking tray in a preheated oven at 180° C for around 45 minutes, turning occasionally and glazing with leftover marinade on occasion.