The Best Ways to Fall in Love with Tofu

Bring out the best in bean curd.

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TOFU_STIR_FRY_011.tif

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

I. Love. Tofu. And as someone who loves it, I totally understand if you haven't joined #teamtofu or added tofu to your weekly dinner rotation yet. (But we'll get there.)

Even if you love tofu in restaurant dishes, cooking with tofu for the first time can be daunting. In its native form, tofu, aka bean curd, is a pale, processed-looking, wobbly blob of a thing, usually packed in water. It's not the best look – but then again, the same goes for water-packed mozzarella, which wouldn't you know it, is made in much the same way (see Tofu 101). Tofu also gets a bad rap for being bland and a poor imitation of meat – which personally, I blame the '90s and tofurkey for.

The '90s, when tofurkey was both in its heyday and the punchline for jokes about vegetarian Thanksgivings, was a sad time for meat alternatives in general. There wasn't anything close to the level of say, the Impossible Burger, jackfruit "pulled pork" or even the veggie meatball recipes we have today. So, in my opinion, the branding of tofu as an attempt to be "like meat" messed with the public's perception of tofu while restricting its culinary potential. Reworking how we think about tofu is key to opening a lot of doors for future tofu lovers.

Tip #1: Stop expecting tofu to be meaty.

I'm not against a certain kind of meat-ification of tofu, since it is a good source of protein for those living the meat-free life. But in the realm of meat substitutes, tofu in no way simulates "meatiness" in the way of eggplant, mushrooms or jackfruit. Instead, it plays a role in dishes by adding heft, which I feel puts it closer to potato dumplings, like gnocchi.

Tip #2: Add flavor and lots of it.

Tofu on its own is neutral-flavored. It has a slight nutty flavor but otherwise doesn't taste like much, which is why I compare it to something like unseasoned gnocchi – and as with gnocchi, one must never eat it plain! Unlike potato dumplings though, which might just need butter, salt and a pan-fry to reach their potential, tofu is best when paired with umami-rich sauces.

Tip #3: Know what to expect from different types of tofu.

As someone who grew up a picky eater, particularly when it came to food textures, I know that having an accurate expectation of mouthfeel makes a big difference in determining if you'll like a new or less familiar food. To break it down, regular tofu is spongy and crumbly, while extra-firm tofu can be drained and fried to become crispy. For me, the texture of soft or silky tofu is comparable to the whites in a poached egg, which makes it great in soups or as a substitute for creamy ingredients in vegan dishes.

Tip #4: Find the recipe that works for you.

My favorite way to eat tofu is a lazy version of a Korean side dish I grew up with. I microwave a sliced up hunk of tofu in a bowl (you can also pan-fry it if it's firm tofu), drain the excess water when it's done, mix up a quick marinade (like this Soy Ginger Dipping Sauce but with a tablespoon or two of sambal oelek), pour it over the steamy tofu and eat it by the spoonful. Others might prefer it grilled, baked, crumbled or fried. In essence, tofu is whatever you want to make of it and there are a lot of ways to make it. Here are the best ways to get started.

FNK_AuthenticMapoTofu_H

FNK_AuthenticMapoTofu_H

Food Network Kitchen's , GLOBAL FLAVORS: AUTHENTIC SHORTCUT RECIPES, Authentic Mapo Tofu for LESSONS FROM GRANDMA/MICROWAVE VEGGIES/CHICKEN SOUP, as seen on Food Network

Photo by: Renee Comet ©© 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, © 2016, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

By far one of my favorite recipes, mapo tofu is a great example of how well tofu can play in a meaty dish and, again, show how essential it can be with its not-meaty texture. The dish is packed with big umami flavor on all fronts thanks to sesame oil, soy sauce, fermented black beans and ground pork, which the tofu simultaneously soaks up and helps to balance out.

FNK_BakedTofuTenders_H

FNK_BakedTofuTenders_H

Food Network Kitchen’s Baked Tofu Tenders from Kids Can Make for KIDS CAN BAKE/KIDS CAN MAKE/EASTER, as seen on Food Network

Photo by: Renee Comet ©2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, 2015, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

If you love all things crispy, you can bread and bake your tofu! A flavorful dipping sauce is a must here. This is also a good and easy way to introduce kids to tofu in the kitchen and on their plates.

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TOFU_STIR_FRY_011.tif

Photo by: Antonis Achilleos

Antonis Achilleos

It's hard to go wrong with classic stir-fry (the same goes for noodle dishes like this Spicy Tofu and Vegetable Lo Mein). This 25-minute recipe uses a simple soy sauce mixture to flavor the dish and calls for a mix of shiitake mushrooms, snow peas and soft tofu to top the rice.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

If you've eaten at a sushi restaurant, you've probably enjoyed a bowl of miso soup as an appetizer. With a quick-cooking dashi and some miso pastes, you can recreate it at home in just minutes. Though the recipe calls for firm tofu, soft tofu works as well.

Say yes to tofu crumbles! Ree knows where it's at. She uses chili powder, soy sauce and balsamic vinegar to add big oomph to tofu and get it table-ready in just 20 minutes.

FNK_GrilledShitakeAndTofuBahnMi_H

FNK_GrilledShitakeAndTofuBahnMi_H

Chef Name: Food Network KitchenFull Recipe Name: Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn MiTalent Recipe: FNK Recipe: Food Network Kitchen’s Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn Mi, as seen on Foodnetwork.comProject: Foodnetwork.com, SUMMER/APPETIZERS/PASTAShow Name: Food Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network,Chef Name: Food Network Kitchen Full Recipe Name: Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn Mi Talent Recipe: FNK Recipe: Food Network Kitchen’s Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn Mi, as seen on Foodnetwork.com Project: Foodnetwork.com, SUMMER/APPETIZERS/PASTA Show Name: Food Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network,Chef Name: Food Network KitchenFull Recipe Name: Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn MiTalent Recipe: FNK Recipe: Food Network Kitchen’s Grilled Shitake and Tofu Bahn Mi, as seen on Foodnetwork.comProject: Foodnetwork.com, SUMMER/APPETIZERS/PASTAShow Name: Food Network / Cooking Channel: Food Network

Photo by: Renee Comet ©2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Renee Comet, 2013, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Tofu on the grill? By all means, go for it. Tofu looks great with grill marks. Just be sure to add plenty of dressing, as seen in this recipe with a hoisin marinade.

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Photo by: Justin Walker

Justin Walker

Though tofu is frequently paired with soy sauce (as seen in many of the recipes above), other savory sauces work as well. Barbecue sauce's big and bold flavors make it perfect for flavoring tofu in this southern-inspired plate.

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