Tips You Need When Preparing Tofu

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If you're a plant-based eater, you're probably all too familiar with tofu. Tofu is a plant-based protein made from soybeans. It can be found in many Asian dishes but can also be cooked as a meat alternative in other cuisines.

Despite its squishy and unassuming appearance, tofu is often an intimidating ingredient for folks who don't work with it frequently. According to BBC Good Food, tofu is made by coagulating soy milk using a similar process to cheesemaking. The resulting texture is a soft, squishy, and a rather bland block preserved in a bath of mineral water. Much of the hesitation for using tofu comes from this textural component and an absence of any sort of flavor. Although tofu is challenging, it has immense potential as a blank canvas for innovative flavors and cooking processes. Here are some of the best tips for overcoming tofu's textural and flavor challenges to create flavorful and delicious recipes.

Always press the tofu with a weight

Tofu is usually purchased from the refrigerated section of the grocery store. The tofu in each package is submerged in a layer of water that needs to be pressed out before the tofu can be used. Removing as much water as possible from the tofu is vital for allowing the tofu to soak up marinades and seasonings. According to Masterclass, pressing tofu prevents the sauce from overloading too much water. While some tofu recipes, such as smoothies, do not require as diligent of a pressing, the general practice is to remove as much water as possible. 

Although you can purchase a tofu press for less than $30, a cheaper alternative is to utilize a clean kitchen towel and a heavy object to press out the water. Simply wrap the tofu in the towel and place a heavy object on top, like a brick, pot, or cookbook. If the object is not flat, place a cutting board between the object and the towel. Let the tofu press for at least 10 minutes to ensure the water is removed from the block. 

Add cornstarch for a crunch

Cornstarch is the secret weapon in the fight against soggy baked tofu. It will soak up extra water and provide a crisp exterior to the tofu. Cookie + Kate recommend tossing the pressed tofu in oil before sprinkling cornstarch over it. It is especially important to evenly distribute the cornstarch across the tofu; you'll want to toss the tofu until powdery clumps remain. This will ensure an even coloration across all pieces — and prevent you from biting into a chunk of cornstarch. Flipping the pieces about halfway through the baking time will also promote consistent coloration and even crispiness. 

Arrowroot starch can be substituted for cornstarch but will not provide the same golden coloration. For extra flavor, consider adding dry seasonings to the cornstarch. Garlic powder, onion powder, and smoked paprika can influence the flavor of the baked tofu and complement any sauces in which the baked tofu is tossed. Tofu bites can also be dredged in panko crumbs and fried for a fried chicken-esque appetizer. 

Freeze and thaw tofu for a spongier consistency

Look into your freezer for your next upper hand in the battle against soggy and flavorless tofu. The freezing process causes small ice crystals to form in the tofu. Once the tofu is thawed in the refrigerator, the ice crystals melt and leave porous spaces in the tofu. Marinating the tofu after it is thawed can increase the amount of flavor that soaks into the tofu. According to Plant-Based and Broke, freezing tofu can extend its shelf life for months and make it easier to press.

The freezing and thawing method is beneficial in baked or fried tofu recipes. Tofu can be frozen in its original packaging or transferred into a freezer-safe container. It should be left in the freezer for at least 12 hours before being fully thawed in the refrigerator before using. To remove extra moisture before marinating, pan-fry the tofu after pressing out the excess water.

Choose the appropriate type of tofu

If you walk into the tofu aisle at a grocery store, you're greeted by many different types of tofu including silken, medium, firm, and extra firm. How do you know the difference between them — and more importantly, how do you find the right type of tofu to use?

Silken tofu is uncurdled so it is the softest and most physically delicate of the tofu types. Its consistency resembles custard so it is most well-suited for a tofu mousse or a protein boost in a smoothie. Medium and firm tofu is significantly more hardy than silken tofu. Bob's Red Mill notes that medium and firm types can be manipulated for savory dishes and those that require a firmer protein. For additional texture, those types can be flash-frozen and pressed to remove moisture. Extra firm tofu has the most rigid texture for frying and baking things like barbecue tofu or "chicken-fried" tofu.

Marinate tofu overnight for a deeper flavor

Tofu's flavor is rather bland, so it's dependent on marinades and seasonings to give it life. The type of marinade is often dependent on the dish and flavor profile desired. In a tofu banh mi, a marinade of olive oil, soy sauce, lime juice, grated lime, freshly pressed garlic, grated ginger, and pepper provides a bright, fresh pop to the tofu. The tofu can sit in the marinade for as little as 20 minutes, but a night in the fridge will make for an even more flavorful sandwich.

Many tofu marinades contain savory components, but a little bit of sweetness is vital for creating flavor contrast in a tofu dish. Maple syrup and honey are the most pungent sweeteners used in stir fry recipes, but using a little bit of mirin can provide a sweet undertone without disrupting the savory flavors. A sprinkle of fresh herbs or citrus goes a long way in any marinade!

Check the expiration date on the tofu before using it

Unlike poultry or red meat, tofu has a less precarious temperature safety window. That being said, tofu can still go bad. Frozen tofu can last for three-to-four months. Once the tofu is placed back in the fridge and exposed to light, oxygen, water, and heat, the qualities of the tofu change and make it more susceptible to spoilage. Tofu that has been opened only lasts two-to-three days in the refrigerator. It is advised to store opened tofu in an air-tight container and to change the water the tofu sits in at least once a day to slow the spoilage.

