The Tofu Manifesto
One of the most frustrating things to me as a vegan is when meat eaters disparage tofu, but in fairness, tofu that isn’t prepared well is really horrid and so I can’t blame them entirely for this. I’ve made my share of bad tofu over the years and for a long time, only ate it at Asian restaurants because I really, truly had no idea how to cook it properly.
I don’t claim to be an expert on tofu, but Seth & I have learned some things in the last few years about how to work with it that make a huge difference in the quality of our tofu experience. Disclaimer: I know there are a million opinions about tofu and the best methods for working with it. This is not the tofu bible, just our way of doing it, which we do like rather a lot.
First off, there are a few different textures of tofu:
- Silken which used in creamy baked goods, dressings and sauces.
- Soft which as far as I can tell is the same as silken, but just to be sure, if a recipe calls for one or the other I buy the specified texture.
- Firm and extra-firm which are normally what you get in restaurants in your stir fry. They’re very similar, but as the names suggest, extra-firm is well, firmer. Sometimes these are referred to as “Chinese-style” tofu.
- Super-firm which is pretty self explanatory, I think
- There is also vacuum-packed, shelf stable tofu. Mori-Nu is a common brand and is a silken style, although there is also a firm silken and extra-firm of this brand too. If a recipe says to use vacuum packed, do it. Really.
Our preference for most recipes is extra firm. (I do use super firm for some things, but I’ll come back to that later.)
We like our tofu kinda chewy so I press the daylights out of it. Conversely, if you prefer your tofu more fluffy & moist, don’t press it or press it for less time. There are many opinions on pressing tofu and the best way to do it. I have a Tofu Xpress and I love it. A lot. It does a much better job than the plates-with-books-or-canned-goods method. Plus, I don’t end up with plates and wet dish towels that need to be washed afterwards, which for me is a bonus. If you don’t have a tofu press no worries, you can press it the old fashioned way: take it out of the tub & very gently squeeze the excess water out of it; place a dish towel (or several paper towels if you don’t mind killing trees) on a plate, place the tofu on it & cover it with another towel layer, place another plate on top of the towel-tofu-towel tower and last but not least, place a couple of books and/or cans of soup or whatever on top; leave it for about an hour (you’ll likely need to change the towels out at some point). Be careful not to put too much weight on it or it’ll get smooshed (and it’s really a pain in the ass to work with smooshed tofu). If you’re using a tofu press, it should be ready to go in about 30 minutes, but I’ve forgotten about tofu in the press and left it for a few hours and didn’t tear a hole in the space-time continuum. Oh, and if a recipe specifically says not to press the tofu, don’t. There’s probably a good reason for it.
OK, I learned this trick and honestly, only do it occasionally but it does help if you want a texture that’s more like the chewy tofu you get in Chinese restaurants. It gets even more of the moisture out of the tofu. Once you’ve press the tofu, slice it or cube it or cut it into little triangles – whatever shape you’re going to use in your dish. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat and plop the tofu in the pan. DO NOT USE COOKING SPRAY OR OIL. You’re dry-frying, remember? Gently press the tofu with a spatula to squeeze the moisture out of it. Do this on all sides (I usually go for triangles rather than cubes if I’m going to dry-fry so it goes faster). Let it get a little bit golden, but you don’t want it really brown. Once you’re done, you can go ahead and plop it in your marinade. I normally do this if the tofu is going to be used in a dish with a lot of sauce, like a coconut milk based curry or something similar. I find it holds up better & doesn’t get soggy if there are leftovers. I used to do this every time I made tofu, but it’s really not a necessity. Try it a couple of times to see what your preference is.
Marinating tofu was life-changing for us. It may seem intuitive to some people, but I really didn’t cook before going vegan. Then I bought a few vegan cookbooks and learned the joy of the marinade. Most recipes will tell you to marinate the tofu for at least an hour, or overnight. I usually put the tofu in the marinade before I go to work in the morning & it’s flavorful and ready to go at dinner time. What? Before work? Who has time for that? In fairness, we don’t have kids and the cats pretty much get themselves ready for school so I probably do have more time in the mornings than a lot of people. Seriously though, I usually make the marinade the night before when I’m cooking dinner and all I have to do is press the tofu and then plop it in the marinade as I dash out the door. The best way to get the most flavor from the marinade into the tofu is to go ahead and slice it or cube it before marinating. Normally, I slice it into 8 rectangles but when I’m making a stir fry, I cube it. Be sure to cover it completely (or as best you can) so you don’t have to think about flipping it (especially since you’re at work and the tofu is at home in your fridge). You’ll also want to be sure the tofu isn’t all squished together in the marinating dish either or it won’t absorb evenly.
