This guide to cooking with tofu was compiled by Victoria Bekiempis. Victoria is a journalist in New York City. She covers courts, crime, and cooking.
Tofu is one of the most versatile plant-based proteins available to home cooks. Preparing tofu dishes presents both an opportunity to recreate restaurant favorites from the comfort of your own kitchen, and to experiment with texture and flavor.
Tofu can take the form of a light breakfast scramble or a substantial dinner stir-fry. It can be roasted for refreshing salads, or mixed into a creamy snacktime smoothie. Tofu also boasts several advantages over other meat-free proteins. It is relatively inexpensive and can be found at almost every grocery across the U.S., whereas the availability and price of prepared and frozen vegan picks can vary.
Whether you’re new to tofu or a longtime connoisseur, this guide will explain how to shake up supper with this soy superfood. We’ll explain the ins and outs of cooking tofu—from picking the right texture to prepping it for the pan—and share our favorite recipes. If it isn’t already, we’re sure that tofu will soon become one of your weeknight staples.
What is tofu?
Tofu, at the most basic level, is soybean curds. To make tofu, soybean milk is boiled, curdled with some sort of coagulant, such as calcium sulfate (gypsum) or magnesium chloride(nigari),and strained. Once the liquid is gone, the solids are compressed. The process is comparable to making cheese from milk, according to Serious Eats. As for taste, many people describe it differently. Some say that plain tofu doesn’t taste like anything, while others detect a slightly sour flavor.
Are there different types of tofu?
Yes. Generally speaking, the types of uncooked tofu you will encounter at the grocery include silken, soft, medium, firm, and extra firm. Softer tofu has a higher water content, whereas firmer tofu has a lower one, according to Bon Appétit. Many groceries also sell tofu that has been cooked and seasoned, such as barbecue-style chunks or smoky grilled slices. Some stores sell fried tofu in the refrigerator case, which can range in texture from chewy to puffy. In some parts of the US, locally made tofu is available.
How do you prepare tofu for cooking?
The first step in successfully putting together any tofu dish: figuring out which texture is best. The water content of tofu will dictate what it can be. If you want to pump up the protein in a fruit smoothie, then silken is the way to go. If you’re planning to use tofu as a hearty main for a grain bowl, then extra firm is your best bet.
Once you have picked the best tofu for your dish, drain whatever excess water is in the packaging. With silken or soft tofu, wrap blocks in paper towel. With firmer tofus, there are a few techniques for getting water out. The DIY route is to wrap an entire block of tofu in paper towel or cheesecloth, place something heavy like a cast iron pan on top, and then wait an hour or more for liquid to drain. If you cook tofu a lot, consider purchasing a tofu press. There are different kinds of tofu presses with various mechanisms, but the gist is that once the block is cradled inside, it squeezes the water out. You can just leave the tofu press inside your fridge and use the drained block whenever you’re ready.
How do you add flavor?
There are a few different schools of thought on adding flavor to tofu. Some cooks say that tofu absorbs the flavors of whatever spice, sauce, marinade, or topping it’s prepped with. Others say that tofu doesn’t absorb marinades and that it needs to be pan fried in order to take in the marinades.
In general, we have always been able to flavor tofu powerfully without that pan frying-then-marinating step. The key to doing so is to remember that tofu is a very watery blank canvas, and act accordingly. Be prepared to add more seasoning and spices than you would normally add to food. With savory tofu dishes, toss pressed chunks or slices with generous splashes of soy sauce. Then, add spices or seasonings, before adding whatever oil your recipe calls for.
How do you cook tofu?
Now that you’ve prepped your tofu, it’s time to do something with it! With simple shakes and sauces, cooking could be as simple as blending tofu with whatever other ingredients are required. Several heat-based methods of cooking tofu include baking, frying, searing, and grilling. To bake tofu, line a half-sheet pan with foil, and lightly drizzle with oil. Place pressed, seasoned cubes of extra-firm tofu on the foil. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes. Remove from the oven, turn over each cube, and return to the oven for another 15 minutes, according to Gimme Some Oven. Adjust baking time to reach desired texture; the longer tofu bakes, the crispier it will be.
Seared slices of tofu make for a great main alongside stacks of fresh roasted veggies. To do this, cut a pressed block into four lengthwise pieces. Season the pieces as desired. Heat two tablespoons of oil in a pan on medium-high heat. When hot, add the pieces to the pan, so each is positioned evenly. Heat for five-to-six minutes. When browned, flip each piece and cook for another two-to-three minutes.
Breaded-and-fried tofu is also a favorite, achieving a particularly crispy texture without the labor of deep frying. Slice pressed tofu as you would when searing. Season, coat in oil, and then dunk in breadcrumbs. Place in a pan with oil that’s at medium high heat. Cook each slice for three-to-four minutes.
With softer tofu, heat-based cooking methods are simpler. For soups or sauces, you can add soft or silken tofu to the pan or pot. Every now and then, stir gently. The tofu will heat up, and absorb some flavor, in around three-to-five minutes. For plain heated tofu, steam or pop in the microwave for one-to-two minutes.