Have you ever wondered what tofu is or how to cook it? Or maybe you’re wondering “what does tofu taste like anyway?” This beginner’s guide to tofu will answer all those questions, plus it will show you how to prepare, season and cook tofu for the BEST flavor and texture.
This guide will show you exactly how to make amazing tasting tofu that you’ll want to eat every night of the week. Let’s get to it!
What is Tofu?
📖 Tofu Origins
Tofu is a traditional and common ingredient in Asian cuisine and has been consumed for well over 2000 years.
And it’s no wonder why it’s so popular…tofu is high in protein but low in calories and makes a fantastic meat substitute in a plant-based, vegan, or vegetarian diet.
💡How Tofu is Made
Tofu is made from dried soybeans and has a spongy texture that absorbs flavors beautifully. The soybeans are soaked in hot or boiling water and then crushed. The longer the soybeans are soaked, the better the flavor and texture the tofu ends up having.
This soaking process creates a bean pulp (called okara) and a soy milk-like substance. The okara is a by-product that consists of the shells and other elements of the soybeans.
The soy milk is usually pressure cooked (at up to 205 degrees C), which kills the bacteria in it. Additives like calcium, magnesium chloride (like nigari), or acids are added to the soy milk to separate the bean curd from the whey (the resulting soy liquid).
The resulting bean curds are filtered, pressed (to remove any remaining soy milk), poured into molds, and stored in water, ready to be sold!
Learn more about how tofu is made by watching this video!
🌟 I use a very basic version of this separation method with lemon juice in my Vegan Mascarpone Cheese Recipe to produce ‘curds’ that can be made into vegan cheese. 🌟
What Does Tofu Taste Like?
Tofu is an incredibly versatile ingredient that quite literally soaks up the flavors of whatever you marinate or season it with.
Tofu bought at your local grocery store often gets a bad rap for having a bland flavor or tasting like nothing. This is actually a misconception!
📌 Plain tofu has a very subtle bean-like flavor. Some tofu is described as having a nutty flavor or even a slight sour taste (which may be from the different additives used to separate the curds from the whey).
Like any food, the fresher the tofu is, the better, and more flavorful it tastes.
When I first tried fresh tofu while visiting Guangzhou, China a few years ago, I couldn’t believe the difference in the taste and texture! The tofu was fried with a thin, crispy shell and a melt-in-your mouth soft texture on the inside. This fresh tofu had an almost sweet taste.
It was hands down the best tofu I’ve ever had to this day. And a night and day experience taste & texture-wise from the store bought blocks you can buy from the grocery store here in the U.S.
🌟 All that to say, if you’re able to find and buy fresh tofu from your local Asian Market (or a local restaurant that makes their own), I highly recommend doing so. However, store-bought blocks are still delicious if you can’t find fresh tofu. 🌟
Does Tofu Taste Good?
Whether tofu tastes good could be considered subjective, but I’m here to tell you it doesn’t need to be that way!
Ultimately, the flavor of tofu really depends on what you season it with and how you cook it.
What Does Tofu Taste Like Fried?
Fried tofu, or puffed tofu, tastes amazing with very little seasoning. Like most fried foods, fried tofu takes on the flavor of the fat it is fried in. Plus, the tofu’s crispy texture enhances the eating experience.
What is the Texture of Tofu?
🔎 The texture of tofu can vary from extra-firm to medium firm to silken.Extra-firm tofu has a spongy texture and silken tofu has a buttery-smooth, creamy texture.
The type of tofu you’re using will have an impact on how you should prepare it. Each recipe usually calls out a specific type, so it’s important that you use the right kind of tofu for the best results.
Types of Tofu
Below are the most common types of tofu and a few of the best ways to prepare each kind!
Super Firm or Extra Firm Tofu
As the name suggests, extra firm tofu is well…extra firm. This is by far the type of tofu I use most frequently when cooking and developing recipes. It’s incredibly versatile because it holds up the best to grilling, deep frying, air frying and pan frying.
You can also buy super firm tofu, which I also love using. Super firm tofu has the least amount of liquid in it compared to the other types in this guide. As a result, it has a higher percentage of protein per ounce. Super firm tofu is sometimes sold as ‘high protein tofu.’
PREPARATION METHOD: drained, pressed, frozen & thawed, coated in starch, and/or marinated
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: braised, deep fried, air fried, baked, pan fried, boiled
Medium Firm or Firm Tofu
Firm tofu and medium tofu have more liquid than extra firm tofu. They’re more delicate and can be crumbled easier than extra-firm. To achieve a crispy exterior, it should be pressed very well to remove excess liquid. This type of tofu can also be used for deep frying, air frying, baking and pan frying.
