Tofu for dummies.
January 10, 2017 10:15 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for resources on cooking tofu out there for people who are pretty new to cooking in general, and who want to keep it very simple.

I've been forced into vegetarianism involuntarily by my clusterfuck of a digestive system, and while I recognize the benefits, both to me and the world, I'm still kinda resentful about the whole thing. I think finding a few easy tofu recipes that I can make on the weekends to reduce my evening meal prep, might be a good answer for me, but I need pretty basic hints! I've never bought tofu, don't know what kind to look for (are there different kinds?), don't know what tools to use, etc. Also, please feel free to throw in any recipes that you have, keeping in mind that I can't do any spice or strong flavors at all any longer. Thanks all.
posted by backwards compatible to Home & Garden (33 answers total) 57 users marked this as a favorite
I don't really know anything about tofu either, but I literally just yesterday cooked tofu in a thing and ate it in leftovers about 20 minutes ago.

I used it in a mild Japanese curry, which I don't know might or might not be relevant to your "spice or strong flavors" caveat. But I think the theory holds.

Sunday night I dumped a couple chopped potatoes, a bag of baby carrots, some chopped mushrooms, and a cubed block of firm tofu into a slow cooker crock and put it in the fridge. Monday morning before work I took it out, put it in the slow cooker base set to low, added a few cups of water, and left for work. When I got home last night, I turned off the heat and chucked a block of Golden Curry into it and stirred, and food happened within 3 minutes.

I'm not vegetarian and could easily conceivably throw meat in there, but here are a few things I like about using tofu in something like this:

1) I can cube it and chuck it in on top of veggies in the fridge the night before without worrying about raw meat contamination.
2) Tofu already has a weird texture and doesn't do anything weirder after sitting or cooking for a long time.
3) It adds protein and just kind of tastes like whatever it's next to, so in this case it tastes like veggies and curry, which is good.
4) It reheats in the microwave without doing weird texture things.

I really don't cook much ever but in theory I could see myself chucking cubed firm tofu into a ton of things, particularly things that are saucy. Not having to care about cross contaminants from raw meat is a huge plus for my lazy ass.
posted by phunniemee at 10:26 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

Hi! Cut up some silken tofu and boil it in some water, then put in a block of instant ramen for four minutes. It's delicious.

For fancy, add vegetables. Frozen peas are good.

For super fancy, wash and slice some fresh shiitake mushrooms and boil them with the tofu. Add optional snow peas when you add the ramen. Add some dried onion or fresh chives if you want. I love adding celery leaves just after the ramen is cooked.

This is silken tofu from the "Asian" aisle at the grocery store.

This is silken tofu from the refrigerated section of the grocery store. It might be near the vegetables, or it might be near the dairy. It's usually at the bottom of the shelves since the label is on the top of the package.

Watch out when you open the package. It's full of water. Do it over the sink.
posted by amtho at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I am here for you! Tofu is, totally unironically, my favorite food!

1. Yes, there are different kinds. You probably are going to want to start with the kind that comes packed in water in either plastic bags or tubs. Like so. For ease of use, you want Firm or Extra Firm. The firmer it is, the easier it will be for you to work with. The other kind of tofu is usually referred to as "silken" and usually comes in aspectic, shelf-stable cardboard boxes, like so. Silken tofu has a creamy, smooth texture and a very high water content and will fall apart if you try to stir-fry it.

2. The basic tofu stir-fry starts with frying the tofu first, before you cook anything else. Do you have a waffle-iron? Because you can totally waffle your tofu. Slice it into slabs, oil the waffle-maker and throw it in there. As a seasoned tofu-eater, this is currently my preferred method. I waffle the tofu, cut it into bite-sized pieces, and then throw it in to the stir-fry.

3. You can also bake tofu.

Tofu itself is bland (though really fresh quality tofu is delicious, it's hard to find), so the key to your tofu adventures is to decide what kind of sauce or seasoning you like. You see a lot of people recommend that you marinate your tofu ahead of time, but I find this can cause more problems than it helps because adding water to tofu is the opposite of what you want if you're going to be frying it at any point. Instead, I just cook it unseasoned and then add seasoning after it is cooked.
posted by soren_lorensen at 10:28 AM on January 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

I recommend the Student's Vegetarian Cookbook by Carole Raymonde. I got it well after I was a student, but cheap and easy meals are a plus for anyone. The first good tofu recipes I ever tried are from that book.
posted by Kriesa at 10:34 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

Tofubq, a staple at our house:

Buy tofu. We get the cheap kind at Trader Joes, preferably extra firm.
Drain tofu. Open package, press it with a dish towel.
Cut tofu into cubes.

Option 1: put cubes on a very slightly oiled baking sheet. Top with barbecue sauce, peanut sauce, chili sauce, whatever. Roast at 350+ for 45 ish minutes. Until cooked to your liking.

Option 2: cook some onions in some oil in a pan. Add the tofu, add bbq sauce, heat. Eat on buns with mozzarella.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 10:35 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

When working with frying or baking extra firm tofu, dipping it in rice flour, wheat flour, or corn starch beforehand will help add texture and flavor. You can also add some spices to the coating.

If you can still do chocolate, you can make Silk Pie with tofu.
posted by Candleman at 10:40 AM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I love tofu! Just ate some with my lunch a few minutes ago. I make the same basic preparation and dump it in pretty much everything. Here are some pointers...

Tofu comes in 5 or 6 basic varieties, from soft (like a light custard) to very firm. I almost always use very firm. It comes in either plastic cartons packed in water, or aseptic packaging. I prefer the former.

I almost always press my tofu. This means wrapping it in a couple of layers paper towels, then placing it underneath a small cutting board, and putting a weight on top of that, like a can of soup or something that weighs about a pound. This will help remove the excess water.

My basic cooking method is baking it in cubes or slabs. After pressing the tofu, I cut it into half inch slabs or cubes. Then I spray a baking sheet with cooking spray, neatly arrange the cubes and sprinkle generously with salt (see here!), then bake in a 400'F oven for about 30 minutes. The result is flavorful little nuggets that can be thrown into any soup, stew or stir fry, or on top of a bowl of noodles, or mixed in with steamed veggies and rice, or topped on a salad, or just eaten out of hand. It's very flavorful and versatile.

Tofu also takes marinades very well. After pressing, marinade in anything you want -- soy sauce, mustards, tomato-based things, pretty much whatever you marinade meats in. It only needs about 30 minutes in a marinade to fully take on the flavor. Plus, unlike meat marinades, you can turn the leftover marinade into a sauce by reducing and/or adding cornstarch.

For great tofu recipes, I love Food 52. It's also a great source for vegetarian/vegan recipes in general.

My favorite tofu scramble recipe is here. It can take on a lot of different flavorings, so if you want a Mexican-flavored scramble, or something else. Don't skip the nutritional yeast and liquid aminos. They bring a ton of flavor to the party.

If you really want to go deep on tofu, check out The Book of Tofu.
posted by slogger at 10:44 AM on January 10, 2017 [9 favorites]

Frying tofu is key. There are a number of ways to do this.

I buy extra firm tofu and press it for at least a couple of hours. You cut it into cubes, wrap it in paper towels, then put it between two cutting boards. Put something HEAVY on top. After it's dried out, I coat it with cornstarch. Nothing else, only cornstarch. Then, I cook it in the skillet in about an inch or so of olive oil. I don't bother seasoning it at this point. A lot of people do, and you'll find a million different ways to do it, but I've never bothered at this point. Fry it, DO NOT FLIP, until the edges start to look brown. THEN you flip. Repeat. It will come out very crunchy and utterly flavorless.... Until you add sauce! I've used everything from stir fry sauce to barbecue and buffalo sauce. Coat the tofu and eat it right away or else it will get soft. It is very crunchy and you can put it in basically everything.

Fried tofu is great. If you're venturing into vegetarianism I'd also recommend learning to roast vegetables. If you're a taco fan rice and beans tacos are delicious.

Good luck.
posted by Amy93 at 10:44 AM on January 10, 2017 [5 favorites]

This is one of my favorite recipes using tofu:

Spicy Stir-Fried Tofu and Cod with Peanuts and Scallions (serves 4-6)

1 (12 -15 ounce) cartons firm tofu, drained and pressed
1 lb fresh cod, rinsed and patted dry
1 lemons, juice and zest of
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 teaspoons finely minced ginger
1 tablespoon sambal oelek (chili garlic paste)
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
2 tablespoons peanut oil
3/4 cup unsalted roasted peanuts
1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
4 lemon wedges

