A useful guide to cooking with tofu

Some may find tofu dull and bland but I see it as an ingredient with endless possibilities.

Blocks of tofu pilled up on a plate on top of a marble work surface

If you’re looking to add more plant-based protein to your diet, tofu is a great option. It is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a wide range of dishes.

In this guide, I’ll explore everything you need to know about tofu and how to cook with it. Whether you’re a soybean pro or a complete newbie, this guide will give you all the information you need to make the most of this amazing ingredient.

A block of firm tofu being held up in two hands in front of a white surface

What is tofu?

Tofu is a food made from soy milk. It’s a staple in many Asian cuisines and has been consumed for thousands of years. It is now a very popular ingredient in the vegetarian and vegan communities.

How is tofu made?

The process of making it typically involves several steps. First, soybeans are soaked in water overnight and then ground into a fine paste. This paste is then mixed with water and heated to create soy milk, which is then strained to remove any solids or impurities.

The next step is to add a coagulating agent, which causes the soy milk to curdle and form solid curds. The coagulant used can vary depending on the type that is being made, but common options include calcium sulfate, magnesium chloride, and nigari (a natural mineral rich in magnesium salts).

Once the curds have formed, they are typically placed into a mould and pressed to remove any excess liquid. The length of time and amount of pressure used during this process can impact the texture of the final product, with firmer variations requiring more pressure and longer pressing times.

Variations of tofu

Tofu comes in many different forms, each with its own unique characteristics and uses. From regular to firm, silken to smoked, I’ll explore the different types of tofu available and how to use them in your cooking.

Regular tofu

Also known as standard tofu, this type has a smooth texture and comes in different levels of firmness, from soft to extra firm. It’s made by coagulating soy milk with a coagulant, such as calcium sulfate or nigari. Regular tofu is a versatile ingredient and can be used in a wide range of dishes, including stir-fries, soups, and stews.

A block of sliced silken tofu on a plate on top of a wooden work surface
This is a block of silken tofu which is soft and smooth

Silken tofu

A type of tofu with a custard-like texture that is made by coagulating soy milk without curdling it. Silken tofu is often used in desserts, smoothies, and sauces because of its smooth texture. It’s also a popular ingredient in vegan cheesecakes and puddings. Silken tofu is sometimes used in savoury dishes, but mostly in wet dishes like miso soup or hot pot.

Firm tofu

Firmer than regular tofu, this type has a denser texture and holds its shape well. It’s often used in stir-fries, curries, and grilled dishes because it doesn’t fall apart as easily as regular tofu. Firm tofu can also be sliced into cubes or strips for use in salads or sandwiches (try using it to make a vegan bacon sarnie). It’s one of the most popular variations found in supermarkets.

Extra-firm tofu

The firmest type of tofu, it’s ideal for grilling, baking, or slicing into cubes for stir-fries. Extra-firm tofu has a chewy texture and can hold its shape even when cooked at high temperatures. It’s also a good option for making tofu “steaks” or as a meat substitute in dishes like tacos or vegan quesadillas.

Pressed tofu

A dense, chewy tofu that has been pressed to remove as much water as possible. Pressed tofu is often used in salads and stir-fries because it has a firmer texture that holds up well in those dishes. It’s also a good option for marinating because it can absorb flavours well.

A bowl of fried tofu with marinade on top of a bowl of Asian food

Flavoured tofu

Tofu that has been marinated or seasoned with herbs, spices, or other flavourings. Flavoured tofu can be a convenient and flavorful ingredient for dishes because it’s already been seasoned. Some popular flavours include garlic, sesame, and ginger.

Smoked tofu

Tofu that has been flavoured with smoke. It’s often used in sandwiches, salads, and stir-fries to add a smoky flavour. Smoked tofu can be a good option for people who miss the taste of bacon or smoked meats but want a vegetarian or vegan alternative.

Other variations of tofu

The versatility of tofu doesn’t stop with the variations commonly found in supermarkets. In particular, it has been a staple in many Asian cultures for centuries, and there are a variety of additional variations that can be found in Asian markets or speciality stores.

A jar of fermented tofu on top of a dark work surface next to a wooden spoon
A jar of fermented tofu which is a popular dish in some parts of Asia

Fermented tofu – one variation of this is known as “stinky tofu” (in Taiwan), this tofu has been fermented in brine or other flavourings to develop a pungent, tangy flavour and aroma. It’s often served as it is or used as a condiment.

Tofu skin – also called yuba, this is a thin film that forms on the surface of heated soy milk. It’s often used as a replacement for noodles, a wrapper for spring rolls or in vegetarian sushi rolls. Tofu skin has a delicate, silky texture and mild flavour. You will often find it sold in its dried form in supermarkets, so you will need to rehydrate it before cooking.

Tofu pockets (inari) – a type of tofu that is fried and then simmered in a sweet soy sauce. It’s often used as a filling for sushi rolls or served as a snack. Tofu pockets have a sweet and savoury flavour and a slightly chewy texture.

Tofu puffs – also called fried tofu or aburaage, these are small, deep-fried cubes of tofu. They’re often used in soups, stews, and curries for their spongy texture and ability to absorb flavours. Tofu puffs have a crispy exterior and a soft, porous interior.

