How to Prepare Tofu for Frying, Baking, Grilling and Beyond
You’ve been toying with the idea of buying tofu at the supermarket for weeks. But one look at the shelf discourages you every time: What the heck do you do with tofu anyway? Here’s the deal: Tofu is versatile, delicious and easier to cook than you think—but it’s certainly not as simple as plopping a block out of its packaging into a pan. We’ve got you covered with a step-by-step guide on how to prepare tofu, plus tips for cooking it seven different ways.
What Is Tofu?
Tofu is made of condensed soy milk. Most of us probably picture it in big white blocks, but there’s also silken tofu, which is softer and doesn’t maintain its shape as well. They each have their respective purposes. For instance, if you’re making a stir-fry and want tiny cubes of tofu, block tofu is the way to go because it’ll hold its shape. Silken tofu is better for sauces, smoothies, and soups. Both silken and block tofu also have sub-categories. Silken tofu comes soft or firm, while block tofu can be bought soft, medium, firm or extra firm. The firmer the tofu, the better it’ll hold up to frying, grilling or sautéing.
There are plenty of reasons to eat tofu, from its healthy fats to its plant-based protein. But no matter why you eat it or how you cook it, tofu needs to be prepped before it’s used—if you want it to turn out crisp and delicious instead of soggy and limp, that is. Getting rid of as much moisture as possible is absolutely key, so let’s start with the basics.
How to Prepare Tofu to Be Cooked
Step 1: Drain the liquid.Remove tofu from its packaging, then rinse it off under running water.
Step 2: Press the tofu.
Cover the tofu block in paper or kitchen towels, then sandwich the bundle between two skillets, plates or sheet pans. Put something heavy on the top and let the tofu drain for about 30 minutes.
Softer tofu will be ready to use after a simple rinse, but firmer tofu needs to be pressed in order to release excess water. This prevents the liquid from seeping out while the tofu cooks (which could ruin your meal) and also makes room for the tofu to soak up a flavorful marinade or broth. Feel free to slice the block into width-wide pieces before pressing, as long as your tofu is firm or extra firm.
Step 3: Cut the tofu.
Cut it into small enough cubes or slices so that it can soak up all the flavors of your dish. The tofu will also have a much better texture if cooked in small pieces. Though you don’t *need* to cube or dice it—long slices or even steaks work well for certain cooking methods.
Step 4: Marinate the tofu.
Since tofu inevitably has liquid (read: water) inside it, oil-based marinades are a no-go. The oil and water will create a natural barrier between the tofu and the marinade, not letting any penetrate the tofu. Instead, try flavorful, oil-free alternatives like soy sauce, citrus juice or stock. If you have time, let the tofu marinate for a few hours or overnight. If you’re in a rush, give the marinade at least 30 minutes to work its magic. (Note: You could also skip this step completely and work with plain tofu, especially if you’re frying it.)
Now that your tofu is drained, pressed, cut and marinated, it’s ready to cook. Oh, and our favorite thing about tofu? Since it doesn’t technically need to be cooked at all, there’s no need to worry about its internal temperature.
How to Pan- or Stir-Fry Tofu
Step 1: Coat the pieces in cornstarch.When frying, you can start with marinated or plain tofu. Just don’t forget to hit it with salt, pepper and whatever other seasonings you like at the end if you start without a marinade. Put the tofu in a resealable plastic bag, dump enough cornstarch for a light to medium coating and shake. Then, put the pieces in a colander and shake off the excess.
Step 2: Heat oil in a pan and let it get hot.
Oils with a higher smoke point like sesame or coconut will not only handle the heat better than olive oil, but they’ll also aid in flavoring the tofu in a way that olive oil won’t. A generous amount (2 to 3 tablespoons or so) will keep the tofu from sticking to the pan. If you’re pan-frying, all you need is oil and tofu (to deep-fry, add more oil). For tofu stir-fry, feel free to add a bit of marinade, sauce or glaze to the pan, or other ingredients like vegetables to make the tofu more flavorful.
Step 3: Cook the tofu on medium-high to high heat for about 3 to 5 minutes per side.
The key to getting crispy-brown tofu is speeding up the Maillard reaction (aka the browning that happens when a food’s surface temperature reaches 300°F or higher). Using a screaming hot skillet ensures that the outside cooks quickly before the middle has time to overcook and turn tough, just like steak.
Try it: Crispy Tofu Bánh Mì
How to Sauté Tofu
Step 1: Heat oil in a pan and let it get hot.Once heated, add the marinated tofu and brown each side for about 2 minutes. Lower the heat to medium and sauté for about 5 minutes.
Step 2: Add sauce, marinade or other ingredients to the pan if desired and cook for another 5 to 10 minutes.
Since tofu starts wet, it can take longer than you may expect to brown. Don’t be shy about turning up the flame if it’s not crisping up the way you crave and be sure the pan is hot enough from the start.
Try it: Cashew Tofu
How to Bake Tofu
Step 1: Coat marinated pieces of tofu in cornstarch.Either sift some over each side of the tofu pieces on a prepared baking sheet or add the cornstarch and tofu to a bag and shake until evenly coated.
Step 2: Bake the tofu for 20 to 30 minutes at 400°F, flipping the pieces over halfway through.
The outside should be crispy and the inside soft and creamy. Let it bake even longer if you want the outsides browner.
Try it: Crispy Tofu Bites
How to Broil Tofu
Step 1: Cook marinated tofu under the broiler for about 7 to 10 minutes.Broiling tofu is essentially just like baking it, only the heat is more intense and likely comes from above. Depending on how hot your broiler is, you may need to adjust the time accordingly, so keep a watchful eye to make sure your tofu and marinade don’t burn. Rotate the tray or flip the tofu pieces over halfway through broiling. Coat the pieces in cornstarch for extra crisp.
Try it: Hot and Sour Broiled Tofu
How to Grill Tofu
Step 1: Heat a grill pan or outdoor grill on high, then grill thin slices of marinated tofu.Let each side cook for about 2 minutes until distinct grill marks appear. Be sure to brush the tofu with or coat the pan in oil. The pieces may stick to the grill, so be delicate when flipping or removing them. You can also further caramelize the tofu by searing it in a hot pan before or after grilling.
Try it: Tofu with Spicy Herb Marinade
How to Scramble Tofu
Step 1: Heat oil in a nonstick skillet on high heat.If you’re making vegan “eggs,” feel free to use butter instead—just lower the heat so it doesn’t burn.
Step 2: Add pressed tofu to the pan.
Using a spatula, break apart the tofu into small, uneven pieces. You can also cut the tofu before adding it to the pan, but you won’t get that random, scrambled appearance.
Step 3: Season or sauce the scramble and let it cook for about 5 to 7 minutes.
The longer it cooks, the browner it’ll turn, so kill the heat when it’s cooked to your liking. To make some convincing plant-based eggs, nutritional yeast is a great cheese substitute while turmeric offers bright, yellow color. Tofu scramble is also great for tacos, salads, bowls and beyond.
Try it: Simple Southwest Tofu Scramble
How to Store Tofu
Cover any unused pieces in water and keep them in the fridge, changing the water every few days. The tofu should keep for up to a week. To freeze tofu, leave it in its original packaging and store for up to six months. Freezing tofu turns it chewy and more absorbent, so marinating pre-frozen tofu may actually lead to a more flavorful final dish.