Cut both the tofu and cod into pieces about 1.5 inches long and .5 inch thick. Place tofu in one bowl and cod in another.
Divide next seven ingredients between the two bowls and toss gently. Take care not to break the tofu.
Heat half of oil in a wide, ninstick skillet. When hot, add tofu and fry over medium-high heat until golden and crispy, 8-10 mninutes. Turn so that all surfaces have a chance to color. When done, sprinkle with salt, remove to a plate, and cover to keep warm. Return pan to the heat.
Add remaining oil, add the peanuts and cod, and cook over high heat until cod is barely cooked, about 3 minutes. Return the tofu to the pan, add the scallions, and cook 1 minute more. Season with salt, then slide the tofu and fish onto a platter and garnish with lemon wedges if desired.
posted by briank at 10:44 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you don't like or can't eat fish, just use more tofu. :)
posted by briank at 10:46 AM on January 10, 2017

I'm an omnivore who eats a lot of tofu and other vegetarian proteins partly because I really like the taste and partly because for me it's much easier to prepare than meat.

If you can get a hold of them, I'd recommend trying some of the different types of tofu to see what you prefer. If you don't like the first kind you try, or the first recipe, don't despair, there are so, so many different varieties and preparations, you're sure to find one that works for you. This is a great summary of some of the different types of tofu.

Probably the easiest to start out with would be using firm or extra firm block tofu in a stir fry. This type is easier to find than a lot of the other types, and is, in my opinion, a lot more forgiving. Drain the tofu and press to remove some liquid before cooking it. I like to first pan fry the tofu with aromatics, like ginger or scallions, and then add flavoring, which can be something simple like salt and pepper or soy sauce, or a more complex sauce. Finally, once the tofu is nice and flavorful, you can sautee whatever vegetables you like and serve the whole thing over your preferred starch (rice, noodles, pasta).
posted by photoelectric at 10:53 AM on January 10, 2017

I've had good luck with tofu recipes from Vegan with a Vengeance and the Veganomicon. The author, Isa Chandra Moskowitz, has a website with quality tofu recipes. Check out:
Orange Ginger Baked Tofu
Scrambled Tofu

Otherwise, my go-to method of making delicious tofu is
1. Buy quality firm or extra firm tofu. See who's making tofu in your area; someone probably is and your local healthy crunchy granola hippy co-op knows them. I adore Bridge Tofu.
2. Freeze tofu. Allow 24 hours to thaw in refrigerator; can be sped up by thawing on counter and placing in water. Makes the texture awesome.
3. Drain tofu. Optional: press the tofu to get out more water.
4. Slice tofu into triangles. Triangles taste better.
5. Heat pan & add coconut oil.
6. Add tofu to hot oil. Sprinkle with salt. Flip when golden. When both sides are golden either:
7a. Remove from pan and devour with rice & veggies (or whatever it is you're eating) OR
7b. Turn the heat up high and add a marinade or sauce or just straight tamari. Flip once to coat. They're done when the liquid is absorbed or evaporated.
posted by carrioncomfort at 10:55 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

Also, if this life change and all the talk of different types of tofu and different preparation methods feels overwhelming, a relaxing and fun option might be to find a vegetarian restaurant that offers small plates. That way you could try a wide variety of different vegetarian proteins and types of tofu and different preparation methods, both to see what a wide range of options you have and also to get an idea of what you like and don't like.
posted by photoelectric at 10:57 AM on January 10, 2017

This website is really helpful to understand which types of tofu are optimal for different dishes. Also, it introduced me to this recipe, which is amazing: Kimchi Squash Shitake Soup.

I use this recipe for tofu instead of tempeh, and it's probably my favourite preparation of tofu ever: Orange Pan-glazed Tofu. Don't let the fruit scare you off, it's super delicious (also, I never use fresh-squeezed juice). I'd follow Amy93's excellent tips for pressing/frying prior to adding the glaze.
posted by Paper rabies at 10:58 AM on January 10, 2017

I forgot to add, above, that you should use the flavor packet from the ramen. You can also add soy sauce or salt. Don't forget the flavor packet. Otherwise... not the same experience at all.
posted by amtho at 11:00 AM on January 10, 2017

Maangchi's pan fried tofu with spicy sauce. Super simple and delicious. Very savory.

Fresh tofu (short expiration date) is more delicious than highly pasteurized tofu (longer expiration date).
posted by yonglin at 11:11 AM on January 10, 2017

I'm fairly new to tofu too. I've found pressing it makes a huge difference to the texture when cooked - this could be because in the UK we can't be 'extra firm' tofu, so pressing the water out is necessary to get the right texture.