PREPARATION METHOD: drained, pressed, coated in starch, and/or marinated
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: braised, deep fried, air fried, baked or pan fried
As opposed to firm tofu, soft tofu contains a decent amount of liquid. It’s delicate and will break easily when handled or stirred. Because of this, it works well in applications where you desire some texture, but the tofu needs to be crumbed or broken into smaller pieces. You can use soft tofu in recipes like tofu scrambles, chorizo, or for creating ‘meat’ like crumbles. Fresh soft tofu can also be deep fried to create tofu puffs!
PREPARATION METHOD: gently pat or blot to removed excess moisture, but don’t press it- pressing soft tofu will squish it
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: blended, crumbled, battered and/or deep fried
Silken Tofu (Firm or Soft)
Did you know there are actually many varieties of silken tofu? Soft-silken tofu and firm-silken tofu (not to be confused with firm block tofu) are creamy and dense in texture with very few pores. Silken tofu has the highest water content of all the types listed in this guide and works the best in puddings, cheesecakes, vegan sour cream, smoothies and other applications where it’s blended. In savory applications, it can also be eaten cold with a simple sauce poured on top. Silken tofu also makes a fabulous vegan egg replacement.
Silken tofu can also be used in the following ways:
- Add 4oz of silken tofu to smoothies for a creamy texture and protein
- To make puddings, creme brûlée or flan
- As a substitute for cream cheese in cheesecakes
PREPARATION METHOD: drained, gently blotted, it can be eaten raw
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: blended, or served at room temperature with sauces
🔎 Does Tofu Need to Be Cooked?Raw tofu can actually be eaten without cooking! In fact, it’s very common to enjoy uncooked, silken tofu with just a simple sauce poured on top.
Unlike other block tofus, smoked tofu is amazing because it requires very little to no prep! Just cube it up and add it to your favorite dishes, stir fries, soups and more. Smoked tofu is tough with a chewy texture. It can serve as a great replacement for meat in many dishes.
PREPARATION METHOD: no prep needed
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: added to stir fries or other dishes, eaten as is
Aburaage or Inari
Aburaage is a type of deep fried tofu in the form of pockets that can be eaten on their own or stuffed with rice and other ingredients. They’re pre-seasoned and fried which creates the most wonderful sweet yet salty flavor. You can usually find these pre-made pockets at your local Asian Market.
PREPARATION METHOD: ready to eat
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: can be filled with other ingredients to create sushi or added to stir fries and soups
Similar to aburaage, tofu puffs are a pre-fried snack that can be purchased at your local Asian Market. The texture is really quite unique. Unlike most homemade fried tofu, puffed tofu is very light and airy. When cut in half, you can see lots of large, visible air pockets.
PREPARATION METHOD: ready to eat, can be heated
USES & HOW TO COOK THE TOFU: added to stir fries, mixed with sauces, eaten as is
🛒 Where to buy tofu?
You can usually find extra-firm tofu at your local grocery store in the refrigerated section near the produce. Some supermarkets will also carry shelf-stable silken tofu in the International Aisle.
But if you’re looking for the largest selection of tofu, head to your local Asian Market. There are dozens upon dozens of different types of tofu available there from soft silken tofu, to silken-firm, to super firm, to puffed tofu!
Like I mentioned above, you may even be able to buy fresh made tofu from your local Asian Market which has the best flavor.
How to Cook Tofu
If using extra firm, medium firm or firm tofu, in most cases, you’ll need to drain and press the tofu block. This removes excess moisture and helps create a crispy coating. The best way (and easiest way) to press tofu to remove excess water is with a kitchen towel or paper towels.
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1. How to Drain & Press Tofu
STEP 1: Remove the tofu block from the package and drain the liquid. Then, place it on 3-4 folded paper towels.
STEP 2: Next, cover the block with more paper towels (or a clean kitchen towel) and gently press down with your hands to remove excess moisture.
STEP 3: To remove even more liquid, you can use a tofu press or you can place a heavy object like a book or plate on the tofu. Let it sit for 10 minutes to remove liquid.
🌟 If you’re in a pinch and you don’t have time to press tofu- I recommend purchasing super firm tofu, since it already has most of the liquid pressed out of it! 🌟
2. How to Flavor & Season Tofu
Like I mentioned above, tofu literally absorbs the flavors you put on it. Adding lots of seasoning is the trick for how to make tofu taste really good!
📌 You can use marinades, seasoning rubs, sauces and more to flavor tofu. The smaller you cut the tofu and the longer you marinate it, the better it will taste.
