We’re going to explore some of the most popular ideas on how to cook tofu to get you off to a great start at integrating this into your diet.
Tofu is a pretty amazing food, and an excellent source of plant-based protein. In and of itself, it is frankly nothing spectacular, but given a little time and some other ingredients and you can concoct some pretty good food and tasty meals. Before we take a deep dive into the ways to cook tofu, we should know the history. Different from most techniques that are thousands of years old, tofu was not a process for preserving food. Although, similar to most, it was probably an accidental discovery. Like many great innovations in China the idea of tofu is attributed to a prince, and it was first noted about 150 BCE.
Don’t read too much into the fact that it took about another thousand years to become popular. Fresh tofu has an amazingly short shelf without refrigeration, like just one day. So, it was initially a winter food which probably slowed down its widespread acceptance. Regardless, it was actually still spreading throughout Asia and Japan, the latter being where we see it being mentioned regularly about 800 BCE.
What is tofu
Process-wise, it is a slurry of soybeans, ground and mixed with water and cooked. Naturally occurring coagulants are added to create the curds. If this verbiage sounds familiar, it should, because the same terms, and sometimes same additives to the soy milk are used in cheesemaking with animal milk.
The curds are then drained and pressed into shape. There are varieties completely ‘unpressed’, a useful ingredient for soups or such, but too loose for other ways we cook tofu. These are the types of tofu we will spend some time exploring:
Soft Tofu or Silken Tofu
This style does not actually visit the tofu press, it is shaped then allowed to drain only slightly.
Has been put in a tofu press and drained, although it is allowed to retain quite a bit of moisture and crumbles when you cut the tofu too thin.
Extra Firm Tofu
Also known as dry tofu, this style uses a tofu press to extract the most moisture from the raw tofu curds
Like many food terms, tofu has been arguably misused to include a variety of differing products. From almond to chickpea to peanut, these ‘tofu’ variations are not soy based. There is also a Japanese hybrid variation called aptly called Egg Tofu, with some dashi thrown in for that umami flavor.
When we look at cooking tofu, we will be focusing on the soy-based product specifically. These other tofu style products will not substitute well in a tofu recipe, with perhaps a few exceptions.
The blessing and the curse of tofu is that it is mild to the point of being bland. That is why virtually every tofu recipe will have a lot of flavors coming from other sources. The beauty of it is that the texture, and mildness, of tofu allows it to take on flavors very well.
The main reason for the popularity of tofu is that it offers one of the better sources of protein from a non-animal source. It does bring a degree of fats to your diet, which is good. As much as we watch our fats, your body does require some fat to keep moving along, especially for brainpower.
Why cook tofu
Technically, or rather health and wholesomeness-wise, there is no reason to cook tofu. You can certainly eat raw tofu safely. However, tofu by its nature takes on flavors very well as mentioned. You can simply make marinated tofu with anything from soy sauce to sriracha sauce, and it will come out great. Same idea if you use it in soup or as scrambled tofu, the mild base flavor becomes a savory flavor nugget wherever you can include tofu cubes, slices, or curds.
As a flavor chameleon tofu will fool most meat eaters into not noticing its presence. Many tofu recipes use it as straight-line substitute because it does fill in the protein part of a menu. It’s up to you to find your best tofu recipe, but what we will walk through are the most common techniques to prepare tofu.
You are no doubt wondering how frozen tofu fits into a discussion about how to cook tofu. Trust us it does. When you freeze tofu, it actually changes the structure. The science is basic, water expands when it freezes, this creates more channels which absorb more flavor. At the same time, the channels create an extra firm texture when you freeze it. Some folks will always freeze tofu until it is time to cook it. For those folks it is their first step of how to cook tofu.
Making crispy tofu
This is probably the goal of many a tofu recipe. It certainly makes it more enjoyable to eat by offering the contrast of a crisp exterior and a soft interior. Of course, this same logic applies to so many foods, which is obvious in all the ways we have engineered to get heat to the outside of our food, in high enough volume and at temperatures that will achieve the goal of browned and crisp.
