Topics » In The Kitchen » How to Cook With Tofu
T. Colin Campbell Center for Nutrition Studies

Oftentimes, people have told me that they want to like tofu, but just don’t know what to do with it. Contrary to popular belief, tofu is not scary. As a matter of fact, it’s pretty easy to cook with and can be made into just about anything including a wide variety of breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, snack, and condiment options. This Cooking with Tofu guide should make it less intimidating.

What Exactly is Tofu Anyway?

Tofu is an Asian food made from soybeans. Production involves first soaking soybeans in water to create soy milk. The milk is then curdled using a substance such as calcium sulfate or lemon juice. From there, curds are separated from the whey and usually packaged in block form. It is sold in a variety of options, from soft to extra firm, and they differ mainly in the amount of water retained.

There are two main types of tofu—silken and regular. Silken tofu is often called Japanese-style tofu, as well as soft or silk. It has a more delicate texture and will fall apart if not handled carefully.

Silken tofu is sometimes packaged in aseptic, shelf-stable boxes that do not require refrigeration. It is great to keep on-hand, since there is no requirement to use it quickly. It is also packed in very little water and doesn’t need to be drained or pressed for many recipes, unlike regular tofu.

Both silken and regular tofu can be found in soft, medium, firm, and extra-firm consistencies. They are made with the same ingredients, but they are processed slightly differently and with different amounts of water.

Silken Tofu (Japanese-Style) for Use in Creams and Sauces

Silken is the creamiest type of tofu, and it is labeled with different consistencies—soft, medium, firm, and extra-firm—depending on how much soy protein it contains. Silken is the best option for blending into sauces, creams, mayo, and dressings.

Whether blended or pureed, silken tofu has a thick and creamy texture that is perfect for many recipes. Some of my favorites are Eggless Low-Fat Mayo, Chipotle Ranch Dressing, Tofu Sour Cream, and Chocolate Mousse.

Regular Tofu (Chinese-Style) for Use in Stir Fries, Baked Dishes, or Grilling

Regular tofu is sometimes called Chinese-style and is usually sold in plastic containers in the refrigerated section of supermarkets.

It is also labeled with different consistencies from soft to extra firm, depending on how much water has been pressed out of it. Regular Chinese soft tofu is similar to Japanese silken tofu, though not quite as smooth and creamy. These two types are usually interchangeable for most recipes.

Firm or extra firm regular tofu is best used in tofu stir-fry recipes, making baked tofu, or any dish where you will want the tofu to retain its shape.

Medium through extra firm regular tofu are progressively more dense with a lower water content. These types of tofu should be drained and pressed to remove the water content.

Two Options for Draining and Pressing:

  1. Traditional Way – Slit the package and drain excess water over a sink. Next place the tofu block on an absorbent surface such as layered paper towels or a dish towel. Now, use another dish towel or paper towels to place on top of the block and top with a heavy plate or cast iron pan. Allow to continue to drain under pressure for approximately 30 minutes.
  2. Terri’s Quick and Easy Way – After purchasing tofu in plastic container from the produce section of the grocery store, bring it home and place directly in the freezer. This greatly lengthens the time allowed for using it, since it won’t be spoiling within a couple of weeks. When ready to use in a stir fry or other dish, defrost completely by either placing in the refrigerator for 24+ hours, or submerging in a large bowl of very warm water. If submerging, it will take an hour or so and will require changing the water a couple of times to make sure it stays very warm. Once defrosted, open the container and drain out excess water. You will notice that the molecular structure of the tofu has actually changed. It is much firmer and more sponge-like. It can now be handled with ease and the water can be squeezed out of it using your hands, just like wringing out a sponge. This cooking demo of Breakfast Scramble shows how easy this is.

Marinating Tofu

One of the most common complaints about tofu is its bland flavor. I happen to think that is one of its best attributes, because a good marinade can infuse it with flavor from the inside-out. I consider it a blank canvas for whatever combinations I happen to dream up. Some great options would be barbecue sauce, Stir-Fry Sauce, or Sweet Ginger Sesame Sauce.

Ready for Cooking

After marinating, it’s time to cook, and there are a number of different options. It can be cooked as is or coated with breading or cornstarch. I often prefer cornstarch, which helps get the tofu’s exterior deeply golden brown and crispy when frying or baking. Here are five ways to cook tofu:

  1. Air frying gets tofu the crispiest. Just place in the basket—coated or not—and cook at 375 degrees fahrenheit for approximately 20 minutes. I suggest stopping after the first 10 minutes to toss and then finish cooking.
  2. Pan Frying requires a good non-stick pan and very hot surface. Rather than adding oil to the pan, I use a little bit of the marinade to brown the tofu. After it has turned a golden brown, add vegetables, rice, noodles, or anything else desired.
  3. Steaming involves elevating the food above the water with a steamer, traditionally. Spicing the food has to wait until after. However, I tend to take the easy way and just add my tofu at the same time I cook the vegetables in a stir fry. Since stir fry veggies take only minutes and leave a light crunchy texture, adding the tofu at the same time and covering with a lid for a few minutes allows it to steam and warm thoroughly, as well as soak up more flavor from the sauce or marinade. The tofu will not get crunchy using this method, but I personally like it just as well.
  4. Baking requires using parchment paper or a silicone baking mat to keep food from sticking. I typically cook at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes, because ovens differ.
  5. Grilling is another great way to cook tofu, and my favorite recipe is tofu kabobs. Fire up the grill!

I hope this guide inspires you to make some tofu dishes soon. There are so many options for recipes and cooking methods to try. If one doesn’t work for you, try a different one. My bet is that you’ll be a tofu pro in no time!

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