Hopefully this guide will help you decipher what kinds go where and what on earth cookbooks are referring to when they say water packed or shrink wrapped (vacuum seal). Tofu is ALL that, it's amazingly versatile and can replace dairy in most situations. You can make sour cream, ricotta/feta, puddings and cream. You just need to know which kind to use where and the method of preparation.
chinese tofu (firm/silken/soft)
This tofu is 'water packed' in a tub and is the most common type of tofu in your supermarket. I personally cannot tell the difference between silken and soft, both fall apart and become custardy. Firm mostly holds its shape though can fall apart a bit.
best uses: I mainly use to make tofu ricotta (soft/silken) or scrambled tofu (firm) or creamy ravioli filings (soft/silken), firm can also be steamed in cubes and added to dishes, I've also seen soft/silken steamed and used as dessert though I have never tried to cook it like that.
preparation: Gently pierce the seal with a knife and drain the fluid out as best you can. Then gently let a tap run slowly with fresh water into the container for about 5 minutes or until the water running off is crystal clear. When you want to use the tofu, drain in a sieve until all the moisture is gone (well as much as can be). Be careful handling the tofu because it can break up and smoosh into the water.
refrigeration: (for all tofu): Any left over raw tofu should go into a (scrupulously clean) container and covered with fresh water. Replace the water every day, tofu should last about 7 days (you wouldn’t want to stretch the friendship after that). Use your common sense too, if it smells weird, develops a 'film' on top or starts not looking right toss it!
japanese tofu (firm/silken/soft)
This is the tofu that is in a 'juice box' type container (poppa for Sydneysiders, Prima for Melburnians) and in the Asian food aisle, not in the fridge (though I have picked up some fresh soft Japanese tofu at the Asian markets recently in the fridge - as long as its Japanese and soft it will work out well for you). This tofu is best for when you need a cream replacement.
best uses: cream replacement. Sour cream, creamy pie filling, creamy frosting, more pie filling and at Soul Mama I actually had it sweetened as cream topping for dessert.
preparation and refrigeration: similar to above but you have to be EXTRA careful, this stuff is barely held together. I snip off the sides of the juice box and run a little water into the box. Then I gently slide the block out and rinse it under the tap while it's still in my hand then throw it into the food processor.
extra firm tofu
This tofu is usually sold in a large block, shrink wrapped with a little bit of water. This tofu is chewy and spongy in texture and does not break up like the other tofu's.
best uses: When something more substantial is needed. You can marinate and cube, put onto skewers and barbecue, put into a stir fry, slice into thick steaks for burgers. This tofu will take on flavour the most out of all the other tofus so marinading is strongly suggested. I have also mashed into a scramble tofu as Clare does not like the 'glugey' texture of the other tofu's. Probably the best tofu to start out with when experimenting. I use as a more textural quiche filling (again Clare with the glugey), shallow fried and cubed for a salad, to be honest I don’t use this tofu very much as there is SO much of it in a package and can't use it all up.
preparation: Gently pierce the seal with a knife and drain the fluid out as best you can. Then place block into a container and let a tap run slowly with fresh water for about 5 minutes or until the water is crystal clear. Then take the tofu and pat down with paper towel. Line a plate or board with more paper towel, place tofu on top, another layer of paper towel on top and place a plate with some weight on top of it (like some cans or a phonebook) to gently press the water out. Leave for about 10 minutes, if a lot of water is coming out change the paper towel. Removing as much water as possible will enable to tofu to take on more delicious juices and flavours.
refrigeration: Same as the others however extra points at the point of being drained you can put into a zip lock bag (completely squeeze the air out) and freeze the tofu, when thawed it's a lot more chewy and meaty consistency (though I have only heard this and have never tried it).
notes: For all you keeners out there the wikipedia entry on tofu is pretty darn interesting!
Any questions about tofu? Have I left something out? Leave a comment!