Making tofu in Iowa City

(Photo: Joseph Hopper/Iowa Soybean Association)

Iowa City-based company manufactures fresh tofu

April 6, 2023 | Kriss Nelson

Jake Gratzon and Matthew Mesaros, co-founders of Old Capitol Food Co., discovered a love for tofu.

Bringing together that love for tofu and the urge to be entrepreneurial, Gratzon and Mesaros had the idea to start a food production company.

They learned the process and art of making tofu. In 2014, the duo started Old Capitol Food Co.

“I have always been a huge fan of tofu, and I knew how much better it was when it was fresh,” says Gratzon. “I wanted to bring that to my home state of Iowa.”

He and Mesaros set out to find a way to make tofu in large quantities as large manufacturers did – but to do it better.

“We are proud of how we make it,” says Gratzon. “We use the best ingredients possible, even though it is only three ingredients: water, soybeans and our coagulant. The fact we make and deliver it fresh is a much better result.”

Old Capitol Food Co. uses a coagulant made from magnesium chloride, which makes the tofu taste sweeter and with a firmer texture.

“We want to make sure we are producing best product we possibly can so chefs have a good experience with our tofu,” says Gratzon.

Old Capitol Food Co.’s mission is: “We want to prepare the best food, using the best local ingredients.”

With this mission, Gratzon says they strive to work with people also dedicated to producing fresh food with local ingredients.

Suman Hoque, owner/chef at HoQ, a farm-to-table restaurant in east Des Moines, purchases tofu from Old Capitol Foods Co.

“It is some of the best I have had,” he says. “I have found you can make anything with it.”

“We love working with places that are farm-to-table oriented like HoQ,” Gratzon says. “They approach their restaurant the same way we approach our production. We are dedicated to using local ingredients. That is the gold standard as far as I am concerned.”

Old Capitol Tofu can be found throughout Iowa in other restaurants and select Hy-Vee stores, Gateway Market and other grocery stores, as well as university and college dining halls, including Luther College, Grinnell College, Cornell College, Iowa State University and the University of Iowa.

Bringing tofu to the dinner plate

Gratzon says they use 1,500 bushels per year of Iowa-grown soybeans purchased through their soybean broker, Stonebridge Limited, from Cedar Falls.

“We want to use tofu-quality soybeans with a higher protein content,” he says, adding there is an extensive range of possibilities for consuming tofu, just as there is a wide range of options for meat.

“You don’t have to cook it; it’s a prepared food in the way it is made,” he says. “You can eat it right out of the bag. Our tofu has a subtly sweet quality. It’s firm and will not fall apart.”

Gratzon likes to cut his tofu into slabs or steaks and marinate them overnight. Marinades include barbecue sauce, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, olive oil and seasonings.

“Thinner sauces tend to marinate the tofu better, but any marinade will do,” he says. “You can take the marinated tofu, not cook it any further, slice it up and put it on a salad. Or you can cook it.”

Beyond marinating, Gratzon says tofu can be cooked in beef or chicken stock by cutting the tofu into steaks or cubes and boiling it in the broth for 10 to 20 minutes.

“You end up with a juicy tofu,” he says. “Tofu in beef stock gives it a nice beefy flavor. You still get a lot of benefits from having a highly digestible protein.”

To make it even easier to bring tofu to the dinner plate, Old Capitol Food Co. is working on a product called “What the Fu,” a premade, flavored tofu.

Linda Funk, executive director of The Soyfoods Council, says she highly recommends trying tofu, and it is great having a tofu company like Old Capitol Food Co. in our state.

“The tofu they make is of the highest quality,” she says. “It is wonderful soybeans can be grown for food and feed in Iowa.”