Cooking with tofu

Fried tofu cooked in Asian sauces true to historical Asian cuisines

If you’re new to cooking with tofu, it can be a little intimidating. But fear not – I’ll give you all the tips and tricks you need to cook tofu like a pro. I’ll cover the best brands to buy, cooking techniques, and common mistakes to avoid when cooking with this ingredient.

Best brands to buy

There are several good brands available in the UK that I love to purchase, each with its own unique qualities. Here are some popular brands that are widely available in the UK:

  1. Tofoo
    Tofoo is a British brand that produces organic tofu made from 100% European soya beans, including scrambled, flavoured and firm varieties. Their tofu has a firm but crumbly texture and is great for grilling, stir-frying, or using in curries. Buy Tofoo here
  2. Clearspring
    Clearspring is a well-known brand that produces a wide range of organic and non-GMO Japanese foods, including tofu. Their silken tofu is made from organic soya beans and has a delicate, silky texture that is perfect for use in vegan baking or in salads. Buy Clearspring here
  3. Cauldron
    Cauldron is a popular brand that produces a variety of tofu products, including marinated pieces, blocks, and burgers. Their tofu is made from organic soya beans and has a soft, silky texture that is great for use in soups, stews, and stir-fries. Buy cauldron here
  4. Dragonfly
    Dragonfly produces a range of organic tofu products, including firm tofu blocks, smoked tofu, and tofu burgers. Their tofu is made from whole soya beans and has a firm texture that is ideal for grilling or stir-frying. Buy Dragonfly here
  5. Taifun
    Taifun is a German brand that produces a variety of organic tofu products, including smoked, marinated, and sausages. Their tofu is made from European-grown soya beans and has a delicious, smoky flavour that is great for use in salads or sandwiches. Buy Taifun here

Ultimately, the best brand of tofu will depend on your personal taste and what you plan to use it for. It’s always a good idea to experiment with different brands and types to find the one that works best for your cooking needs.

A cut up block of tofu on a plate ready to be used in a delicious vegan tofu recipe

How do you cook tofu?

This versatile ingredient can be cooked in many ways, each method producing different textures and flavours. Here are five popular cooking techniques for tofu:

  1. Fried: To fry tofu, first, press it to remove excess water, then coat it in cornstarch or flour and seasonings. Heat oil in a skillet or wok, then add the tofu and fry until golden brown. You can use regular or firm for this, or if you are careful, you can use silken too.
  2. Baked: To bake tofu, press it to remove excess water, then slice it into cubes or slabs. Toss the tofu in a marinade or seasoning, then bake it in the oven until golden brown and crispy on the outside.
  3. Air fried: To make air fryer tofu, press it to remove excess water, then cut it into cubes or slices. Coat the tofu in a mixture of cornstarch or flour and seasoning, then place it in the air fryer basket. Cook for 10-15 minutes, flipping halfway through, until the tofu is crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. Discover my favourite vegan air fryer recipes.
  4. Grilled: To grill, it is important to use extra firm tofu and press it to remove excess water. After that, slice it into long thick strips or cubes and marinate it for at least 30 minutes before grilling. You can use a BBQ, a griddle pan, or the grill in your oven.
  5. Pickled: Tofu can be pickled in vinegar and other seasonings, which gives it a tangy and slightly sour taste. The process involves first pressing the tofu to remove excess water, then slicing it into small cubes. The tofu is then added to a mixture of vinegar, soy sauce, and seasonings like garlic, ginger, and chilli flakes. It is left to marinate for several hours or overnight, which allows it to absorb the flavours of the pickling solution.

Common mistakes to avoid

Cooking with tofu is pretty simple, but there are some common mistakes that will leave your tofu less than desirable.

  1. Not pressing: Tofu is packed with water, which can prevent it from absorbing flavours and can also make it difficult to cook properly. Pressing it before cooking can help remove excess water and give it a firmer texture.
  2. Using the wrong type: Different types of tofu have different textures and are better suited for different cooking methods. Make sure you choose the right type of tofu for your recipe.
  3. Not marinating: Tofu is bland on its own, so it’s important to marinate it before cooking to infuse it with flavour. Make sure to let it marinate for at least 30 minutes to an hour to allow the flavours to penetrate the tofu.
  4. Overcooking it: Tofu is delicate and can become rubbery and tough if overcooked. Keep an eye on the cooking time and don’t cook the tofu for too long.
  5. Using too much oil: Tofu can absorb oil quickly, so it’s important to use the right amount of oil when cooking. Using too much oil can make the tofu greasy and heavy.
  6. Crowding the pan: When cooking tofu, make sure not to overcrowd the pan. If you overcrowd the pan, it won’t cook evenly and may end up sticking to the pan.
  7. Not seasoning: Tofu needs to be seasoned properly to taste good. Make sure to add enough salt and other seasonings to bring out its flavour.

Tofu recipes

I’ve created a range of easy-to-follow tofu-based recipes, from stir-fries to salads, and soups to desserts. Whether you’re a soybean newbie or a seasoned vegan cooking pro, there’s something here for everyone.

Lucy the founder of Edible Ethics vegan food blog eating vegan noodles in a plant based restaurant

Lucy Johnson

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