Tofu. What even is it?

So, tofu. It is maybe the most ubiquitous and most needlessly-maligned vegan staple. Prepared properly, tofu is delicious, filling, and nutritious. Prepared poorly, tofu is… bleh. Some people describe the flavor as “nutty.” Others describe it as “grassy.” I think tofu tastes like whatever you cook it with. So if you cook it with nothing, it tastes like nothing.

The texture of tofu varies widely. The tofu we see most often replacing the meat in vegan dishes is firm tofu. It is usually cut into cubes or slices and looks a lot like soft cheese. This is most often sold in plastic containers packed in water and refrigerated. You may also see this sold as “medium”and “extra firm.” The level of firmness relates to the amount of water that has been pressed out of the tofu. The more water left in, the softer the tofu. The soft, smooth tofu that looks kind of gelatinous is silken tofu. I think it looks a lot like flan, but maybe that’s just me. It is most often sold in tetra-packs, with or without water, and is often not refrigerated. Silken tofu is great for desserts and some Japanese cooking. However, for the rest of this post, I’ll be discussing the firm type.

You’ve decided to try tofu for the first time. Good for you! I recommend trying it at a vegetarian/vegan Chinese restaurant first. Why? Because they know how to make tofu! Most of the tofu you get in Chinese dishes is prepared “homestyle.” The water is pressed out and it is fried in oil until the outside is a little crisp. I think this is a great way to have a good first experience with tofu.

Maybe you’ve had tofu in a restaurant (or maybe not) and now you are ready to make it at home. It’s going to be alright. You’ve got this. Here’s how to make delicious tofu in ten easy steps.

  1. Go to the grocery store and buy a package of tofu. One pack should be enough for two people (or one really hungry person).
  2. When you get home, open the tofu package. These can be difficult to open. Most people give up and use a knife. But remember, it is full of water, so hold it over the sink and run the knife along the edge of the package. Drain as much of the water as possible, then gently remove block of tofu.
  3. Now you are going to press the tofu. You will need two plates, a clean dish towel, and some heavy objects (large books, a heavy cooking pot, a jug of water, whatever you have). Wrap the tofu in the dish towel. Set it on one plate. Now, turn the other plate upside down and set it on top of the tofu. Now, place the heavy objects on top. Don’t go nuts here. You want to apply pressure to the tofu without breaking the plate. Now, set it in the fridge and leave it alone for at least an hour. The longer you leave it, the firmer the tofu will become.
  4. Mix up a marinade. This can be almost anything. I like to use soy sauce and crushed garlic. You can use whatever you want your tofu to taste like. Imitation chicken broth, vegan Worcestershire sauce (look out for anchovies), whatever. Just mix up about 1 or 1 1/2 cups of it.
  5. Once your tofu is pressed to your liking, you can marinate it. I like to do this by setting the tofu in a small bowl with a lid and pouring the marinade in. You may find a different method works better for you. Just get the marinade on the tofu and let it sit for about half an hour, until most of the marinade is soaked up.
  6. Now, cut your tofu into the shapes you want. You can do slices, cubes, even shoestring style strips. Just remember that the amount of surface area will determine the crispiness of your tofu.
  7. Time to cook the tofu. I’m going to tell you how to do homestyle, since that is very versatile. You can also use other methods, which I will explain later. Get some vegetable or canola oil hot in a pan. I use a cast iron skillet over medium heat. I cover the bottom of the pan with enough oil to fully submerge a piece of my tofu. Let it get hot enough that when you drop in a test piece of tofu, it begins to sizzle right away and lots of little bubbles rise up around it.* Put the tofu pieces into the oil one at a time. Try not to crowd them. You don’t really want the tofu pieces touching each other. After about a minute or two, you want to use a spatula or tongs to flip each piece of tofu. It should look golden brown on the underside.** After another minute or two, each piece should look golden brown all over. It is now ready to remove from the oil.
  8. Remove the tofu from the oil and place it on a plate with a clean dish towel, paper towel, or coffee filters on it. It’s okay if it doesn’t feel very crispy right now. It will crisp up as it cools.
  9. Now, use these delicious tofu nuggets as you see fit. I like to just dip them in mae ploy sauce and eat them. You can add them to stir-fry, to sandwiches, anywhere you might use crispy protein, this would be appropriate.
  10. There isn’t really anything else to do here, but ten is a nice number of list items, don’t you think?

*If you pressed most of the water out of the tofu, the oil shouldn’t pop very much. However, blotting any excess marinade from the tofu before putting it in the oil will help prevent popping. 
**If you notice the tofu getting too brown or browning too quickly, remove the pan from the heat, turn the heat down, and then return the pan to the heat.