I like Budget Bytes' recipes - the Singapore Noodles in particular are spectacular and taste exactly like the ones from my local Chinese restaurant.
posted by essexjan at 11:25 AM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

My husband bought me a tofu press, and despite the lack of space in my kitchen every time I use it I feel compelled to thank him all over again for it. It does require a little lead time, but very little work, and I find the results better and easier than other pressing methods. I use tofu in place of any other protein in stirfrys. A typical meal would be pressing the tofu, cubing it, cooking it in a little olive oil until it's golden on at least two sides, removing it from the pan, sautéing onions, garlic, and vegetables until almost cooked through, adding the tofu back in and a quick sauce. Comes together in the time it takes for the rice to cook. Just put the tofu in the press first before starting anything else (I set it up sideways on a plate so it drains) and crank it shut a little more every few minutes while you chop the vegetables.
posted by skycrashesdown at 11:52 AM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

SeriousEats has some great information on how to get tofu fried crispy. While some the accompanying recipes might be too spicy for your situation, the technique for the tofu can be used in whatever you want. I was not a tofu fan until I tried this. I literally never knew that tofu can be crispy until I read this piece last year.
posted by dnash at 11:55 AM on January 10, 2017 [4 favorites]

My two favorite types of tofu can be found at your local Asian grocery, in the Asian section of your (well-stocked) grocery store, or even (if you're lucky) right in with the other tofu at your regular grocery store. I find both of these to be more flavorful and easier to use than most other types of tofu.

1. Marinated baked or dried tofu (examples 1, 2, 3). It's even firmer than "extra-firm" tofu and has good flavor (often soy sauce -- some are spicy, so check the ingredients). It's perfect for slicing up and using in a stir-fry, no prep required -- just slice it and throw it in there as though it was a pile of pre-cooked chicken slices.

2. Fried tofu puffs (example). Like all fried things, delicious. Each little puff has excellent structural integrity (aka, it won't fall apart when you touch it), but the interior is delightfully spongy and great for soaking up sauce or soup. Not exactly a health food, but they may help satisfy your cravings for meat-like fried things. There are many excellent uses:
- eat raw just as they are, the delicious little devils
- stir into a stir-fry
- throw into your soup (right at the end so they warm up and don't go soggy)
- heat up in the microwave and then dip in a sauce of your choice (can you do BBQ sauce? because they're delicious with BBQ sauce).
posted by ourobouros at 12:00 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

All the talk about preparing tofu can be totally overwhelming. To avoid the requirement altogether, try baked tofu! Trader Joe's carries several house-brand flavors at good prices. Others are made by SoyBoy and Nasoya. My regular supermarket stocks several flavors in the produce section.

Absolutely no prep is required except opening the package. You can dice it and throw it in at the end of whatever you're making, or just eat it sliced cold on sandwiches! Seriously, it's expensive, but it's awesome and delicious.
posted by acridrabbit at 12:03 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

You all are the greatest! This has been so helpful, you don't even know.
posted by backwards compatible at 12:11 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

I just ate tofu for lunch too! The best recipes I've gotten are from Thug Kitchen (the Official Cookbook). There are some awesome marinades in there, too. I actually prefer tofu tacos over beef ones now (which, incidentally, I ate last night).

Cooking tofu is easy as long as you remember to drain it first, between two paper towels with a kitchen towel around the outsides, like this:

***** kitchen towel
------- paper towel
TTTT tofu
------- paper towel
***** kitchen towel

Stick something heavy on top of the towel to drain it, let it sit for 1/2 hour while you prep other stuff, and you're good to go.
posted by onecircleaday at 12:28 PM on January 10, 2017 [3 favorites]

If you anticipate tofu becoming a big part of your diet, I totally recommend getting a tofu press. After finding that link just now I'm sort of horrified at the price (maybe we got ours as a gift?), but I have to say it has changed tofu forever for us. It gets the tofu very drained in a short amount of time and clean up is easy. Of course the towel/can method is free but it always loomed as sort of a chore for me, which the tofu press takes care of.

Dinner tonight for me is tofu (drained this morning!) that has been sliced thin and sitting in bbq sauce all day. You bake it at 400-degrees for 20 minutes on each side, then serve on a bun or rolled up in a tortilla (with coleslaw, if you desire).

After draining extra firm tofu and then slicing it thin, you can cook it up with just a tiny bit of brushed oil on a nonstick skillet. Let it sit and get nice and brown on one side, then flip it. You can add salt while it's cooking. Once you do that, you can add it to almost anything that suits your fancy.
posted by LKWorking at 12:42 PM on January 10, 2017 [2 favorites]

There's a section on "Tofu Butchery" at the beginning of Isa Chandra Moskowitz's "Isa Does It" cookbook. It's a great cookbook, but I'm not sure if your stomach can handle many of the recipes (they're not super spicy, but they do use spices). Check out the "Tofu Butchery" section next time you're at the bookstore.