So your tofu is all pressed and marinated and ready to go. Now what? Well, it depends. Obviously if there’s a specific recipe you’re following, just do what it says. Otherwise, you do have some options. We normally bake or grill our tofu. Sadly, most of the time the “grill” is the cast iron grill pan rather than a charcoal grill, but it does in a pinch. By the way, here’s a neat trick – I add a few drops of liquid smoke to the marinade so we can pretend it’s been cooked outdoors instead of in the apartment.
Grilling: Preheat your grill-pan over medium heat, lightly oil the pan (I use olive oil in a sprayer because I hate non-stick spray). Place the tofu into the grill pan and let it cook for about 5 minutes, then flip it over and cook it for another 2-3 minutes. I sometimes cook it for a little longer if I want it crispier (which is almost always). If I am able to use an outdoor grill, I normally cut the tofu into cubes and put them on skewers. Keep a close eye on it and turn the skewers as each side gets crisp. It really only takes about 10 minutes or so.
Baking: Generally speaking, you’ll preheat your oven to 375-400, spray a baking sheet with a little oil (or non-stick spray if you must) and place the tofu on the baking sheet. I like to spoon a little of the marinade onto the slices before I put it in the oven. Bake it for about 20 minutes, then flip it over & spoon a little more marinade onto it. Bake it for another 10-20 minutes. (10 will usually do it, but again with our love of the chewiness, I often let it go for 20.)
Wok: Seth is the genius when it comes to this. I think I’m just too impatient because it takes a few minutes and you have to let the tofu kinda sit in the wok and not mess with it. We do this when we’re having a stir fry. Place the tofu in a pre-heated (medium-high), lightly oiled wok along with the marinade. Keep a close eye on the temperature because you don’t want to incinerate the tofu. You’ll just gently turn the tofu periodically (Seth uses tongs for this) so that all sides get browned and a little bit crispy. The marinade will cook down and form a nice sort of sticky glaze on the tofu. (I usually use the Asian Marinated Tofu recipe in Veganomicon) You can also just toss the tofu into your wok without the marinade and gently stir it around so that all sides get crispy.
There’s a whole thing about freezing tofu nowadays. I’ve had very little experience with this and to be honest, the first few times I tried, I did it totally wrong and I think it’s why my tofu kinda, um, disintegrated in the wok. Told ya I’ve made bad tofu. A lot of people really like this method because it makes the tofu absorb marinades more readily. I’m not going to give instructions on how to do this correctly, because I honestly don’t know. My best advice is to google it. Seriously. I’m still experimenting.
So I told you all about how you have to marinate tofu and cut it up before you do and how we almost always use extra-firm. Now I’m going to tell you when I do the exact opposite. There are a few recipes that I use that don’t need marinating and you just need to dip the tofu into a sauce or spice blend before baking. These are all really yummy too. I also have a pretty basic recipe that uses soy sauce, sesame oil & maple syrup where you just dredge the tofu in it before baking, I use in Thai-style curries and I do dry fry it first.
Super-firm is the other exception to the rule for me. I use this style of tofu for two main things: grilling on an outdoor grill (it holds up better) and when I’m making a teriyaki baked tofu similar to the kind you can buy at the grocery store. It doesn’t need to be pressed (it’s really dense) and it doesn’t absorb marinade as readily as extra-firm. (I’ve not tried freezing it first yet though.) I marinate it for much longer than usual. I like to give it about 2 days if I’m doing an Italian type marinade & grilling it. I cube it for skewering before I put it in the marinade & just give the dish a good shake every so often so the spices don’t settle too much. When I make a teriyaki baked tofu I leave it whole and let it soak for 3 days.
I won’t post recipes from cookbooks, but I will tell you which cookbooks I use the most for tofu inspiration. Hands down, the best tofu recipes for me come from two people: Isa Chandra Moskowitz and Terri Hope Romero. “Veganomicon” is a veritable bible for vegan cooking, and the tofu recipes in it really helped me get my tofu confidence. “Viva Vegan” has several crazy good Latin-style tofu recipes and “Appetite for Reduction” has a great variety of flavors and the added bonus is they are lower fat than most recipes. I have a few others that I use occasionally, but by and large, these ladies are the first and last word in tofu recipes for me.