In its many guises, soy can star in dishes from appetizers to desserts.
Credit: Becky Luigart-Stayner

Soy has been a staple in Asian diets for centuries. But just a couple of decades ago, only committed vegetarians here ate tempeh or tofu. Back then, Americans had to venture to health-food stores to buy soy foods. And finding easy, tasty recipes that called for items such as edamame or soy flour was a challenge.

That's all changed. The creaminess of tofu, the meaty texture of tempeh, the saltiness of miso, and the nutty crunch of edamame are so mainstream these days that most of us have learned to love soy for what it is. We can be up front with it, no longer sneaking it into recipes in place of something else, or serving it solely as a meat substitute.

Served in Japanese restaurants and now offered in many supermarkets, these sweet, bright green soybeans are delicious served in the pod or shelled, like baby limas. The Chinese call edamame mao dao, or "hair bean," because of the fuzz on their plump, sugar snap pea-sized pods. Originally from China and imported to Japan by the 10th century, the Japanese named them edamame, meaning "branch bean," which describes how they grow.

Edamame are not a variety of soybean. They are immature soybeans that are picked green and served fresh. In season, usually from late July to September, you might find fresh edamame at local farmers' markets. Frozen, they are available year-round, both in the pod and shelled. For a snack, boil edamame in the pod, drain, and sprinkle with coarse salt.

Yellow and Black Soybeans
As soybeans mature, they ripen into hard, dry beans. Though most mature soybeans are yellow, there are also black varieties. These dried beans require an overnight soak and about three hours of cooking time to make them tender. Canned yellow or black soybeans, usually found on the organic food aisle, are a fast alternative. They have a slippery texture and firm bite. Yellow soybeans require assertive seasoning to enhance their bland taste; black soybeans, however, can stand alone in salads and side dishes. Both are good in chili, stews, and soups, and pureed for dip. Rinse canned beans before using.

No one is sure when the Chinese began making tofu (soybean curd) or how they figured out the process, but tomb paintings from a.d. 220 show it being made. In European writing, the Japanese word tofu first appeared in 1603. Today, you find this traditional neutral-tasting soy food in nearly every U.S. supermarket.

Tofu is good in Asian stir-fries, desserts, drinks, dressings, salads, stews, and soups. It's also good tossed on the grill. It varies in texture from creamy and smooth to firm enough to slice. Today, tofu also is sold marinated and smoked, or flavored with such seasonings as teriyaki or garlic and herbs. Selecting the right kind is the key to good tofu dishes.

• Silken (Kinugoshi, or Japanese-style): Sold in aseptic boxes and available in soft, firm, and extrafirm textures, silken tofu is custardlike and ideal to puree for dressings, soups, desserts, and drinks. It's much too delicate to grill, sauté, or stir-fry.

• Regular (Momen, or Chinese-style): Also found in soft, firm, and extrafirm textures, this tofu is packed in water in plastic tubs and pouches. Its dense texture makes it ideal to sauté, grill, or broil. Choose soft, water-packed tofu for scrambling and to use in spreads, thick dips, and some desserts; select firm for grilling, sautéing, and stir-frying. Squeezing, pressing, and freezing can enhance tofu's texture. 

Although tempeh (tem-PAY) was first made in Java about 1,000 years ago, it's actually a relative newcomer to the soy category. The Dutch discovered it in Indonesia in the 1600s and introduced it to the West.

A fermented food, tempeh is made from partly cooked soybeans inoculated with spores of a friendly mold in a process resembling cheese-making. The mold creates threads that bind the beans into a flat cake. Tempeh is blanched or frozen to slow fermentation and preserve active enzymes. It has a yeasty flavor and firm texture.

Tempeh can be made with soybeans alone, but you often find it composed of soy and a grain, such as rice, barley, or quinoa. All-soy tempeh is highest in protein, has the most pronounced flavor, and is highest in fat. Good grilled, sautéed, pan-crisped, or braised, tempeh is sold at natural-foods stores and in some large supermarkets.

Soy Milk
Soy milk is squeezed from dried soybeans that have been soaked, ground, and cooked. Asian markets sell it just as it comes from the bean, thin and strong-tasting, perhaps sweetened. The soy milk sold in supermarkets and natural-foods stores tastes mild by comparison and is thickened to resemble dairy milk. Besides chocolate and vanilla, it comes in an increasing selection of flavors, such as chai and latte.

Like tofu, which is made from soy milk, it varies significantly by brand in taste, protein, and fat content. (To reduce fat, water is added.) Most soy milk is calcium-fortified to equal dairy milk. A replacement for dairy milk in recipes, unsweetened soy milk is best in desserts and some savory dishes.

This fermented soybean paste originated in ancient China and migrated throughout Asia, where it is still popular. Chefs love miso, especially for seasoning fish. Made from a blend of soy and grain or with soy alone, it instantly adds rich flavor to all kinds of dishes―we spiced up the spaghetti sauce in the recipe at right. It also adds creaminess to sauces and soups, and thickens them slightly.

Resembling peanut butter, miso ranges in color from light to dark and in taste from mildly sweet to very salty. It contains less sodium per serving than salt and regular soy sauce. Miso keeps indefinitely, refrigerated in a glass jar.

• Light [Sweet and Mellow White ( Shiro), Mellow Beige ( Tanshoku)]: Use with fish, poultry, dressings, creamy soups, and vegetables. Light miso contains the least salt.

• Dark [Red ( Aka), Barley ( Mugi), and all-soy ( Hatcho)]: All dark misos are good with grains and legumes, and in stews, tomato sauce, and gravy.

Soy Flour
Made of finely ground dried soybeans, this high-protein soy food can replace some flour in many recipes. Commercial bakeries often use soy flour in breads and pastries because it retains moisture and gives baked goods longer shelf life. Soy flour also creates a large, fluffy crumb. Adding even a small amount to your favorite bread recipes boosts protein. Using 20 to 30 percent soy flour along with all-purpose works best, as soy flour contains no gluten. Higher amounts can produce a heavy, grainy result. Full-fat soy flour works better than defatted in baking. Store soy flour in a glass jar in the refrigerator or freezer for up to 6 months.

Meat Alternatives
From crumbles that resemble ground beef to soy sausage and bacon, these refrigerated and frozen products can replace meat in most recipes. Made with soy protein, they are cholesterol-free and cook quickly.