A light dusting of corn starch helps get your cubed tofu perfectly crispy
This is where you use firm tofu and extra firm tofu exclusively. The soft styles will not work well with trying to get a crisp or crunchy exterior. You may have to press tofu more to get the moisture out, because a high fluid content is not your friend when the goal is crispy tofu. Think about pan frying wet foods, and all the resulting pops, snaps and splattering you will get. It’s no fun.
This itself is a broad category, but also a very straightforward way to cook tofu. You can toss cubed tofu into your favorite cast iron skillet with olive oil, or your preferred oil, some salt, pepper and garlic powder, and voila in a few minutes you have golden brown tofu pieces. Pan fried tofu is a prep step used in lots of favorite dishes, although you can certainly just toss them on a paper towel to drain for a simple fried tofu snack.
This is probably the most common way to integrate cooked tofu. We include sautéed tofu in this category because the cooking styles are so similar. Get some fresh ginger, garlic, soy sauce and sesame oil going, and you will get a great base for traditional stir fry flavors.
Crispy baked tofu
Put your tofu slices on parchment lined baking sheet when you bake tofu, it will release much easier and stay intact. This is a great way to cook larger volumes, and baked tofu is a great step for prepared tofu to use in many dishes. It doesn’t crisp quite as well as a pan fry however and is starting to lose ground to the new kid on the kitchen counter cooking device list.
An air fryer is the king of extra crispy, for more than tofu, but it does a great job with all your favorite tofu recipes. These little units are really good at achieving perfectly crispy results for people who love tofu.
Ways to prepare tofu with more fluid
This is where soft tofu has a moment to shine. Mostly we have focused on savory ways to enjoy tofu. There is also a segment of dishes that are sweet and add tofu for texture and body. And we have to mention using tofu in soups. It is a natural, again for flavor absorption, but also the delicate texture even firm or medium tofu will offer. Here are some examples.
Specifically hot and sour soup, this is probably the most common way that people have eaten tofu, possibly without knowing it, folks who might not think of themselves as a tofu fan.
The cubes will often be quite small. so extra firm tofu is the most likely for this dish. In the realm of how to cook tofu, for soups, you generally just place the tofu cubes in the pot or dish.
This doesn’t qualify as cooked tofu, and typically you only need to marinate tofu for about 30 minutes. Try just watered-down soy sauce and toasted sesame oil for a simple marinated tofu dish to enjoy as a side or appetizer.
Another idea is to marinate tofu in ways that you might use feta cheese. Olive oil and balsamic vinegar with some fresh herbs is an excellent complement to a summer meal. With a softer style you can take the block of tofu and pour a thicker sauce over it, chill and serve just like that.
A tofu scramble is probably one of the best tofu recipes. Before you scramble tofu, you break it into uneven pieces, which it will do naturally. Use some curry powder for color and flavor plus a little salt pepper and onion powder to finish it off. Now the pieces will resemble the curds that form in scrambled eggs as you gently keep them moving in the skillet. Also, just like eggs, you can add a vast array of other ingredients to fill out your dish. If you haven’t tried this yet, you can thank us later.
Appropriately, we saved desserts for last. This is where the soft and silken tofu shine. Right out of the gate you can make a great version of chocolate mousse with just silken tofu, cooled melted dark chocolate and some agave syrup, blended together in a food processor. Silken tofu makes a great base for ice cream style desserts. Again, it is a blank canvas that will take any flavor profile you want to color with. Due to its roots, you will see great recipes that use coconut milk and tropical fruits.
But let some continental influences come to play and you are looking at viable component for a non-cheese ‘cheesecake’ guaranteed to satisfy your pallet. Now it’s your turn, get creative and see where you find the best fits in your favorite dishes.