Smaller pieces of tofu mean there will be more surface area for the marinade to penetrate into. I try to marinate my tofu for at least 30 minutes, but if you have an hour or overnight…even better!
The Best Marinades to Flavor Tofu:
Easy 2-Ingredient Marinade
If you’re short on time and really just want a super quick and easy way to add some flavor to tofu, use this simple 2 ingredient marinade for your block of tofu:
- ¼ cup Soy Sauce
- 2 tbsp Sesame Oil
Flavor Packed Sweet & Spicy Tofu Marinade
If you have a few more minutes, here is one of my all time favorite marinades for tofu!
Mix the ingredients together, pour over drained, pressed, and cubed extra-firm tofu.
Marinate for at least 30 minutes, preferably overnight.
- 2 tbsp sesame oil
- 1 tbsp mirin
- ¼ cup soy sauce
- ½ tsp sambal oelek, adjust to taste
- 1 tbsp garlic, minced
- 1 tbsp fresh ginger, minced
- ½ tsp Chinese 5 Spice
- 1 tbsp agave, maple syrup or brown sugar
How to Cook Firm or Extra Firm Tofu
The texture of extra-firm tofu is more ‘meat-like’ because there is less liquid in it and subsequently, the tofu gets crispier when cooked. It’s important to drain and press the block of tofu prior to tossing it in cornstarch and cooking.
1. PAN FRYING
I love pan-frying tofu in a large wok, since it’s usually the fastest method- perfect for 20 minute dinners.
📌 Tips for Pan Frying Tofu
Follow these simple tips for a crispy exterior!
- Cornstarch is your friend: Roll the pressed tofu cubes into a bit of cornstarch or potato starch. Cornstarch helps dry out the exterior of the tofu, allowing it to easily become golden brown when pan-fried, air fried, or baked.
- Make sure the oil is HOT: The key to pan-frying the tofu is to be sure your pan is hot enough, that you’re using enough oil (enough to coat the bottom of the pan), and to be patient. If you fry the tofu before the oil is hot, it will absorb the oil instead of getting crispy.
- Be patient: You’ll want each side of the tofu to get golden brown before flipping it.
Video: How to Make Sticky Pan Fried Mongolian Tofu
2. AIR FRYING
Tofu can also be made in the air fryer. I absolutely love air frying tofu because it’s super fast and creates the perfect texture!
STEP 1: Cut the tofu into ½” cubes or pieces.
STEP 2: I recommend air frying it at 400F for about 10-15 minutes, making sure to flip the cubes halfway through cooking. If you have larger pieces, increase the cooking time until golden brown.
STEP 3: Once you air fry the tofu, transfer it to a non-stick skillet or wok to coat it in your sauce of choice.
STEP 4: You can transfer the tofu back to the air fryer and cook for 5 more minutes to crisp up the exterior even more.
📌 Tips for Air Frying Tofu
To get a really crispy crust on these breaded tofu nuggets, here are a few important tips:
- Make sure to preheat your air fryer.
- Line your air fryer basket with parchment paper specifically designed for air fryers. The parchment paper I use has holes in it which allows the air to circulate around all the sides of the tofu.
- Use a pastry brush to spread vegetable oil on both sides of the cornstarch coated tofu.
- I also recommend spraying cooking oil on both sides of the tofu to make sure every part of it is coated in at least a tiny bit of oil.
- Flip the tofu during cooking.
Want to know how to make tofu taste like chicken?
Check out this recipe for ‘Chicken’ Fried Tofu!
Tofu can also be baked but it can take longer than pan frying or air frying to get a really crispy exterior.
STEP 1: Preheat the oven to 425F. Drain, press, and cube the tofu. Marinate (optional) and coat in cornstarch & spices.
STEP 2: Bake for about 25 minutes on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Make sure to flip it halfway through!
STEP 3: Once you bake the tofu, transfer it to a non-stick skillet or wok to coat it in your sauce of choice.
📌 One of my favorite ways to prepare tofu is to follow my Flavorful Easy Baked Tofu Recipe. This recipe creates flavor-packed baked tofu, has a more versatile savory marinade and goes well in tons of different recipes, from simple tomato pasta, to stuffed peppers, to soups.
4. DEEP FRYING
If you’d like super crispy tofu, you can also deep fry it!
STEP 1: Heat a few inches of vegetable oil in a large pot over medium heat. Let the oil come to about 350F-375F if using a thermometer.
STEP 2: Fry the drained, pressed, and cornstarch coated tofu in batches to help keep the oil temperature from dropping.
STEP 3: It should take about 4 minutes to fry the tofu until it is golden brown. You can place the fried tofu on paper towels to help absorb extra oil.
