Generally, when people think of vegetarianism, it seems that tofu and salad are thought of as the main staples of the diet. While this is obviously a stereotype, and there are plenty of delicious meals that don’t involve either lettuce or soy, a lot of people still like to know how to prepare tofu dishes for their vegetarian friends. Even after brushing up on the different types of tofu, it can be a little confusing to know what to do with it. The truth is, cooking with tofu isn’t difficult – it can actually be prepared in much the same way that a lot of meats can (grilling, frying, baking) – but it can involve a bit of extra work.
While most people don’t enjoy the bland taste of tofu on its own when uncooked (myself included), it isn’t harmful to do so. Aside from simply eating it plain on its own, you can also try it atop a salad or cubed and used in soups (such as in traditional miso soup). You can also use silken, soft varieties of tofu to make desserts (like vegan puddings) or smoothies.
So, you open your package of (non-silken) tofu to find a slimy white brick. It doesn’t look very appetizing, but that’s only because you haven’t utilized its full potential. The truth of the matter is, plain tofu is more like a base for other flavors (kind of like my recipe for cake donuts). It’s usually packed in water, so it’s a good idea to think of it as a sponge: after pressing out the old water, the tofu will be able to absorb new flavors.
If you’ve never pressed tofu before, it may sound intimidating, but rest assured it’s not as difficult as it sounds. You can buy a tofu press (if you think you’ll be eating a lot of it), or simply go the do-it-yourself route (just be prepared to spend some extra time and a lot of paper towels on it).
- Slice open the tofu package and drain out the water.
- Lay a dish towel on a cookie sheet or tray; place some paper towels on top.
- Add the tofu on top of the paper towels and put more paper towels and another dish towel on top of it.
- Put another cookie sheet or a plate on top of this second layer of towels, and gather some heavy objects to put on the plate/tray. Canned goods, cookbooks, or even some heavy frying pans would all work as good weights.
- Leave the makeshift press alone for at least 30 minutes, up to a couple of hours. If you're in a hurry, you can cut the waiting time down to about 15 minutes by applying manual pressure, but the results won’t turn out quite as well. Note that with either option, you may need to change out your paper towels a few times as they’ll absorb a lot of water.
- After the tofu has been pressed, uncover it and you’re ready to proceed with your recipe. This is the prime time to marinade the tofu.
Helpful tip: If you want a more meat-like or bread-like texture, after opening a package of firm or extra-firm tofu, drain the water out and freeze the tofu in the white container. After it’s frozen, thaw it and then press it and cook the tofu as you normally would (marinading, baking, etc.). “Freeze and squeeze” is the key to chewy, crispy tofu.
Press and slice your tofu but do not marinate it. Add a bit of oil (pretty much any kind is fine – canola/vegetable oil, peanut, and sesame would probably be best) and coat the bottom of your pan. After frying or searing it, flip the tofu over in the pan to carefully sear all of the sides, and then add the marinade or sauce you’re using. When you try to add sauce or marinade to un-seared stovetop tofu, the marinade tends to get lost and the result is mushy tofu that doesn’t get cooked properly.
Tofu can easily replace meat on the grill, in a grill pan, or just under the oven broiler. After marinating, spray a grill or pan with nonstick spray and cook it until the tofu has some nice grill marks or crispy edges (about 7 minutes per side, or less if the grill is very hot). Unlike with meat, tofu can be eaten without needing to be cooked at all, so you don’t have to worry about it reaching a certain internal temperature. For an idea on how to cook tofu at a barbecue, you might consider using a steak marinade, grilling the tofu with some onions and barbecue sauce, and then serving it on a grilled bun.
If you’re broiling the tofu, try slicing or cubing it into uniform pieces. Spray a baking pan with nonstick spray or line it with parchment paper. Add the tofu and broil it for 8-10 minutes on the first side, then flip the tofu over and continue to broil it for about 3 to 6 minutes on the second side. Do not leave the kitchen while broiling the tofu, because food can go from raw to scorched under a broiler in as little as sixty seconds. You don’t want to ruin your hard work by accidentally charring it!
Broiling, grilling, and baking are all healthy alternatives to frying. If you want to bake your tofu after marinating it, preheat the oven to about 425-450 and bake it for about 25 minutes total, flipping once halfway through. Hotter temperatures will give a nice outer “sear” and crispness better than cooking at lower temperatures for a longer duration (say, 325 degrees for 45 minutes).
Tip: Most people use nonstick spray, but using parchment paper to line pans makes for easier clean-up.
Tip: When marinating tofu, use more than you think you’ll need. A lot of the marinade flavor disappears during the cooking process, so feel free to start stronger than you think you’ll want the finished tofu.