Culinary Arts

What Is Tofu? Four Ways to Cook Tofu and 3 Easy Tofu Recipes

Written by MasterClass

Aug 5, 2019 • 6 min read

Processed from soybeans, tofu has been around for over 2,000 years. If there’s one word that best describes tofu, it’s versatility. It can be cooked in a number of different ways, paired with a variety of ingredients, and camouflages itself in other flavors. While tofu works in many different dishes, it is dairy-free and packed with protein, making it a great alternative for meat in vegan and vegetarian recipes.

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What Is Tofu?

Tofu, also known as bean curd, is coagulated soy milk, a liquid made from soybeans. Similar to cheesemaking, tofu is produced when soy milk is heated with a salty or acidic coagulant. After the milk curdles, it is pressed into a block of tofu. The tofu taste is neutral, allowing it to blend well into many recipes.

4 Different Types of Tofu

Tofu is a popular ingredient that can be found in almost any grocery store. From light and creamy to thick and firm, tofu is sold according to density and texture.

  1. Silken tofu. This smooth, creamy tofu has a pudding-like consistency and works well in softer foods like desserts, dips, smoothies, and soups.
  2. Medium tofu. While slightly firmer than silken tofu, medium tofu still has a light, soft texture. It is often used in miso soup alongside broth and seaweed.
  3. Firm tofu. Firm tofu is a denser block that will keep its shape when cut into cubes. It is often used in stir-fries.
  4. Extra-firm tofu. This is the firmest of all tofu varieties. It maintains its firm structure while cut and cooked. Its thick texture makes it perfect for marinating and grilling.

How to Prepare Tofu for Cooking

Tofu is a highly-absorbent food. It holds onto water from both its production as well as its packaging which often contains water to prevent tofu from drying out.

  • That water needs to be removed before cooking or the tofu won’t absorb other flavors and the dish will be soggy.
  • To do this, press tofu firmly to expel the excess water.
  • For best results, slice the tofu block into several layers and place them on a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Place more paper towels on top of the tofu slices, followed by another baking sheet.
  • Place a heavy object on top of it, like a cookbook, for at least an hour to squeeze the water out. Be sure to factor this step into your prep time.

3 Tips for Cooking Tofu

With the excess water removed, tofu is an easy ingredient to work with. The main objective of cooking tofu is to turn the soft, white pieces into golden, crispy bites. Here are three tips for making the best tofu.

  1. Add flavor. Tofu is a chameleon in the culinary world, taking on the flavors it is surrounded by thanks to its porous consistency. While it can be cooked plain, marinating tofu transforms it from a neutral-tasting ingredient to flavorful addition that adds texture and substance to a meal. Cut the tofu into slices and soak them in a marinade for an hour in the refrigerator. Freezing the pieces before marinating will make tofu even more absorbent and chewy. Note that tofu itself is a gluten-free food but adding marinades and sauces might add gluten.
  2. Cook over high heat. To achieve that crunchy exterior, cook tofu over high heat. Be sure to use oils that withstand high heat, like coconut oil or sesame oil. Not only will they keep the tofu from burning, but they will also add a little flavor along with the crispiness.
  3. Coat the tofu. There’s another quick step that will give tofu even more crunch. Cut the tofu into cubes and toss them in a mixing bowl with cornstarch before cooking them, shaking off any excess.
Cooked tofu in bowl with chopsticks and herbs

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How to Sauté Tofu

Heat oil in a wok over high heat. Toss in bite-sized squares of tofu and stir until all sides are browned. While marinating the tofu beforehand works well, a flavorful liquid—think tamari with garlic—can be added while the tofu is sautéed as well. The sauce will sear onto the tofu, making crispy, flavorful morsels with a soft interior. The tofu can be mixed with stir-fried veggies or added to a steamy ramen soup.

How to Bake Tofu

Baked tofu is crispy on the outside and soft on the outside. This method eliminates the need for oil, keeping tofu low calorie. Heat an oven to 400 F. Cut tofu into slices and place them in a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. For added flavor, place the tofu in a glass baking dish and pour a light sauce—like a soy-teriyaki marinade—over the pieces. Serve over a bed of rice with a side of steamed broccoli.

How to Fry Tofu

Pan-fried tofu is quick and easy. Simply cut firm or extra-firm tofu into half-inch thick triangles. Pour olive oil into a frying pan and turn the stove to medium-high heat. Place the tofu pieces into the sizzling oil and cook for ten minutes, flipping the pieces halfway through and seasoning with salt. They’re finished when both sides are golden brown. Pan-frying yields crispy tofu bites that can be eaten on their own or served with a dipping sauce made of soy sauce, or tamari, scallions, garlic, and sesame oil.

How to Scramble Tofu

Similar to fried tofu, scrambling tofu is fast and easy. Heat oil in a cast iron skillet. Add slices of tofu. With a spatula, start to break the tofu up until it has the consistency of ground meat. Stir the pieces around as you would scrambling eggs. Add flavoring depending on how you’ll use the tofu. Sprinkle spicy seasonings over it, like chili powder and paprika, to make the tofu perfect ingredient for tacos.

3 Easy Tofu Recipes

Tofu can be added to so many recipes and can hold its own as the main ingredient. It can be substituted for meat without sacrificing much protein. For any tofu recipe, select the firmness that works best with the method of cooking.

  1. BBQ tofu. For grilling, you need to use extra firm tofu. Slice tofu blocks lengthwise into three pieces. Marinate them in homemade barbecue sauce made with ketchup, brown sugar, Worcestershire sauce, apple cider vinegar, honey, and paprika. Before you turn the grill on, rub the cooking rack with olive oil to make sure those tender tofu pieces don’t stick. When hot, place them on the grill, flipping once till both sides are seared. Serve with grilled veggies like asparagus and zucchini.
  2. Stir-fried garlic tofu and veggies. Stir-frying is one of the most popular ways to cook tofu. Toss tofu cubes with cornstarch to coat. Heat a wok with sesame oil. Add the tofu and cook until golden brown. Stir-fry vegetables, like broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, red bell peppers. Once they’re soft add the tofu back in. Pour over a sauce made with soy sauce, minced garlic, ginger, rice vinegar, and toasted sesame oil. Cook until sauce is coating the tofu and vegetables. Serve over steamed brown rice.
  3. Tofu parmigiana. Tofu can often be substituted for meat, like in the Italian classic chicken parmigiana. Slice tofu into half-inch thick pieces. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat each tofu slice in flour, then egg, and, finally, Italian-style breadcrumbs. Quickly brown both sides of each tofu slice in a pan with olive oil. Pour a thin layer of marinara sauce on a baking sheet. Place the tofu in a single layer on the sheet. Generously spoon sauce over each piece and place slices of mozzarella cheese on each. Cook time is 20 minutes or until the cheese starts to bubble and brown. Serve over pasta, or spiralized zucchini sautéed in olive oil, topped with sauce.

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