Tofu that has gone bad will gain a yellow discoloration or will be visibly soft (or both). It also may smell sour or stink up your fridge. The bottom line with tofu is that if it looks spoiled, it probably is.

It's not about texture, it's about flavor

Will tofu ever have the same marbling as Wagyu beef? Absolutely not. Recipes that promote the idea that tofu is interchangeable with a fatty, well-prepared cut of meat are a farce. Tofu can instead act as an intermediary for dishes where meat is not a critical textural component. Moreover, an experienced cook who works regularly with tofu will tell you that it's the flavors that matter most when working with this bland protein.

Take tofu bacon, for example. Using a warm blend of savory spices like liquid smoke, smoked paprika, and garlic gives the impression that the tofu resembles bacon in flavor. Thinly slicing the bacon further gives the idea that the recipe resembles fatty pork bacon, even if the actual texture of the tofu will rarely come close. When advertising to your friends that you're trying a new "mock bacon" recipe, try promoting "smoky baked tofu" rather than a "bacon."

Integrate or substitute tofu

You will rarely find a plate with ⅓ starch, ⅓ vegetables, and ⅓ tofu. The meat and potatoes idea of a proper meal does not necessarily apply when working with tofu. Soups, stews, salads, and bowls are more conducive ways to use tofu that deviate from the traditional idea of a "proper meal."

Curry is one of the best ways to subliminally use tofu. For a recipe like butter "chicken," try adding small pieces of tofu to the slow cooker with tomato paste, coconut milk, ginger, garam masala, and yogurt. Cook until fragrant and thick before serving with chopped cilantro and steamed rice. The New York Times recommends cooking small pieces of tofu with peas, enoki mushrooms, and a vegetable broth for a warm soup on a spring day. Not only do these recipes utilize small pieces of tofu rather than whole blocks, but they also use other textural elements that disguise the mushy appearance of the tofu.

Try working with raw tofu in cold salads

Tofu doesn't always have to be cooked to be delicious. The Woks of Life's cold tofu salad combines blanched peppers and carrot with tofu noodles and sesame for a light side dish. Channel deep umami flavors with a tofu avocado salad. The Woks of Life notes that this recipe is great for when it's too hot to run an oven or you need an easy accompaniment to steamed rice. This simple salad combines sliced silken tofu and avocado with an umami blend of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, and sesame oil.

Not all cold tofu dishes have to be inspired by Asian flavors. Sinful Nutrition's balsamic tofu pasta salad combines Mediterranean flavors and bowtie pasta with marinated tofu. Although this recipe recommends cooking the tofu before adding it to the salad with sliced vegetables, raw marinated tofu can also be used. The tofu should sit in the refrigerator overnight in the marinade for a sharper flavor.

Don't discount the desserts

Although tofu is often associated with savory dishes, it can be used in many sweet recipes as well. Delish Knowledge recommends using silken tofu in a no-bake vegan chocolate peanut butter pie. Simply add silken tofu, melted chocolate, peanut butter, dairy-free milk, and cinnamon to a blender or high-speed food processor. Blend until soft and creamy. Add the filling to a graham cracker crust and let harden in the fridge or a few hours before slicing and serving. This dish is a great recipe for a celebration or one where you want to show others the tofu cooking skills you've learned.

If you're looking for a more summery tofu dish, consider this grapefruit crème brûlée from One Green Planet made from pureed soaked cashews, firm tofu, cornstarch, and grapefruit juice. The cashew cream and tofu provide a sturdy layer of fat and structure that can be topped with sugar and broiled with a blowtorch.

Tofu isn't the best substitute for every recipe

Meat products cannot always be substituted for one another, so it would be unreasonable to expect that tofu can be 1-to-1 substituted for textured vegetable protein, seitan, tempeh, or pea protein. For meatless tacos, It Doesn't Taste Like Chicken recommends using textured vegetable protein because it is not as watery as tofu and has a meatier texture. Tofu can be used in place of seitan in recipes that need to be modified to be gluten-free, like in a stir fry.

Tofu is the best plant-based protein to use in a scramble or a vegan silken tofu quiche because it absorbs the nutritional yeast used to give the tofu its eggy flavor and color. The texture of silken tofu also makes it a vital ingredient for vegan desserts like mousse or crème brûlée. Other plant-based proteins would not work for these kinds of dishes.

Appreciate tofu's versatility

Although tofu is commonly associated with its Asian roots, it is a versatile protein in a variety of cuisines. Tofu sofritas are made with crumbled tofu, cumin, chili powder, and canned chilis; this mix can be used in a burrito or served with fresh pico de gallo. You also might see tofu in recipes for Italian pesto pasta with fresh basil. For a sweet Greek treat, try incorporating tofu into a cheesecake, notes Tofu Bud, by adding extra firm tofu, sugar, oil, lemon juice, and vanilla into a food processor before filling a graham cracker tin and baking until firm. 

In short, tofu can add texture and protein to a ton of different recipes. The most important thing in creating tofu recipes is to be creative — and flexible. Understand its textural and flavor limitations, but do not get bogged down by the standard stir fry recipe. Think outside the box!