A Beginner’s Guide to Cooking with Tofu
Poor tofu. It gets such a bad rap and it’s the butt of nearly every joke about vegetarianism. Vegetarian food is gross because: tofu!!! Cooking with tofu can be intimidating too—if you’re not sure what you’re doing and you end up with a bland, unappealing lump on your plate, you’re probably unlikely to give it another try.
First, before we get started, this isn’t a post about the health questions about soy. I’ll direct you here for a nutritionist’s take on whether soy belongs in your diet. I’m assuming that if you’ve found your way to this post, you want to cook with tofu, but you have no idea how to make it actually taste good.
Types of Tofu
This is where a lot of cooking mistakes happen: people buy the wrong type of tofu. The first time I bought tofu, I picked up a box of silken tofu at the store and wondered why it was nothing like the tofu I had at restaurants. Complicating things even further, there are two main types of tofu, then each of these types has its own subcategories too.
Let’s break it down:
Silken tofu is a shelf-stable form of tofu. This style of tofu originates in Japan; its texture is almost custard-like. Firm or extra-firm silken tofu is used in miso soup. Soft silken tofu can be used to make sauces, dips, and salad dressings. You can use firm silken tofu to make vegan pudding and it’s also a great way to boost the protein in a smoothie.
While silken tofu is excellent in miso and other Asian soups, it just doesn’t stand up to other forms of cooking. Even the extra-firm variety will break apart when cooked in a skillet. Silken tofu doesn’t absorb flavor as well as regular tofu either. For this reason, when you’re cooking and a recipe simply calls for tofu without specifying a type, buy the refrigerated water-packed variety; don’t buy silken tofu unless a recipe specifically calls for it.
Refrigerated or “Regular” Tofu
If silken tofu is smooth and custardy, refrigerated tofu is more sponge-like, both in texture and in its ability to soak up sauces and other flavorings added to it. You’ll most often find this kind of tofu in the refrigerated section of the produce department or in/near the dairy section at your grocery store. Unlike silken tofu, it is always refrigerated and never sold in shelf-stable form.
Regular tofu comes in the following varieties:
- Soft Tofu – This type of tofu can be used in place of silken tofu.
- Medium Tofu – Recipes rarely call for medium tofu, but when cubed, it can be added to broth-based soups like miso or ramen.
- Firm Tofu – Despite its name, firm tofu has a tendency to crumble and fall apart. It’s no surprise that its most common use is in tofu scramble recipes.
- Extra-Firm Tofu – This is the most popular tofu used in recipes because it holds up well to most forms of cooking. It can be grilled, stir-fried, baked, and deep-fried. When pressed, extra-firm tofu can be marinated in sauces before cooking.
- Super-Firm or High-Protein Tofu – While this tofu doesn’t absorb flavors as well as its softer counterparts, it holds its shape better than any other tofu variety. It’s a good choice for anyone who objects to the “mushiness” of tofu.
When you’re working with regular (not silken) tofu, remember this mantra: tofu is best when it’s pressed. This is because by pressing tofu first, you’re squeezing out all of the water it’s holding to make room for it to absorb the sauces you add to it. By releasing excess liquid, your tofu will also have a chewier texture once you’re finished cooking it.
The best way to press tofu is by using a tofu press. If you cook tofu often, I recommend investing in one of these little devices because it’s the easiest and most effective way to press the water out.
That said, you don’t need a tofu press. You can also layer a few towels (paper or cloth) on a cutting board, place the tofu on top of them, then put a plate on top of the tofu. Put a few cans, bags of beans, or whatever else you have handy on top of the plate to weigh it down, making sure the weight is evenly distributed so the tofu doesn’t end up being lopsided. Allow the tofu to sit for 20 to 30 minutes, draining or switching out the towels as needed.
Once your tofu is pressed, you can cut it into slices, triangles, or cubes. After slicing it, you may want to blot the slices with paper towels to absorb any excess liquid; this is especially helpful if you plan on frying the tofu on the stovetop.
Making Tofu Flavorful
Here’s where the magic happens! You’ve pressed your tofu and now it’s time to make it delicious.
When I’m baking or grilling tofu, I always marinate it first. If I’m frying tofu, I skip the marinade and instead add sauce later, which helps keep the tofu from getting mushy and crumbling while cooking.
Note that tofu doesn’t absorb oil-based marinades. One of my favorite marinades is a combination of tamari, minced garlic, and maple syrup. To make tofu with a bacon-y flavor, add smoked paprika or liquid smoke to these three ingredients.
If you’re baking tofu, you can baste it with sauce as it cooks or simply bake the tofu and then toss it with the sauce after it’s done cooking. Barbecue sauce and Indian simmer sauces both work well for this, as does Thai peanut sauce.
Do you want crispy tofu? Then pan-frying is for you. You’ll need a sizzling hot frying pan that’s well-coated with a high-temperature cooking oil, like avocado. Make sure your tofu is as dry as possible to prevent oil spatters and place it in the pan, cooking over medium-high heat on all sides until they’re golden brown and crisp. Seasoned with salt and pepper, this tofu is great for dipping into sweet chili sauce or peanut sauce, but you can also take the tofu out of the pan, stir fry some veggies, then add the tofu back to the pan and toss everything together with your favorite sauce for a killer tofu-and-veggie stir fry.
For tofu that’s chewy, try baking it in the oven at 400ºF for at least 40 minutes. The longer you bake it, the chewier it will be, so adjust the time accordingly. Just be sure to flip the tofu every 15-20 minutes and baste it with sauce or leftover marinade at this time, if you’re using it.
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