Truth be told, even having grown up with it, I’m not the biggest tofu lover. The way I truly ever enjoyed it was in silken form in soups — in miso soup or haemul sundubu jjigae (Korean spicy seafood and tofu stew) — as the smooth texture reminds me of eggs and it soaks up all the broth's flavor.
But as a chef and cooking teacher, this wasn’t going to stop me from cooking with it teaching my students how to best prepare it in their own kitchens. Though it may not be my best bud in cooking, it still is a beloved friend.
What is tofu?
Tofu's origins allegedly date back to in China during the Han Dynasty, and it eventually spread across East and Southeast Asia as a featured ingredient in dishes.
According to documentation of a letter Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1770, he described it as “cheese” from China, and thus it made its way west and, by the 1950s, into American markets. Though it has continued to evolve and grow within Western cuisine, it’s often found lending itself to a role seen more as a substitute for meat, dairy or eggs (see: tofu scramble).
Though tofu is definitively not cheese, the process of making tofu has its similarities to cheese-making. Made from soy milk curds that are coagulated with magnesium and calcium salts, and pressed into blocks of varying textures: silken, soft, medium-firm, firm and extra-firm, depending on how much time allowed for whey to release. Low in calories, high in protein, antioxidants, essential vitamins and nutrients, this flavor sponge is a treasured ingredient in East and Southeast Asian cooking.
How to cook with tofu
Tofu's wide array of textures allows for a wide range of uses: Soft or silken tofu is ideal for soups and salads, while firmer tofu is best for frying, as it holds together well. It can truly be anything you want it to be: fermented, frozen, stinky, smoked or seasoned.
Silken and soft tofu
As I mentioned earlier, this is my favorite texture of tofu. All you have to do is take it out of its packaging and it's ready to go.
My personal love of silken and soft tofu has been in mainly soups — for example, Korean soups like haemul sundubu jjigae, Japanese miso soup or Thai soups like tom yum (hot and sour soup). Just slice up your silken tofu into small cubes and plop them straight into the hot broth.
Mapo tofu, a popular Sichuan dish, consists of silken tofu cubes coated in a spicy, tongue-numbing sauce, ground pork and scallions.
You can also prepare a simple tofu salad, served warm or cold, by slicing silken or soft tofu into pieces, drizzled with or served with sauce on the side. In our household, it would be served with a vinaigrette made with toasted sesame oil, gochugaru, chopped scallions, soy sauce, a touch of vinegar and sweetener, and garnished with toasted sesame seeds.
Though usually it is better to fry firmer tofu, there is a Japanese appetizer, agedashi dōfu, that consists of deep-fried soft tofu served with mentsuyu (noodle soup base), daikon, scallion and bonito flakes.
If one should seek a sweet silken tofu treat, there is tahô, a Filipino street snack made with silken tofu, arnibal (caramelized brown sugar syrup) and sago pearls. There is also tian dou hua, a Taiwanese sweet soy custard whose name translates to “bean flower," which is carefully made with a coagulant to create its deliciously delicate texture.
Medium-firm and firm tofu
Whether you choose medium-firm, firm or extra-firm tofu, the curds tend to hold better during cooking, which means it is very versatile.
But before you get to cooking, due to tofu’s high water content, try to remove as much excess liquid as possible to avoid diluting flavors, optimize absorption and, most importantly, to avoid oil splatters. I recommend using a tofu press for this, but if you'd rather not, place your tofu blocks between layers of paper towels and press gently to absorb out the liquid for a few minutes (or put something heavy on top of it to weigh it down).
What's the secret to getting your tofu super crispy? Well, there are a few, actually. In all cases, make sure you drain as much liquid from your tofu as possible. There is the tried-and-true approach of deep-frying, but if that's not your thing, try pan-frying it. Cut your tofu into 1-inch cubes and lightly coat them in seasoned cornstarch. Lightly coat the bottom of your (preferably cast-iron) skillet with vegetable oil, and set over medium-high heat until your oil shimmers (but isn't smoking). Carefully place your tofu pieces in a single layer in the oil, taking care not to overcrowd them, and cook on all sides for about 2 minutes each, or until they're golden-brown and crispy.
If you'd rather crisp up your tofu in the oven, lightly coat the cubes in seasoned cornstarch, arrange on a lightly oiled baking sheet in a single layer and cook at 400 F for about 30 minutes, tossing halfway through. And, of course, since we are in the age of the air fryer, you can set up your tofu pieces in a single layer in the basket and set to cook at 400 F for approximately 10 to 12 minutes, shaking them up after about 5 minutes.
If you're looking to make a quick weeknight dish with tofu, a veggie stir-fry is always a good idea. Another dish to consider is dubu jeon, a Korean tofu pancake with vegetables that involves mashing tofu, mixing it with seasoned flour and vegetables and frying it in hot oil.
Sauces are essential when it comes to tofu, as it absorbs all the flavor. Indonesia's tahu goreng bumbu Bali (fried tofu in Balinese sauce) is all about showcasing the bumbu Bali sauce, which is spicy, sweet and savory. From Korea, there is also dubu buchim, fried tofu with a soy-chili sauce.
If you’re willing to go by the "good food takes time" rule, there’s the braising and stewing route for firm tofu. Nabe, Japanese hot pot, or Korean dubu jorim, a spicy braised tofu dish, are both great options.
When working with an extra-firm tofu, there is more to be considered due to its sturdy curd structure and heartiness.
It can be sturdy enough to be marinated, grilled on a stick and served with sauce like a Malaysian tofu satay. A Cambodian dish, kho manor nung to hu, has the extra-firm tofu soak up a salty and sweet marinade with lemongrass before being stir-fried with caramelized pineapple. This spicy Chinese tofu with scallions and peanuts involves broiling the marinated tofu before cooking it with vegetables, whereas this recipe for an Thai tofu with coconut red curry keeps it simple with everything cooked in the same skillet.
Frozen tofu is also something to consider for maximum flavor absorption. Slice your tofu into rectangles (about 1/2-inch thick), steam it for 15 minutes, separate it in a freezer-friendly storage container with parchment paper and freeze the cubes. They'll be ready to thaw and use whenever you need them.
Whether it’s fresh yuba, the dried tofu skin that forms at the top of fresh soy milk, Taiwanese stinky tofu or a Singaporean tau pok, a pork-stuffed tofu puff, there really is no limit on what tofu can do in your kitchen.