09 Oct / Everything You’ve Ever Wanted to Know About Soybeans and a Giveaway
You either love it or hate it (this article pretty much sums it up). I’m talking about soy and by association, all soy products like tofu, soy milk, etc. I, for one, love it!
I’ve been consuming soy (or soya) in myriad forms since I was a little girl.
On many a Saturday morning, I used to accompany my mom to the neighborhood wet market. My mom had many items on her list but my goal was singular. Like a broken record I’d ask, “Are we done yet? Are we done yet?” My favorite stall was always our last stop before heading home. When we finally got there, my mom would place one order each for fresh soy milk (豆漿, dou jiang) and sweet beancurd (豆腐花, doufu hua).
First, “uncle” (as a child I always called the stall owners “uncle” and “aunty,” probably as a sign of respect) would ladle the milky white beverage into a clear plastic bag and tie it taut with a red string until it ballooned. Next, he’d scoop layers of sleek, silky beancurd into a styrofoam tub. Seeing my eager face, uncle would slip me extra sugar syrup for the beancurd and hand everything to me in a pink plastic bag. I’d grip the handles in anticipation of my delicious breakfast, feeling the still-warm soy milk in my clutch.
Fresh soy milk was one of the edibles I missed from my childhood. Storebought soy milk in cans or tetrapaks are poor facsimiles, often containing thickeners, additives and preservatives. The good stuff contains only soybeans and water.
Soy milk is simple to make though tedious. I never thought to make it at home until I received a soy milk maker for my birthday a few years ago. In three simple steps–measure out soybeans, add filtered water, press button—I was tasting the soy milk of years past, soybean-y, naturally sweet and imbued with the insouciance of childhood.
Before I started making my own soy milk, I never gave much thought to soybeans. One soybean is the same as another right? Not true.
Andrea Nguyen, author of Asian Tofu, among other cookbooks, told me, “There are thousands of types of soybeans, bred for different uses. Some are specifically for animal feed. Others for human consumption.”
Soybean cultivars are also bred specifically for various soy products. Nguyen selects soybeans carefully for soy milk and tofu. “It’s like different breeds of cows yielding different flavors and richness in dairy products.” Her favorite soybean for DIY soy milk and tofu is the Laura Soybean and comes from an Iowa farm. “Handsome beans. Amazing milk and curds,” she says.
I also talked to Tara Miller and Tessa Mohr, two sisters who co-own Signature Soy LLC based in North Dakota.
Signature Soy has many corporate customers all over the world producing a variety of soy products. “Our family’s company (relies) on feedback from the large manufacturing companies that buy and use our soybeans,” says Miller who is also the marketing manager. “For example, when a manufacturer is making soymilk, tofu or natto, they let us know what they need more of in each variety. It could be higher protein, a different shape of the soybean, a different moisture content, etc. Our family then works to breed varieties specific to the customer’s requested/desired specifications.”
Most tofu producers prefer a larger bean with higher protein, whereas for soy milk, a medium to large bean with medium protein is ideal. “But they must be round and uniform in shape,” explains Mohr who is also the company expert on soybean research and genetics.
For natto, Mohr says, an extra small-sized bean is preferred because you can still see the bean in the final product and “they like the look of a small bean.” Cookbook author Nguyen supports this, having bought some tiny soybeans from Japan to make natto.
For tempeh, which is similar to natto, small beans are still preferred but they are usually larger than for natto.
Soybeans often have either a black or yellow hilum (the eye or scar on the seed coat) and it’s a characteristic that you can breed for. Mohr says most of her customers prefer a yellow hilum. A black hilum may discolor the final product, marring the color of, say, miso or soy milk.
I asked Miller to clarify something I’d read in my research, that a black hilum is a sign of a GMO soybean and yellow means non-GMO. That’s not always the case, says Miller. “There are non-GMO soybeans that have black hilum and GMO that have yellow hilum. That said, you can’t distinguish whether a soybean is non-GMO or GMO by appearance. Testing would need to be done.” All of Signature Soy’s soybeans are tested to ensure there are no traces of GMO.
On a different note, I wanted to know how green edamame turns into the whitish soybean.
Soybeans are planted around May. Mohr explained that edamame and soybeans are from the same plant but edamame is picked from the immature soy plant in July and August before it is fully mature. “It’s like picking a tomato that’s still green.”
The white soybeans used for making tofu etc., on the other hand, are fully matured and dried out and ready for harvest in September and October. This is when the “fresh crop” becomes available. “Our soybeans keep for a year and our customers enjoy making soymilk, tofu, natto, sprouts, tempeh, etc. all year round,” says Miller.
If you’d like to make your own soy products at home, Mohr has these tips:
- Buy non-GMO beans. The genes haven’t been altered and these beans are an old breed, an heirloom variety if you will.
- Try more specific varieties. If you’re making soymilk, look for a medium sized bean, they tend to be cheaper too. For tofu, seek out high protein beans with a yellow hilum. “In my opinion, get a variety specific soybean. You will be happier with the end result,” says Mohr.
- Store in dark, dry, cool place, sealed tightly so it doesn’t absorb moisture.
And where should you buy soybeans?
According to Mohr, the bulk section of your supermarket tends to stock non-GMO beans of medium size and medium protein. These are good, all-round beans that would work fine for making most soy products.
I compared the bulk organic soybeans I bought from Whole Foods Market to Signature Soy’s soybeans bred for optimum tofu-making and honestly, I couldn’t tell them apart! That being said, I did make tofu from the Signature Soy soybeans I was given and it turned out smooth in texture and slightly sweet with a lovely soybeany flavor.
As for soybeans sold in bags, Mohr says they have been cleaned and color-sorted but are probably more expensive.
To purchase specific variety soybeans, you can try asking at a local tofu store if they’d be willing to sell you some of the soybeans they use to make their own products.
A company like Signature Soy is another source. In addition to corporate customers, Signature Soy also sells beans for soymilk, tofu, natto and sprouts online. Their soybeans go direct from their family-owned farms to their cleaning facility where the beans are cleaned and foreign materials are removed.
Here are links if you’d like to learn how to make soy products:
Disclosure: As research for this article, I was given a complimentary jar of Signature Soy soybeans, however, all opinions are my own!
For a chance to win one jar containing 2 lbs. of soy milk soybeans and another jar containing 1 lb. of natto/sprout soybeans, courtesy of Signature Soy, please subscribe to the Pickles and Tea blog (scroll down to the very bottom!) and tell us about your favorite soy product or tofu dish in the comments section below. We’ll randomly select a winner and post the results after the deadline.
Last day to enter: Friday, October 23, 2015.
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