Whether you’re confused about what tofu is or just simply don’t know how to get it crispy, chef Day Radley shares her expertise.
Tofu is one of those magical ingredients that is supremely useful in the vegan kitchen. It’s adaptable, it contains a wealth of culinary possibilities and it is also incredibly healthy. So why do so many people struggle with it? And why is the first experience of eating it a disappointment?
While tofu is a dream ingredient for the herbivore homecook, it is also very fussy in how it is treated. The preparation and cooking of tofu isn’t complicated, with a few simple tips you’ll be cooking tasty tofu dishes in no time. But before we get onto that, let’s have a little Tofu 101…
What is tofu?
Tofu is made from soya beans, which are pale yellow, perfectly round beans. They are made into milk and then into tofu, using an ingredient that enables it to hold together in a block.
There are two main types of tofu – firm and silken. In UK supermarkets you will find firm tofu in the chiller and silken tofu in an aisle with the South East Asian ingredients.
If you shop for tofu in South East Asian supermarkets you may get a little confused. Within the two types of tofu you will find even more choice, including firm-soft, firm-medium, firm-extra firm and silken-soft, silken-firm and silken-extra firm.
Don’t let the multiple options worry you – as long as you use firm tofu for a firm tofu recipe and silken tofu for a silken tofu recipe you can’t go far wrong.
There are many different types of tofu, from silken to extra-firm that can be used in a variety of different dishes from desserts to stir-fries. Photo © vaaseenaa via Getty Images
Different types of tofu and how to use them
As the names suggest, the difference is the texture. Firm tofu is like a sponge, with tiny holes throughout it. Firm tofu can be used for recipes where you want a chewy texture or food with bite! But it can also be blended, into a vegan feta or veggie tofu skewers, for example. But again, it is used for its firmness.
Silken tofu has a texture like set custard or blancmange. This makes it a perfect ingredient as the base for a dessert like vegan cheesecakes, but it can also be cubed in a miso soup or used to make tofu scramble. Both types of tofu can be used in sweet and savoury recipes. Didn’t I tell you it’s a wonderful ingredient?!
Note that there can also be a difference between brands. Some brands of both firm and silken tofu will be firmer than others.
There is a bean flavour to tofu, but it’s subtle and this is the main aspect that makes it a great ingredient. Its subtle taste makes it an effective carrier of other flavours.
Unlike its close cousin tempeh, tofu’s mild taste never fights against any flavour you mix it with. Whether that’s a soya sauce marinade, a miso baste or blending it with strawberries to make a panna cotta.
Silken tofu has a soft texture that make it the perfect base for creamy desserts like cheesecakes. Photo © Natasha Breen via Getty Images
How to prepare tofu
OK, so now you know the basics, let’s get started with preparing tofu. Only firm tofu needs to be prepped. As firm tofu is spongy and contains a small amount of water, it needs to be pressed to remove the water. If the water isn’t removed it will dilute the marinade or sauce we add to the tofu.
Pressing tofu is simple – wrap the block in a clean tea towel and place it between two chopping boards. Now create pressure, either by adding a weight, such as a tin of beans, or by putting elastic bands around the chopping boards, this is my preferred method.
Let the water drain from the tofu to the cloth for about 15 minutes. Some brands of tofu are so compact they don’t need to be pressed. It’s always worth trying to find a brand like this as it removes one step. You can also buy a tofu press, but be aware that tofu differs in size between brands – so a press may be suitable for one brand, but useless for another.
Only firm tofu needs prepping to remove excess water, and you do this by pressing it under something heavy for around 15 minutes before cooking. Alternatively, you can use a tofu press. Photo © Stevica Mrdja / EyeEm via Getty Images
Now you’ve removed the water from the tofu, we want to replace it with a marinade. Start by cutting the tofu into cubes or slices or crumble it. Place it in a Tupperware container with the marinade. My go-to marinade is soya sauce with the same amount of water, a small glug of toasted sesame oil and a generous dash of smoked paprika.
Put the lid on the box, then rotate the box so that all of the tofu is covered in sauce. Let it rest for 30 minutes before cooking. You can leave it to marinate for up to eight hours. The longer it’s left, the more flavoursome the tofu will be.
If you want to make firm tofu more spongy with the ability to carry more marinade or sauce you can freeze it. The expanding water creates bigger holes in the tofu. Freeze it for 8 hours or more, then allow it to defrost completely before pressing and marinating it.
Marinade your tofu in a Tupperware box for 30 minutes (or up to 8 hours) before cooking. The longer you leave it, the more flavoursome it will be! Photo © Cavan Images via Getty Images
How to cook tofu
Firm tofu should always be cooked at a high temperature. Many people eat tofu for the first time and find it oily and soggy because it has been fried at a low temperature.
Frying on high sears food, it crisps up the outside before oil can penetrate inside. Remember, tofu is a sponge, just like mushrooms. It will soak up whatever liquid it is in.
If you fry tofu in a small amount of oil at a very high heat you will get a great result. However, this is not for the faint-hearted. The oil should be almost at smoking point and most home cooks are uncomfortable doing this.
Tofu fried at too low a temperature will absorb the oil and be soggy rather than crisp, so make sure your pan is nice and hot. Photo ©
My preferred method of cooking tofu is to bake it. It’s safer, as you don’t have to worry about dealing with hot oil or that it will splash you when you turn the tofu. Add the prepared tofu to a baking tray, bake in a preheated oven at 200-220°C/Gas Mark 6-7 near the top of the oven for 20-30 minutes. The longer you bake it the chewier it will be.
Firm tofu can be used as a substitute for meat, fish, egg, cream and cheese in recipes. Silken tofu can be used as a substitute for egg and cream. Try adding silken tofu to a raw cashew cream to help lighten the recipe.
How to store tofu
Once a block of tofu is opened it will last in the fridge for around 3 days. When it goes off it goes a pink colour, so you must discard it at that point. Once it is cooked, it will also last around 3 days in the fridge.
Now you’re clued up about tofu, put your knowledge into action and make something delicious using our favourite tofu marinades recipes.