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Adventures in Tofu, Part One: Making Soy Milk (Disastrous, Messy, But Ultimately Successful)

This is Part One of a two part series on making soy milk and tofu at home. You can read Part Two here.

I’ve been reading Jeremy Clarkson’s book “How Hard Can It Be?” He’s the funny guy from Top Gear, the massively popular British car show in which a bunch of middle-aged boys test drive a variety of very fast cars while keeping up a pretty solid banter in the background.

In the world according to Clarkson, he solves topics as diverse as global warming, summiting Everest, the British tax system, and keeping exotic birds as pets with the stroke of a pen while simultaneously ridding the world of do-gooders, politicians, and idiots. 
The book’s (and show’s) catch-cry of ‘How hard can it be?’ is coincidentally the same approach I take to cooking, which tends to turn out about as well as you’d expect.

Tempering couverture chocolate? How hard can it be? 
Answer: Homemade chocolate easter eggs with a texture like ricotta cheese mixed with concrete, and about as tasty.

Homemade strawberry jam? How hard can it be? It’s just strawberries and sugar!

Answer: Favourite saucepan ruined forever, and a year’s supply of smoke-flavoured strawberry ice cream topping.

Toffee nests? Honestly, I’ve seen it on TV. Sugar. Water. A fast moving spoon.

Answer: It doesn’t count as a toffee nest if it has a lot of your hair in it. And it turns out a fast moving spoon is capable of covering pretty much everything in the kitchen in enamel-hard toffee if the spoon is not directed carefully and accurately. Wine does not improve accuracy.

Having failed to learn from my first fifty mistakes, I felt that making tofu sounded like something I could really apply myself to.

Tofu was one of my greatest culinary surprises while living in China – the variety, the freshness, the many ways in which it is used in cooking. And my greatest surprise of all – it actually tastes good. Really good.

But to make tofu, you must first learn how to make soy milk. I learnt to make it the traditional way with Ah Ping at Yangcheng Lake using a traditional stone grinder, where I was astounded to discover that soy milk, dear people, is made from just soy beans and water. Yes, beans. And water.

Only two ingredients! How hard can it…etc etc

So this week you can learn how to make soy milk, and next week, how to make tofu. Excited? Of course you are. You love a deceptively simple cooking project.

Soy milk making, at least when you first begin, is quite disastrously messy, as I discovered when I overfilled my soy milk maker (see above) and went to hang out the washing, returning to a steaming hot soy explosion all over the kitchen. The soy milk had spattered all the windows and overflowed into three open kitchen drawers full of cutlery and tea towels. Curses were heard throughout the house.

With practice though, you’ll get neater, and there will be fewer changes of clothes and swearing. Promise.

Part One: Making Your Own Soy Milk 
For one litre of soy milk you’ll need:
  • 1/2 cup (85g) dried soybeans
  • water
  • blender or soy milk maker
  • fine mesh strainer or muslin cloth
  • 2 litre saucepan 
L: dried soybeans                     R: after soaking

Blender Method:
  • rinse dried soybeans, strain
  • place in bowl and cover with water, leave for 8-10 hours (soaking time needed varies according to ambient temperature, but overnight is always long enough)
  • strain
  • add soybeans to blender 
  • add one litre (4 cups) of water
  • blend on ‘high’ for one minute
  • turn off power, stir contents thoroughly to dislodge any debris from under blade
  • blend on high again for one minute
  • pour soy milk mixture through a very fine mesh sieve or muslin into saucepan
  • heat on medium high heat, stirring continuously until it begins to foam
  • continue stirring at a simmer for five minutes, removing some of the excess foam from the top of the milk
  • pour into glass jug to cool

Soy Milk Maker Method:
  • rinse dried soybeans, strain
  • place in bowl and cover with water, leave for 8-10 hours (soaking time needed varies according to ambient temperature, but overnight is always long enough)
  • strain
  • place beans in soy milk maker
  • add water to level indicated inside soy milk maker
  • use ‘soaked beans’ setting, press go
  • when cycle complete, pour soy milk through fine mesh sieve (usually provided with your maker) or muslin into a jug
  • press the sediment until no further milk released from strainer
  • drink hot or cold, as preferred
  • WASH soy milk maker immediately
L: Straining soy milk through a fine mesh sieve           R: soy sediment – okra
L: stir and press okara with a spoon to release more soy milk         R: rendering soy milk
Soy Milk Makers/Blenders:
  • Although home blenders do a great job, if you are planning on making a lot of soy milk or tofu in might be worth investing in a soy milk maker – they have the advantage of heating the milk for you, eliminating one step and one more set of pans to wash. And they’re fast – they make a litre in under fifteen minutes.
  • Soy milk makers vary from very cheap ($US25), to very expensive ($US300+), depending on what kind you buy and who you buy from. Online health food stores tend to have the most expensive machines. 
  • All soy milk makers do a similar job, but have differences in motor speed and grunt, resulting in a slightly different outcome. The more powerful motor, the finer the grind and the better the quality of the finished product. 
  • Fancy soy milk makers have added ‘features’ to help upsell the product – juicing, cooking rice, cooking pasta etc. If you don’t need these added features look for a simpler and cheaper model. 
  • As with all things, the better the quality of your ingredients, the better the finished product. Using filtered water and organic or biodynamic soybeans gives a better taste.
  • There are many minor variations on technique, and only by experimenting yourself will you find out what works best for you
  • A richer soy milk can be made by increasing the amount of soybeans in the recipe to 3/4 cup (dried) – just take care with your soy milk maker as it may froth over, as mine did
  • Some people feel it is important to remove the skin of the soybeans once they are soaked – because it may give a slightly less bean-y taste. You can do this by rubbing them vigorously underwater and allowing the skins to float to the surface where you can skim them off. I’ve tried both, I can’t tell the difference. Seems like a lot of work for little gain.
  • Some people do not strain the soy sediment off until after heating the soy milk, because they believe by cooking the liquid and sediment together it results in a better tasting milk. Try both methods and see which you prefer.
  • Heating the soy milk, otherwise known as rendering, is essential to making soy milk because it converts (renders) some undigestible proteins into digestible ones.
  • Don’t worry of a skin forms on the surface of the hot soy milk after it has rendered – this is creamy yuba, an edible delicacy
  • Soy sediment hardens like concrete within minutes. Wash everything as soon as you use it, or spend hours scrubbing.
  • Keep the soy sediment – also known as okara – you can use it in cooking.
Soy milk makers: 
There are many brands to choose from and all do a similar job – they grind the beans finely and heat the soy milk so it is ready to drink. Reputable brands include Joyoung, Soyajoy, Midea, Philips and Povos.
DinoDirect from $US150
Amazon from $US88
Taobao from CNY150 ($US25) – search for 豆浆机
I use a Joyoung DJ13B-C85SG (available on Taobao for CNY499 ($US85) shipping within China) which has a more powerful motor. 
Asian Tofu by Andrea Nguyen – my tofu bible, with recipes and detailed directions
Online tutorials: