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  • Leah Favela

Tofu: You're Doing It Wrong



When I tell people I follow a plant-based diet, one of the most common responses I get is “Ugh, I could never eat tofu.”


I get it. Tofu has a bad rap.


It doesn’t look all that appealing. It’s a soft, color-less block of coagulated soy milk that often falls apart when cooked or is completely tasteless and mushy when not prepared correctly.


Read that last bit again….. ”when not prepared correctly”.


I’m not gonna mince words here. Chances are the reason why you don’t like tofu is because you aren’t cooking it right.


Imagine if the first time you ever had a steak someone gave it to you completely over-cooked and unseasoned. It’d be tough and tasteless and you’d probably think “Yuk, I’m never eating that again.”


Tofu, like most foods, simply needs to be prepared and cooked properly. And you’re in luck because you are about to learn 6 tips that will make you like tofu.


1) Choose the Right Type of Tofu


There's more than one type of tofu. And yes, the one you pick will make a huge difference in the meal you’re making.


The differences in the firmness of tofu comes down to how much water is pressed out of it; the more water pressed out, the firmer the tofu gets. If I’m making a stir-fry or a dish where the tofu is acting as a meat substitute, such as Sweet & Sour Tofu, then I always use firm tofu. I’ve even country-fried tofu before and have gotten the best result using extra-firm tofu. It just holds together better. Firm tofu can be crushed into tiny pieces and can be used as a beef mince substitute or in breakfast scrambles.


Silken tofu falls apart easily and can be blended to make creamy sauces and dips, vegan desserts such as cheesecake, and protein shakes. It’s also great for making into a ricotta and using in a vegan lasagne.


Medium-firm tofu is still pretty soft and often breaks up during vigorous stirring. It’s best to use it for braised tofu dishes such as Mapo Tofu where you’re going to treat it gently.


For me, firm tofu is the staple that’s always in my fridge or freezer. It’s the easiest to use and the most forgiving.


2) Freeze the Tofu


Unless I’m immediately going to cook with the tofu I’ve just bought, I always throw it in the freezer as soon as I pull it out of the grocery bag. Freezing tofu makes it firmer, removes a lot of the moisture, and allows it to absorb marinades more easily. It also gives it a meatier texture which is good if you’re transitioning to a vegetarian or vegan diet and need something to replace the meat you used to eat. Don’t get me wrong, if you’re absolutely heartbroken about not having steak anymore, tofu is not going to heal that wound. But freezing it can help to make the texture a bit more palatable for brand new tofu-eaters.


Take the tofu out of the freezer and put it in the fridge the night before you’re going to cook with it. If it’s not completely defrosted by the time you’re ready for it, leave it in the package and let it sit in a bowl of super hot water until it’s finished defrosting.


You can also defrost it in the microwave. Take it out of the packaging and place it on top of a paper towel on a microwave-safe plate. Defrost it for 60 seconds. If it’s not fully thawed, continue defrosting by 30-second increments and checking in between.


To be honest, I’ve also just taken the tofu out of the freezer and left it, in its package, to defrost on the counter while I went to work. I’ve done this probably at least once a month for the last 4 years. But seeing as how leaving food at room temperature when it’s meant to be refrigerated is probably not the safest thing, this is not something I recommend for you to do. I’m only letting you know that it’s something I do regularly and it’s worked out just fine for me.


3) Press the Tofu


Even if you freeze your tofu, which draws out a lot of the moisture, I still recommend pressing it after it’s defrosted. Don’t worry, you don’t have to own a tofu press. Just grab something flat and heavy, like a cast iron pan, a baking sheet or cutting board, a paper towel, and a plate. Put the tofu on the plate, cover it with a paper towel, and place the baking sheet or cutting board on top. Then place the heavy object on top of that so it presses the tofu down.

There are all sorts of different recommendations for how long you should press tofu. Some people recommend 20 minutes, others 30. The longer you press it, the more moisture you’re going to get out of it. But I find that 10 to 15 minutes is usually enough, especially if you’re using defrosted tofu.


Only press your tofu if you’re using firm or extra firm as anything softer will just fall apart into a mushy mess. Trust me, I’ve made the mistake numerous times.


4) Marinate the Tofu


If you only follow one of these steps, this is probably the one you should do.


There has been a lot of discussion as to whether or not marinating tofu makes a difference. Some say it doesn’t, but I find that it most definitely does. Marinating most foods gives them more flavor, so why would tofu be any different?


Pinterest has a ton of marinade recipes (here are 12 good ones from It Doesn’t Taste Like Chicken ) specifically for tofu and most of them are pretty simple and quick to make. If you’re super short on time and ingredients, even just marinating the tofu in soy sauce can make a difference in taste. Hoisin is also really good to use as a marinade though it’s a bit thicker so you’ll want to mix it with a little bit of water first.


Make sure to cut the tofu into cubes. This gives it more surface area to soak up the marinade. Marinate the tofu for at least 30 minutes, though the longer you let it marinate, the more flavor it will get. I’ve read that marinating it for too long (think more than 24 hours) can make it taste bad but I’ve never done this so we’ll just have to trust the internet on that one.


When you pull the marinated tofu out of the fridge, don’t throw away the marinade. If you’re cooking the tofu in a pan, you can add the marinade in when the tofu is almost cooked so the liquid turns into a thick sauce that clings to the exterior.


If you’re using the oven, pull the tofu out halfway through its cook time and pour or brush the marinade over it.


Trust me, marinating tofu makes all the difference.


5) Dust Tofu in Corn Starch


If you want a delicious, crispy exterior on your tofu, you don’t have to dredge it in batter or a flour-based breading. I know, I know, I said before that I’ve chicken-fried tofu and I have and it was great. But it was also one specific recipe and took a lot of work. To keep things simple, just toss the cubed tofu in a little bit of cornstarch or arrowroot powder, shake off the excess, and then pan-fry in just a little bit of oil. If you’re going the healthier route, oven-roasting the dusted tofu works to crisp it just as well.


Still need some more flavor? Look through your pantry for whatever herbs you have on hand and mix them in with the cornstarch. I like to add a little bit of garlic powder and cayenne but you can experiment with your favorite herbs.


6) Don’t Crowd the Tofu & Leave it Alone


If you’re baking your tofu, you can just skip over the following paragraphs. The tips are for pan-frying, which admittedly, is my favorite method of making tofu. It just gives it that extra crunch.


Coat your pan with oil. I like to use rice bran oil or coconut oil as they’re a little bit heart healthier than alternatives. Put the heat at medium to medium-high and let the oil get nice and hot. If the oil isn’t hot enough, the tofu will just sit in it and get m and gross. I use the super scientific method of placing my hand over the pan to check the heat. If it starts to become uncomfortable after just a second or two, I know the oil is hot enough.


When my partner walks into the kitchen, I often have to block him from the stove as he has a habit of picking up the cooking utensil and stirring whatever is in the pot or pan. But he knows not to touch the tofu. I love stirring things too and it took me a little while to realize that leaving the tofu alone for a few minutes to sizzle is key to creating that crispy golden outside.


If you want extra crispy tofu, don’t crowd it in the pan. Crowding it will cause it to steam and the tofu won’t turn out all yummy and crispy. If some of the pieces are touching, it’s okay. Just make sure you haven’t completely jam-packed the pieces together.


Check the tofu after about three minutes and flip. And then, again, resist that overpowering urge to prod and push the tofu around in the pan. Just let it be.


You’ll like the results. I promise.


Go ahead, give tofu a try. Or maybe give it another try if you’ve had bad results in the past. If you follow these tips, who knows, it might even become your new favorite food. Well, that might be going a bit far, but I bet you won’t hate it anymore.


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©2020 by Leah Favela