Tofu 101

Find out everything you need to know about tofu to love it and cook it at home.

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Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

Photo By: Heather Ramsdell ©2016

How It's Made

Many people think of tofu as a meat or dairy substitute, but its subtly sweet, nutty flavor makes it shine as the star ingredient all on its own. The most-common varieties you'll see in the store are softfirm and extra-firm. Interestingly, the manufacturing process is essentially the same regardless of texture: Cooked soybeans are ground, and the liquid (soy milk) is extracted, then heated with special mineral salts or acids until it separates into curds and whey, similar to cheese. The whey is then drained, and the curds are pressed for packaging. The more tofu is pressed, the firmer it becomes.

Silken Tofu

Silken tofu's curds are creamy, custardy and almost gelatinous — therefore, it doesn't hold its shape very well. But it can be pureed to make creamy sauces or used to thicken stews. It's also perfect for omelets or custardy desserts. In Chinese and Japanese cuisine, silken tofu is often served as is, with a drizzle of a strong-flavored or spicy sauce. Too soft for chopsticks, it is eaten with a spoon.

At the grocery store, you'll typically find it packaged in aseptic boxes and stored at room temperature.

Regular Tofu

Regular tofu has more structure and holds its shape nicely when cut. It comes refrigerated, usually in a block.

Remember: This variety is a real flavor sponge, so it should be pressed and drained before cooking. Season it just as you would any other protein, but stay away from oily marinades; tofu won't absorb them.

Firm Tofu

Firm tofu is still somewhat soft, but it holds its shape. It can be picked up easily with chopsticks.

Extra-Firm Tofu

Extra-firm tofu, which really holds its shape, works with many flavor profiles and cooking methods. It's the best variety for frying in oil until crisp and golden brown.

Dried Tofu

Some dried tofu is so dry and thinly pressed that it can be cut into threads and served like pasta.

Smoked Tofu

Its meaty texture and smoky flavor make it perfect for grilling and slathering with BBQ sauce. 

Puffed Tofu

Puffed tofu — or fried tofu cake — has a spongy texture and carries a sauce's flavor beautifully. 

How to Make Crispy Tofu

To start, cut a block of extra-firm tofu into four to six slices. Then lay a dishtowel on a work surface and cover it with several layers of paper towels.

Weigh It Down

Try using a cutting board and a heavy pan. You'll want to leave it like this for at least 30 minutes, and up to several hours. If you're in a rush, you can apply manual pressure and use it after 15 minutes.

Note: Some cooks swear soaking tofu briefly in hot salty water before pressing improves the skin. Others freeze it to extract even more liquid.

Now Get to Fryin'

Cut the tofu into cubes, then toss with cornstarch so that the cubes are evenly coated.

Then shallow-fry the tofu in vegetable oil in a large skillet. Be sure to wait until it forms a golden skin before turning it — otherwise, it may stick to the pan and fall apart.

Pan-Frying?

Don't overcrowd the pan! Otherwise, the tofu will steam.

Stir-Frying Do's and Don'ts

To use tofu in a stir-fry, crisp it first, then set it aside. Add it to your wok or skillet near the end of cooking, just to heat it through. Whatever you do, don't over-stir. If you stir too much, you will end up with a scrambled mess, like this.