Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD
I used to only eat tofu in restaurants.
I had tried multiple different ways to cook it, and never liked how it came out. Most instructions say you have to marinate it to get any flavor. Sometimes they tell you to press the tofu. But other than put it in a pan, I couldn’t really find any helpful instructions. So I gave up, eating tofu in Asian restaurants, and pretty much nowhere else.
But then Roman grabbed a piece of age dashi tofu at our favorite Asian restaurant and loved it! So I knew I needed to try to cook tofu again.
What doesn’t work?
When learning how to cook tofu, there’s a lot of things that don’t work. Here is a quick compilation of methods that I tried in the past (the ones I remember anyway).
Don’t marinate the tofu
I know. Tofu Sacrilege!
It seems like EVERYONE says you have to marinate tofu, or it won’t have any FLAVOR.
The problem is, no matter what I do, I cannot get good texture from marinated tofu.
There are other ways to flavor tofu. But, for me anyway, there’s no rescuing soggy, marinated tofu.
I once saw a recipe that recommended, pressing the tofu, marinating it, then pressing it again. This is crazy talk. I don’t have that kind of time.
Don’t use tofu as a meat substitute
It’s not meat. It can’t be meat. If you’re expecting tofu to replicate a chicken nugget, you will be disappointed.
Instead, think of tofu as its own entity. Understand what it is and what it is not. It is yummy without replicating chicken, or eggs, or whatever else someone may come up with!
Do not grab the first tofu package you see
If you’re planning to cook tofu, extra-firm is the way to go. It’s almost all I buy.
I say almost because you’ll occasionally come across high-protein tofu, which has the BEST texture when cooked. And more protein!
I’ve seen it at both Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, neither of which I regularly shop at. They’re too far away.
Soft tofu and silken tofu won’t hold up to cooking, other than maybe a gentle simmer in a brothy soup.
Instead, you can take advantage of their creamy textures in items like smoothies, vegan cheesecake, puddings, and so on. I bet you could even blend it up to make a creamy soup, without the cream.
Don’t use a stainless steel or cast iron pan
You really do need a non-stick surface.
Otherwise, the tofu will stick, ripping away any chance of a nice seared, firm texture.
How to cook tofu
So I feel my method is pretty simple.
- Press the tofu
- Season the tofu
- Cook the tofu
The tricky part is in the details that go into each step. The method below details how I press my tofu at home and specific steps to get the most out of your tofu.
The Best Way to Cook Tofu
- 2 cutting boards
- Paper Towels
- 2 clean kitchen towels
- non-stick pan
- 1 block tofu extra firm, or high protein
- Open package of tofu and drain water.
- Wrap the block of tofu in paper towels.
- Then wrap the tofu in 2 kitchen towels
- Place tofu on cutting board, preferably one with a groove to collect liquid.
- Place the second board on top of the block of tofu and add weight. I usually use a large skillet and some cans or jars of food.
- Allow tofu to press for 20-30 minutes. The longer you press the tofu, the firmer the texture becomes.
- Watch for leaning! Correct the top cutting board to level as needed.
- Remove the weight, top cutting board, and towels. They should be soaked!
- Cut tofu into your desired shape. You can make cubes, strips, steaks, or triangles!
- Season the outside of the tofu.
- Spray non-stick pan with oil.
- Add the seasoned tofu, and leave it alone for ~4-5 minutes.
- Flip when tofu is seared, repeating until all sides are cooked.
*Nutrition Facts are an estimate only. Differences are expected when making substitutions for any ingredient or when different brands are used.
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Using a Tofu Press
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After the first iteration of this blog post, I went ahead and bought a tofu press. There are some advantages and disadvantages to the press.
Disadvantage – cost of buying the press. Really, this is minor, it didn’t really cost much.
Disadvantage – storing the tofu press. In our tiny apartment kitchen, this is really why I’ve held off on buying one for so long.
Advantage – Even pressing. No more leaning cutting boards, ore even worse, no more startlingly loud crashes as the pan goes overboard! the tofu is pressed evenly from the top, so no weird shapes that come from not watching my makeshift press.
Advantage – You can press the tofu for longer. The longer tofu is pressed, the more water is removed, making a denser texture. However, tofu should really only be pressed for about 30 minutes max before it should really be in the fridge. Obvs, the cutting board set up won’t fly in the refrigerator. But this tofu press isn’t really much bigger than the block of tofu itself and fits quite nicely in there.
Make sure the pan, and the oil, is hot. You’ll never get a good sear on anything with a room-temperature or barely warmed pan.
Any oil will work, even olive oil, despite rando’s on the internet whining about the smoke point. However, sesame oil is fantastic when making an Asian-inspired dish, and gives a browner color to the tofu.
Once the tofu is in the pan, leave it alone, for at least 3-4 minutes. Test one piece, if it’s not golden brown, put it back and leave it alone for 1-2 minutes more.
Flip all the pieces and do the same for each side. The constant tossing, like a saute, is not your friend here. Just give the tofu a chance to do its thing.
Other Cooking Methods
Frying – season the tofu, then coat in a thin layer of cornstarch. Cook in 1/4″ of olive (or sesame) oil in a wok until browned on one side, flip and cook until done.
Bake – This method may hold up best to a marinade. Cook at high heat (at least 400) for at least 30 minutes, until browned.
To season your tofu, gently toss with 1-2 Tbsp of olive oil and the seasoning mix of your choice.
Urban Accents – everything you want in a little pack, and they come in a variety of flavors! (*As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases)
Basic – salt, pepper, garlic powder, onion powder
Taco – Basic + cumin, chili powder, oregano. Smoked paprika would be good too.
Italian – Basic + Italian seasoning, +/- grated parmesan cheese
Jerk – Basic + allspice, cinnamon, and cayenne pepper
Asian-inspired – Basic + soy sauce + white miso paste + chili paste. Whisk together before seasoning your tofu. Use sesame oil instead of olive oil
If adding a sauce or glaze, do so AFTER tofu is cooked.
Why we should eat tofu
Tofu is a lean source of protein.
One serving (3 oz) of extra firm tofu provides 8 g of protein, 2 g fiber, 3.5 g of unsaturated fat, with only 70 calories.
If you can find the high-protein tofu, go for it! 3 oz of high tofu (sometimes labeled “super firm”) has 15 g protein, 0 g fiber, and 7 g of unsaturated fat for 140 calories.
The protein trade-off is worth it!
Remember that this is per serving. We typically eat a whole block split between us, 3 ways instead of 4-5 servings in the package.
Ther are also several health benefits to eating soy, regardless of the protein content!
So what’s tempeh?
Tempeh is another soy product. Whereas tofu is made from curdled soy milk (similar to how some cheeses are made), tempeh is fermented whole soybeans.
Tempeh is higher in protein than tofu and has a nutty flavor before cooking. It is also tougher. I typically use tempeh in sandwiches or mixed into casseroles (like my Tempeh Shepherd’s Pie) and tofu when it won’t get beat up, like on top of a stirfry or with a side of rice.
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Jennifer Hanes MS, RDN, LD is a registered dietitian, mom, wife, and vegetarian in North Texas. She has dedicated Dietitian Jenn to be a source of information, ideas, and inspiration for people like her, vegetarians that live with people with different dietary beliefs and/or needs in a multivore household.