I like making tofu stir fries, usually with some mushrooms, peppers, and tamari.

Baked tofu is great too.
posted by backwards guitar at 12:50 PM on January 10, 2017 [1 favorite]

I've suggested this recipe here before, but it's just so tasty and easy - if I had a "gateway" tofu recipe it would be this.

Smoky Tofu Bowls!

We just use bottled BBQ sauce so it's super simple - just be sure you press the tofu first as others have said, and give it time in the oven to develop a nice chewy exterior. Don't forget the avocado!
posted by DingoMutt at 12:51 PM on January 10, 2017

My tofu resume is very short, so here are a couple observations from someone pretty new to tofu cookery. I have done stir fry recipes that call for frying plain and ones that call for coating with cornstarch. I agree that the cornstarch version is easier to brown but the cornstarch dredging process is sticky and yuck. I have also oven-browned it, and that was neater, but chewier. I wonder sometimes if the supposed benefits of tofu are countered by heavy use of soy sauce.

You want to use the firmest kind of tofu, and squeeze the water out it. I cut the original block into strips, which get put between layers of paper towel with a weight on top. Post-squeeze, the strips get cut into butter-pat-like, but smaller, squares.

I usually cook for two. When I tried to do a tofu dish for 4, I had to do the browning step in two batches. You want to get the tofu flat on the pan, and you don't want to toss it around too much, so a lot of pan area is needed.
posted by SemiSalt at 1:49 PM on January 10, 2017

I eat mainly firm tofu. We have an electric smoker and I cut a large block into 5 or 6 pieces and smoke it for about 2 hrs at 225 degrees F. Then when my husband puts his fish or chicken on the grill we toss my tofu on for a few minutes to reheat.

Another way to get extra water out of tofu prior to frying is freezing it. I've had to freeze a few blocks before because they were creeping up on their sell by date and firm tofu gets really dense after freezing and thawing.
posted by hilaryjade at 4:40 PM on January 10, 2017

I don't make a tower of cutting boards, etc to press tofu. I put the drained tofu in a medium rectangle plastic container (tupperware, snapware etc) then nest another same sized container on top. I put a can or two in the top container. It doesn't seem as tippy to me this way, and also doesn't use up paper towels or dirty a kitchen towel. Yay tofu!
posted by gryphonlover at 6:33 PM on January 10, 2017

Another vote for Thug Kitchen recipes. I came in here to mention their dry fried tofu:

1 block of extra-firm tofu, pressed for at least 30 minutes.
Pinch of salt.
Cut the tofu vertically into planks about ¼ inch thick and then cut those planks in half lengthwise. You should end up with around 20 pieces.

Preheat a large wok or cast iron skillet over medium heat. Once the pan is hot, add the tofu in a single layer. You may have to do this in 2 batches. You will want the tofu to sizzle once it hits the pan, if it doesn’t you need to turn up the heat.

Sprinkle with a pinch of salt over the tofu and start gently pressing down on the tofu with your spatula. You will hear steam escaping. After 3-4 minutes, the bottoms should be golden brown. Flip over and repeat.


I add an extra step where I toss the fried pieces in nutritional yeast for added flavor.
posted by Constant Reader at 6:00 AM on January 11, 2017

Moosewood Cookbook's tofu salad- very easy, not spicy, and good god, it's delicious. You can omit any potential troublemakers like peppers and it will still be good.
posted by JulesER at 7:41 AM on January 11, 2017

For a super-low effort use, there’s always scrambled tofu: sauté some onion in a olive (or other) until it’s soft, add tofu (of whatever sort is handy—no pressing needed, you can break it up as you stir it, or just squish it through your fingers), veggies or whatever else you like with scrambled eggs, and seasoning. The seasoning can include whatever you like: soy sauce, salt, pepper, cumin, paprika, turmeric (also good for color), etc. If dairy is okay you can melt some shredded cheese in as well.

During the summer, I like to cut slabs of extra-firm tofu, marinate them overnight, then smoke them on the grill (indirect heat) for an hour or so. Cube it when it cools and add it to salads, burritos, or whatever.
posted by nicepersonality at 5:27 PM on January 13, 2017

See my earlier question, and suggestions it drew.
posted by LonnieK at 5:55 PM on January 13, 2017

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