The best type of tofu for grilling is super-firm or extra-firm tofu. Keep in mind, different brands have different textures of tofu, even though they’re all labeled ‘extra-firm’. Target’s in-house brand Good and Gather, and Nasoya have the firmest, extra-firm tofu that I’ve tried.
STEP 1: To grill tofu, be sure to cut it into rectangles at least ½” thick. This helps the tofu from breaking when you grill it.
STEP 2: Bake the tofu at 400F for 10-15 minutes prior to grilling it. This helps remove excess moisture and firm up the tofu.
STEP 3: Grill the tofu steaks for 2-3 minutes on each side until charred.
What to Serve with Tofu
Below are some of my favorite ingredients to pair with tofu to create a complete meal or dinner. Pick 1 or 2 ingredients from each of the categories below for a balanced dinner.
- Rice: Brown Rice, White Rice or Jasmine Rice
- Noodles: Udon Noodles, Rice Noodles, Ramen, or Other Pasta
- Other Grains: Farro, Wheat Berries, Quinoa
- Sweet Potato
- Roasted Potatoes
- On Top of Waffles, like ‘Chicken’ & Waffles
- With Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
- With Mac & Cheese
- Alongside Potato Salad
- Broccoli or Broccolini
- Collard Greens
- Roasted Brussel Sprouts: like in this Baked Tofu Grain Bowl
- Green Beans
- Bok Choy
Easy Tofu Dinner Ideas
If you’re a tofu lover or are curious about more ways to prepare it, I’ve put together 50+ quick and easy tofu recipes you can make for dinner! These tasty tofu recipes include rice bowls, noodle dishes, stir fries, pastas and more.
Summary & FAQ
And there you have it! Now you know what tofu is and how to cook it! Hopefully, this post gave you some ideas for how to make absolutely delicious tofu.
But we’re not done yet! Below are some tips and tricks for how to prepare tofu, as well as some frequently asked questions!
Common Tofu Questions
The best and easiest way to prepare tofu is by pressing the tofu block, coating it in cornstarch and baking or pan frying. Then, toss the crispy tofu with a savory sauce!
The longer tofu is marinated, the better it will taste. I recommend marinating the tofu for at least 30 minutes, but if you have time for an hour or overnight, even better.
Freezing the tofu creates a firmer and more ‘meat like’ texture. It’s much closer to the texture of chicken nuggets. Freezing allows you to remove extra moisture. When you thaw the tofu, you’ll want to make sure you press the block very well.
Tofu can be cooked without pressing, however, it will be more difficult to achieve a crispy texture. Pressing the tofu removes excess moisture and liquid helping the tofu get the perfectly crisp exterior.
Air frying tofu is definitely one of the healthiest ways to cook tofu! Baking tofu is also very healthy. Both methods require minimal oil.
Plain tofu has a very subtle bean-like flavor. Some tofu is described as having a nutty flavor or even a slight sour taste. Like any food, the fresher the tofu is, the better, and more flavorful it tastes.
- 1 15-oz block super or extra firm tofu, drained and pressed
- ¼ cup cornstarch
- ½ tsp salt
- Optional: ¼ tsp Chinese 5 spice or 1 tsp garlic powder / other spice blend
- 1-2 tbsp neutral oil, like canola or vegetable oil
- Preheat the oven to 425F. Line a large baking tray with parchment. Drizzle 1 tbsp of oil onto the parchment.
- Drain the block of tofu. Gently press the tofu block with paper towels or a clean kitchen towel. Cut the block into ½” cubes. Once cut, gently press the cubes again with fresh paper towels to remove excess moisture.
- Pour the cornstarch, Chinese 5 spice (or other spice blend), and salt into a shallow dish. Mix well. Coat the tofu cubes evenly in the cornstarch mixture.
- Transfer the tofu to the oiled sheet. Toss the cubes so they are coated evenly in oil. Make sure they are in an even layer with at least 1" between each cube.
- Bake at 425F for 20-23 minutes, flipping halfway.
- Once baked, toss the cubes in your favorite sauce.
- Optional: Increase the oven to 450F and bake the tofu with the sauce for another 4-5 minutes to caramelize and crisp the tofu even more.
- Use extra-firm or super-firm tofu for best results. Softer tofu varieties may not hold up as well during the baking and stirring process.
- Don’t skip the step of pressing the tofu. This removes any excess moisture and helps the tofu crisp up in the oven.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 4 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 214Total Fat: 16gSaturated Fat: 2gTrans Fat: 0gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 0mgSodium: 296mgCarbohydrates: 9gFiber: 1gSugar: 1gProtein: 11g
Nutritional info is an estimate.