How to Prepare Tofu

Learn how to turn this high-protein ingredient into quick and flavorful meals.



Tofu and Parmesan Sandwich sliced in half on a white tray

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You've no doubt seen tofu on store shelves, and maybe you're a regular consumer of it, but some people aren't familiar with this popular food. What the heck is tofu, anyway?

In a word (OK, two), tofu is bean curd, prepared by coagulating soy milk into curds and then pressing them into white blocks. That might not get you salivating, but tofu has been a diet staple of the Chinese peoples for more than 2,000 years and is a go-to for many vegans and vegetarians.

It's a brick of pure protein. But it's a bland brick, plain and simple. Tofu doesn't rank high on the savory-flavor list, and unlike other proteins such as chicken, steak or pork, it isn't livened up much by a little salt and pepper. On the plus side, tofu is super-easy to cook and you can indeed create delicious meals with it, with a little know-how and the right recipes.

The skinny on tofu

There are a few different densities of tofu. The soft, or silken, variety is like a custard and works great in soups. The medium and firm varieties are perfect when stir-fried, baked or glazed, and the firm kind can even be grilled.

But to make anything from tofu, first you have to press out its water. Tofu is packed in water and soaks it up like a sponge, and you have to get rid of that water to make room for a marinade or other new flavors. Here's how to do it with a package of extra-firm tofu:

  • Open the package and drain the water.
  • Cut into 4 to 6 slices, widthwise.
  • Line a sheet pan with paper towels and set the tofu slices on the pan.
  • Place another layer of paper towels over the tofu, and then cover the works with another sheet pan.
  • Find some heavy objects (think cast-iron skillets, big books, a dumbbell) and set them on the top pan. Let it sit for at least 30 minutes; two hours is better. This gradually squeezes the water from the tofu while retaining its natural flavor.
  • When time's up, uncover and cook as desired.

This is a great start, but there's still some water in there and it won't mix well with an oily marinade. Stick with vinegar-, soy- or citrus-based marinades to avoid a messy battle between water and oil.

Cornstarch and heat are your friends

Tofu is naturally resistant to getting crispy, but you can help it along by incorporating one key ingredient. Pour some cornstarch in a bowl and throw in your tofu blocks. Stir everything around so each block is coated with a light glaze. The starch works wonders in encouraging a crispy crust.

And always remember: Don't just toss tofu into a room-temperature skillet. Preheat the skillet and oil so the tofu is immersed in even heat. Keep it hot!

Speaking of oil, you'll be searing the tofu, so be sure to use an oil that can stand up to hot temps while adding flavor at the same time. Two of the best options are sesame oil and coconut oil. Sesame lends a nutty flavor, and coconut brings a bit of sweet. Season with sea salt.

Give tofu a try

Tofu is surrounded by a mystique, or confusion, or an undeserved bad reputation, but the fact is that tofu is as versatile as it gets and can be baked, fried, sauteed, marinated and even scrambled. It cooks fast, and its protein content makes it a superb alternative to meat.

Try baking up a bunch, toss it with sauce, and add it to a bowl of noodles or sprinkle some blocks into a stir-fry. If you marinated a large amount, try freezing what's left over; freezing makes tofu chewier and helps it soak up more marinade.

Here are a few top tofu recipes to try:

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